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Program Notes

Click each piece for detailed program notes

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17)

Maurice Ravel originally wrote this beautiful work for piano between 1914-17 as an homage to the master French Baroque composer François Couperin. In a nod to Couperin's style, Ravel composed several movements reminiscent of the courtly dances of the Baroque era. Soon after he began the piece, the catastrophic First World War broke out and soon he found himself serving France on the front as a medic. Ravel lost many friends during the terrible fighting and dedicated a movement to one of them. In each movement, one hears a celebration of each man's life, unmistakably tinged with the darkness that overcame them and so many others.

He later set the Prélude, Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon movements for orchestra, and the work has become one of the most beloved staples of the orchestral literature. The Prélude is effervescent, spirited, and youthful; the Forlane is ornate, and elegant; the Menuet achingly beautiful and simple; and the Rigaudon captures a rustic, infectious charm. This spectacular arrangement by Christoph Enzel captures all the complexity and brilliance of Ravel's orchestration with the amazingly rich color palette of the saxophone quartet.

Steven Snowden: Speed Studies (2012)

Snowden, friend of BCQ and one of the most compelling voices in music today, wrote Speed Studies for us during our days together as graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music. BCQ used its first commissioning project to bring Speed Studies to life. The work is haunting, intense, funky, and humorous, including liberal use of special effects on the saxophone such as slap tongue, growls, key clicks, air sounds, and more. The composer provides the following insight: "Years ago, I was at a summer garage sale and came across a dusty old book titled Gregg Speed Studies. Published in 1917, this hardback was a complete guide to increasing speed and accuracy in the craft of shorthand. Initially, I was intrigued by the way in which this book shed light on a bygone era before the prevalent use of typewriters. However, as I flipped through the tattered pages, I noticed that the majority of it was comprised of writing and comprehension exercises designed to rigorously focus upon particularly difficult combinations of words. However, rather than simply asking the student to practice by only writing those specific words, the author chose to place these drills within the context of complete sentences.

The result was line after line of sentences that seem to have been randomly plucked from a library of imaginary novels. While many of these sentences were quite mundane, several of them jumped out to me as highly provocative and even quite sinister. Three of these phrases were particularly compelling to me not only because of their individual suggestiveness, but also because they seemed to form a loose narrative when grouped together. Though somewhat abstracted, I took inspiration from that resulting narrative for this piece, while basing much of my melodic and gestural material upon the contours of the shorthand itself.

She sang a song of a cruel and jealous lover.

He wiped the knife twice on a pile of rags."

- Steven Snowden

Jennifer Higdon: Short Stories (1995-96)

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon has written this spellbinding collection of works for saxophone quartet. Short Stories is one of the central works of contemporary saxophone quartet literature, not to mention an emotional highlight of BCQ's journey together. Higdon has this to say about her work:

" 'Short Stories' is a collection of 6 movements for saxophone quartet, which are flexible in both the order and number in which they can be performed. The piece was written with the idea that a group could tailor their performance according to their venue and the duration they might like to fill on a concert. While being composer-in-residence with the Prism Saxophone Quartet, I had the chance to see how the demands for repertoire change greatly from concert to concert: through school programs with young students, to college-age classical musicians, to formal recitals. So, when I sat down to write a work for the Ancia, Black Swamp, Resounding Winds, and Sax 4th Avenue quartets, I wanted a work with as much diversity in the characters of the movements as possible and I wanted the groups to have freedom in their choices of movements. As a result, there are 6 movements, 3 of which are slow and 3 of which are fast, each telling a different story:

'Summer's Eve' - I had in mind the idyllic summer evening where folks are out sitting on their porches in swings and rocking chairs, listening to the sounds of summer: crickets and children at play, with soft evening breezes. I wanted to capture the essence and the magic of an ideal summer's eve.

'Lullaby' - This movement was originally written as a work for mezzo, flute, and piano, but I kept hearing it as a saxophone quartet in my head. It is a lullaby whose lyrical qualities seem to lend itself to the saxophone very well.

'Coyote Nights' - Many years ago, I took a trip out West, camping out in 8 different National Parks; one of those parks was Arches, in Utah. It is an unusual place where it becomes totally dark at night, with large looming rocks, a million stars above, and with the sound of wild coyotes crying in the night. That crying is peaceful reminder that we are visitors.

'Chase' - A fast movement with much energy and tension, this is a running game that could be through any street, anywhere; where pursuers and prey sometimes come very close to catching up with each other, and when they do, they rough and tumble before sprinting off again.

'Stomp & Dance' – This movement speaks for itself.

'Splashing the Canvas' – Inspired by Jackson Pollock, an artist who splashes paint upon a canvas in a wild and uncontrolled manner, building up layers and constantly changing the resulting structure. Through this piece, many ideas are presented and are thrown about and layered. At the beginning of the movement it takes longer for the ideas to be stated, but as the piece progresses, the themes come back quicker and quicker as if the canvas were building into thick layers of overlapping ideas and becoming more complex.

'Short Stories' was commissioned by the Ancia, Black Swamp, Resounding Winds, and Sax 4th Avenue Quartets, with a grant from the American Composers Forum, underwritten by the Jerome Foundation, with additional funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts."

- Jennifer Higdon

Steven Snowden: Take This Hammer (2008/2015)
The work of Steven Snowden makes another appearance on this album, this time in unrestrained funkiness and power-chord rock. Originally for tuba-euphonium quartet, this piece found another life as a tenor-baritone saxophone quartet. Please enjoy the stylings of baritone saxophonist Michael Hertel in the extended solo of the middle section of the piece. We love the low notes! #lownotes

Eugène Bozza: Andante et Scherzo (1938)
The height of the history and character of the classical saxophone quartet resides in early- to mid-20th century French music, and few pieces epitomize the style better than Andante et Scherzo. The opening tenor solo, performed here by BCQ tenor saxophonist Spencer Nielsen, opens into the lush and romantic Andante with its intense and melancholic energy. The Scherzo is fast, dense, and fun, sometimes playful and other times dangerous.

J.S. Bach: Chaconne, from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor (ca. 1717), recomposed by Andrew Charlton
The music of Bach is timeless and universal - and we feel certain that he would approve of the saxophone performing his music 250 years in the future. The Chaconne in particular contains all the secrets of the universe, if you listen deeply enough - from the doleful opening, to the fractal unfolding of rhythm, the rapturous major key section, and the earth-shattering ending. This brilliant version by Andrew Charlton augments and perfectly translates the emotional impact of the original solo violin version to the expansive palette of the four saxophones. BCQ will forever treasure the spiritual experience they had working on and recording this piece together.