There are saxophone quartets and then there is Xasax, a French/Swiss ensemble that takes the concept to an entirely new level. With just five pieces at Friday night’s closing installment of Contempuls, the group displayed a rich palette of sound and dynamics that stretched far beyond the normal limits of the instrument. And put on a very entertaining show in the process.
Playing various combinations of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, and shuffling their seating (or standing) arrangement for almost every piece, the group opened with Hugues Dufourt’s Quator de saxophones, a spectral music work. After establishing a basic structure of sequential chord progressions, the piece runs through a dizzying variety of timbres and colors, ending up at what sounds like music for UFOs. It calls for precision playing, which the group needed a few minutes to hit; after that, it was all virtuoso city.
With Saxofonový kvartet, a new work by Luboš Mrkvička, a local composer and instructor, the group embarked on a journey that started like electric guitars and segued into sputtering sonorous lines, as if someone was trying to tune in Wagner on a faint radio signal. Then the piece developed legs and took off, turning into a tumbling run of what seemed like random phrases and collisions – until all four players hit precisely the same split-second finish. It was an exhilarating ride.
The music went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional with Ivan Fedele’s Magic, an exercise in contours and colors that you could almost watch move around the stage. Some of the tones in the piece were so remarkable that if you closed your eyes, it was a bit disconcerting to open them and see four saxophones producing the sound instead of a full woodwind section.
The physicality of some modern music pieces seems gratuitous, like a distraction thrown in to break up the monotony of the sound. But Ernest H. Papier’s Axe à 4 is thoughtful fun, a carousel ride of movement and sound that starts with two soprano and two tenor players facing each other foursquare, blasting away like ringing church bells. As the music moves through a wild series of sound effects and playing techniques, the players follow suit, spinning around, dropping to a crouch, even doing a Chinese fire drill around the four music stands. When the performers put down their horns and played on mouthpieces alone, it’s hard to say what was more surprising – that they were able to squeeze out a melody, or do it with such a beguiling mix of whimsy and intensity.
The ensemble concluded with Iannis Xenakis’ XAS, one of the group’s signature pieces, an extended clarion call announcing, perhaps, the higher powers of the saxophone. There were no doubters in the audience by then; the quartet exited to whistles and echoes of “Bravo!”
The evening opened on a much quieter note, with Ensemble Adapter, a young five-piece group from Germany, playing a program of mostly German composers that included two premieres: Kore by Walter Zimmermann, and Echoes of the Sea, While I Am Taking a Bath by Prague’s own Jana Vöröšová. The winner of the Berg Orchestra’s 2009 NUBERG competition for new works, Vöröšová is one of the most promising talents in Prague, and her piece was by far the best of Ensemble Adapter’s set. It starts with a dreamy floating sensation that turns into liquid dripping, then builds to waves that swell, break and recede with impressive fluency and some nice percussive touches. Vöröšová may also be the most modest composer in town – she jumped onstage afterward to give each of the ensemble members a rose and a kiss, then jumped off just as quickly without even taking a bow.
The rest of Ensemble Adapter’s set was so slight and whisper-quiet that a French spectator shook his head in bewilderment afterward and wondered, “Is it possible Germany can change, and be very pacifist?” He quickly answered his own question: “Impossiblé!”
The evening concluded with an electronic set by Michal Rataj, a local composer and musicologist with an impressive resumé that includes studies in the UK and U.S. and a number of commissions and competition awards. Rataj worked a laptop, solo on some pieces and with a flutist and guitar players on others. Long stretches seemed like so much electronic noodling, but Silence Talking, with Lenka Kozderková Šimková on flute, had some very engaging turns. And Škrábanice (Scribble) layered the electronics with spoken text, bass guitar, chimes and the amplified sound of a pencil scratching on paper to produce a piece of surprising depth. In both sound and spirit, it was a perfect late-night close to the festival.
In just its third year, Contempuls has done an impressive job of establishing and fulfilling its primary goals: nurturing the best local talent; programming significant music that has never been performed in Prague; and presenting high-caliber foreign ensembles. It’s a notable achievement, and not just among modern music fans. As organizer Petr Bakla noted in this year’s program, “Real stars in the field have accepted our invitations. These people spend their professional lives on the road, yet so many of them had never before been to Prague with an instrument in their case. It’s cause for joy that Prague now has a place on their itinerary.”
For more on the performers:
Ensemble Adapter: http://www.ensemble-adapter.de/
Michal Nataj: http://www.michalrataj.com/index_eng.php