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Sax goes classical in Philip Glass concerto

Most people who attend a TFO Masterworks concert don’t expect to see and hear a saxophone, much less four of them, but that’s what you get this weekend during a program featuring the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet by Philip Glass.

Stuart Malina, TFO’s Principal Guest Conductor who leads this weekend’s concerts, chose this seldom-heard piece to complement Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, Christopher Theofanidis’ Symphony No. 1, and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.  Guest soloists are the acclaimed Raschèr Saxophone Quartet.

“It’s actually not a typical Glass piece,’’ Malina said. “There are a lot of repeated patterns but there’s also a lyricism lacking in many of his other works. And I think this piece goes well with American in Paris, because the saxophone quartet will play in that, too.’’

The Raschèr Saxophone Quartet is a unique group that shows off the sax as a classical instrument, a form established in the 1930s by Sigurd Raschèr, a founding member of the quartet in 1969. Since then the quartet has performed around the world in major concert halls from Carnegie Hall in New York to Royal Festival Hall London and Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and has inspired more than 350 composers to dedicate music to them.

As for Glass, he may be the closest a living composer gets to being a cultural phenomenon. We know him as one of the founders of the minimalist movement, but we can’t escape his presence in film, opera, theater, pop, new age and even advertising. Where most of today’s composers are happy to sell a few thousand records, Glass moves millions, enjoying the royalties that come with commercial success. Not bad for a guy who once drove a cab and installed dishwashers.

Composed in 1995 specifically for the Raschèr quartet, the Concerto showcases each performer in quasi-solos in four brief movements marked slow-fast-slow-fast. “It’s a very hypnotic piece,’’ said TFO Music Director Michael Francis. “It’s complicated but not in an obvious way, and is a very beautiful piece to listen to.’’

Malina opens with the Bernstein, which he wanted to “get the ball rolling’’ on a program featuring a modern symphony, a jazzy tone poem, and an off-beat concerto.

“And Candide fits the bill,’’ he said. “It’s short, familiar to the orchestra, and audiences love it. It’s an explosive piece that doesn’t let up. It elicits smiles.’’

Bernstein completed his operetta Candide in 1956 and, along with West Side Story, it remains his most significant creation. Nowhere did Bernstein cram more variety into a tighter space than in this overture, a potpourri of musical irony and wit distilled from the operetta. The overture launches immediately into a fanfare and then a can-can, war march, counter melodies, and whiplash crescendos – all in less than five minutes.

Smart, sophisticated and infectiously rhythmic, the overture would be Bernstein’s most-often played work, one reason the New York Philharmonic performed it – without a conductor– at the composer’s memorial service in 1990.

The big work on the program is the Symphony No. 1 by Theofanidis, a Texas-born composer and professor at Yale University best known for his Rainbow Body. “It’s profound but utterly palatable,’’ Malina adds. “He writes music that has an underpinning of the spiritual aspect. It seems almost Native American, with a feeling of native wooden flutes. It’s a very powerful piece, a major work.’’  

Wrapping things up is An American in Paris, a musical postcard of Gershwin’s trip to France in 1928, where he took in the cafes, concerts, bustle and people. The work inspired the 1951 Academy-award winning film of the same name, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

“My purpose is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city,” Gershwin wrote, “listens to the various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.’’

The first of five brief sections takes listeners onto the streets of Paris, the strings mimicking the visitor’s stroll amid the sounds of taxi horns. Gershwin insisted actual horns be used in performances, not trumpets or trombones. “And that is in fact what they are,’’ Malina said. “They’re pitched horns, with the black rubber bulbs you squeeze.’’

Next comes a slow bluesy section that expresses the visitor’s homesickness. Hints of the Charleston can be heard afterward, what the composer described as “a second fit of blues,’’ and the work concludes with an invigorating stroll down the Champs-Elysees.

“It’s loads of fun to perform and listen to,’’ Malina said. “It’s compact, full of beautiful melodies, and very mature orchestration. You really hear Gershwin’s ability to spin melodies in this piece.’’

Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
American Masters
Featuring Raschèr Sax Quartet

Stuart Malina, conductor
Raschèr Saxophone Quartet

Bernstein: Candide Overture
Christopher Theofanidis: Symphony No. 1
Philip Glass: Concerto for Saxophone Quartet
Gershwin: An American in Paris

Fri, Feb 14, 8 pm, Straz Center, Ferguson
Sun, Feb 16, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall

Tickets start at $18.
Join the Pre-concert Conversation 1 hour prior
Free tickets for kids & teens in advance

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