The Prism Quartet
"A single big raucous instrument"
by James Leonard
For a musical experience that is full, rich, warm, and smooth, try a sax quartet. A string quartet may be the most human-sounding ensemble and a woodwind quartet may be the most diverse-sounding, but a sax quartet is full-throated, rich-timbred, warm-toned, and absolutely smooth from the bottom to the top.
And when you want a sax quartet, the one you want is the Prism Quartet. Now in its twentieth season, the Prism has been performing together longer than any other saxophone quartet in the world. The members' virtuosity is buffed and burnished, and their enthusiasm has gotten only more exuberant. Matthew Levy, Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, and Michael Whitcombe have played together so long that they have achieved the kind of effortless ensemble and telepathic understanding that characterizes the best instrumental ensembles in any genre.
The only real problem that faces the Prism and every other saxophone quartet, for that matter is repertoire. Invented relatively recently, in 1846, Adolphe Sax's instruments have no long and illustrious body of works to draw on, but must rely extensively on new compositions.
Of course, having to rely on new compositions is no real problem when new composers are dying for the opportunity to write for performers who they know will program their works. At Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, November 6, the Prism will be performing works by three Ann Arbor composers Andrew Mead, William Bolcom, and the late William Albright as well as a chamber version of a work by Steven Mackey. The oldest work on the program is Albright's graceful Fantasy Etudes from 1993-94; the most recent is Mackey's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, which will be receiving its world premiere.
The big piece on the program is Andrew Mead's Saxophone Quartet no. 1 from 2003. This performance will be its Michigan premiere; Mead wrote it at the Prism Quartet's request and dedicated it to the group. As he describes the work, "The four movements
each treat the ensemble in a different way, with the first movement combining four miniature concertos for each of the instruments, the second splitting the ensemble into three different pairs of duos, the third dealing with trios in various ways, and the fourth treating the quartet as a single big raucous instrument."
The big treat on the program is a transcription of William Bolcom's greatest hit, the Graceful Ghost Rag, a work with more than twenty recordings that has been a big favorite of local audiences for over thirty years.
[Originally published in November, 2004.]