Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
Concerto No. 2 for Saxophone and Orchestra
Rick VanMatre, Saxophone. Mischa Santora, Conductor
The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra presented an afternoon of rarely heard music with Queen City ties on Sunday. The most fascinating piece among them turned out to be one that was brand new. Music director Mischa Santora led the world premiere of Cincinnati composer Frank Proto's Saxophone Concerto No. 2. Rick VanMatre was soloist. It was a work that bridged the worlds of classical and jazz and drew a large crowd from both worlds, too, to Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Over-the-Rhine.
The concerto was the highlight in a program of rarities by Eugene Ysaye, Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski. Proto is familiar to local music lovers for the three decades he spent playing double bass with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. But the Brooklyn-born musician is also a prolific and largely self-taught composer, who wrote more than 25 substantial works for the CSO, Cincinnati Pops and Young People's Concerts. His commissions have included a Who's Who in entertainment, from opera star Roberta Peters to trumpeter Doc Severinsen.
VanMatre, too, is a fixture on classical and jazz stages. The professor emeritus and former director of jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music has recorded with the Cincinnati Pops and played with the Pops, CSO and ensembles such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Proto wrote his first saxophone concerto for baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which premiered with the CSO in 1973. The second concerto gives a nod to the jazz great with an echo of Bernie's Tune, one of Mulligan's signature songs. This was a work that was not rooted in either jazz or classical but seemed comfortable crossing from one to another and back again. Aside from VanMatre's truly impressive improvisations, part of the appeal was the element of unpredictability.
It began with a slow, plaintive introduction for VanMatre's alto sax, set against ethereal strings. The first movement, an "allegro," evolved into a sophisticated mix between full-blown classical concerto and cool, syncopated jazz. VanMatre's artistry was seamless, technically superb and musically inventive. VanMatre picked up a soprano sax for the slow movement, a somewhat moody journey that soon moved into a waltz. The upbeat finale echoed Bernstein's "West Side Story" at times; other times a Latin beat.
During the journey, the composer scored solos for English horn (Christopher Philpotts) and violin (Amy Kiradjieff), who alternately dueled with the saxophonist. VanMatre provided a showy cadenza of flourishes and arpeggios in the finale. His musicianship was so effortless, it was hard to know whether he was improvising or playing a written riff written. That was the idea, Proto said: "Some of the spots where you think it's improvised, it isn't, and vice-versa. That's totally on purpose."
Chamber Orchestra Scores with Proto
The conductor is the only member of the orchestra who doesn't make a sound.The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra turned that musical truism on its head Sunday afternoon with a program of music by conductors. By conductors as composers, that is, specifically conductors of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Not only that, but the concert included a world premiere by a former member of the CSO, double bassist and composer, Frank Proto. Performed in Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, it was one of the more original concerts to be heard in Cincinnati recently. Soloist in Proto's Concerto No. 2 for Saxophone and Orchestra, a CCO commission, was sax great Rick VanMatre.
The work is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, like a classical concerto, but its blend of classical and jazz elements is all its own. It is highly emotional, in a predominantly reflective sense, kind of like nursing a beer after midnight and, one suspects, would reward repeated listening to absorb it in detail. The outer movements are set for alto saxophone, the central movement for soprano.
It began with a beautiful, darkly evocative introduction by VanMatre, who scampered off into jazz-inflected fields in the first movement proper. The movement built in intensity near the end, which dropped off with a few hazy woodwind chords and flutters of harp. Proto is a master orchestrator and his use of individual instruments in dialogue with the sax was a treat, as with English hornist Christopher Philpotts in the first movement. VanMatre, who can get the heart and soul out of a sax, entered with a cadenza-like moment in the second movement following a moody, slow-moving beginning by the violins. He was joined by associate concertmaster Amy Kiradjiev in another delicious dialogue, this one in improvisational style over a long-held chord by the orchestra.
The final movement broke the spell, opening with a kind of mix of the "The Colonel Bogie March" and "West Side Story," generating lots of verve, with rim shots and the like from the percussion, to build up a nice head of steam. VanMatre, back on alto sax, flaunted some colorful flutter-tonguing in his cadenza and wove lines with great artistry throughout, fielding a hot lick at the end to bring the work to an upbeat conclusion.
Mary Ellyn Hutton