When Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone in 1846 he likely could not envision Project Fusion filling the mosaic and stained glass splendor of Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center with swirling seamless hand-offs of the musical line back and forth between soprano to alto to tenor to baritone sax . Or perhaps this is EXACTLY what Mr. Sax had in mind when he set about to create an instrument that would fill the gap between brass and woodwinds.
The September 26 performance by Project Fusion was a joyful celebration of this instrument, bringing the rarely heard classical chamber repertoire for saxophone to delight our ears. The four award-winning ensemble members—Dannel Espinoza (soprano saxophone), Matt Amedio (alto saxophone), Michael Sawzin (tenor saxophone) and Matt Evans (baritone saxophone)—were also a joy to watch, sparkling as much as the instruments in their hands.
Describing themselves as “a budding saxophone quartet chamber ensemble dedicated to advancing the artistic possibilities of collaboration in music-making”, Project Fusion has not only earned critical acclaim but also won the Senior Wind Division Gold Medal in the 2013 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and was the first saxophone quartet to claim Grand Prize at the 2013 Plowman International Chamber Music Competition.
These talented musicians came together as Project Fusion while they were at Eastman School of Music.
Reportedly, each came to the saxophone in his own way. Dannel Espinoza started playing the piano at age 4 and later picked up a saxophone his brother had previously played that was laying around the house to meet his family’s requirement that he play in a band. Matt Amedio who also plays clarinet said that saxophone was actually his third choice after trumpet and percussion. If fourth grader Matt Evans could have made a sound on the flute he probably would never have picked up the sax. Today he also plays the clarinet, piano and horn. Michael Sawzin blames or thanks his sister for insisting that he not play the same instrument that she did, the clarinet, a sibling assertion that steered him to the sax. Today he also plays the flute, clarinet and euphonium.
However they got there, where they are today as an ensemble is in bringing the full range of the saxophone to the stage. Sawzin, speaking for the group says, “Our ensemble truly enjoys performing music that represents the classical genre of saxophone. We enjoy having the opportunity to look deeply at the structure and meaning of each piece we journey through. Knowing that we will be playing the music from memory, we look for works that will be engaging, lively and animated on stage.”
Sawzin continues, “Our main mission is to promote the classical saxophone through the spirit of collaboration. There are numerous pedagogical methods to saxophone playing and we try to use a variety of techniques from all schools of thought. There are also many beautiful sound possibilities with the saxophone. One of our biggest hurdles was in finding ways to fuse our individually unique sound concepts into one cohesive form of expression.”
Hurdle jumped, is the report. This concert was if anything a standout of absolutely seamless ensemble work.
First on the program was a short piece from Eugène Bozza’s Andante et Scherzo. The Andante began with the tenor saxophone presenting the main theme. The energetic Scherzo with complex rhythms was like a pleasant alarm clock calling us to be more alert to how the various instrument voices were grabbing and sharing the melodic lines.
Sawzin comments, “Bozza’s piece is particularly special for our group. It was the first piece we ever performed from memory as Project Fusion. This chamber work is cleverly arranged so many of the melodies are split between multiple saxophone voices. It is a fun challenge to detect where the line is moving and which voice or voices are passing lines, working together to support one line, or which lines are presented in a conflicting manner.”
Here is a clip of the group playing another Bozza piece called Nuages that has a similar swirling hand-offs between the four voices in the quartet.
Sawzin says of the second piece they performed, Saxophone Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 109, “In a time of history when composers were writing jazz inspired music Glazunov wrote his saxophone quartet in the style of a string quartet. This work has been quite a challenge for us and has been on our repertoire list since our founding.
Here is Variation IV: A la Chopin that we heard at the concert—
The short Tango Virtuoso by Thierry Escaich that concluded the concert seemed to underline the somewhat cat and mouse chase nature of a tango dance in a whimsical fun way. Sawzin says, “The dance-like quality of the music creates a unique ambiance that gracefully pairs with the rest of our program. “
Speaking for the group Sawzin said, “We hope..the audience connects to the music we play, but also we hope to project through our performance that the four of us are great friends. We believe that chamber music is one of the few art forms that can truly inspire human connectedness.”
Indeed, the joyful friendship fueling this ensemble did come across. Luckily, we also learned from Ann Murray, Executive Director of the International Music Foundation that future winners of the Fischoff competition will be featured performers in the coming years.
You can listen to Dame Myra Hess concerts during WFMT simulcasts every Wednesday at 12:15. Better yet, visit the concert hall in the Chicago Cultural Center (Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Washington) to feel the energy of the emerging artists that this concert series features.
All concerts are free to the public.
Visit the International Music Foundation website to make donations that will ensure these concerts remain free to the public.
For more information on upcoming concerts visit the Dame Myra Hess Concerts web pages.