Colin MacDonald battles for the saxophone’s honour, with romance

Showing up late for the party a little loud and drunk and oversexed, the saxophone has always had to battle its way into the walled garden of classical music.

At heart a romantic, Colin MacDonald pictured at Lost Lagoon with his mighty baritone saxophone. Photo courtesy Colin MacDonald.

With the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival upon us, any mention of saxophone playing carries with it the assumption that it must be jazz. Not necessarily. Colin MacDonald’s Summer Saxophone Series is taking us to some of the other realms where the saxophone has a voice (or could have, had it been invented in time).

Take last Saturday’s concert at the Canadian Music Centre on Davie Street featuring music from the Romantic Era in classical music (1825-1900). For purists of Chopin, Brahms, and Schumann, playing this era of music on the saxophone is a little, well, scandalous.

“What’s that you say? The saxophone?”

“Yes old chap, the saxophone.”

“Dear me.” 

A (very) short history of the saxophone

Everybody knows the saxophone has no place in classical music (or polite company for that matter). Showing up late for the party (circa 1840) a little loud and drunk and oversexed, the saxophone was hastily escorted from the walled garden of classical music and into the adjoining alleyway where it languished for a further 80 years until the advent of jazz (and the car horn).

While the smoldering cello, the noble french horn, and the subtle clarinet reigned supreme, the lowly saxophone would traipse about tragically looking for a way in. Occasionally composers such as Bizet and Delibes would pity the poor thing by writing a piece that included some saxophone, but this was without exception met by a chorus of titters and away the saxophone was banished again like some dolly bird. The saxophone was the Jezebel of musical instruments.

Into battle

Enter Colin Macdonald, cunning, talented, and elegantly moustachioed. He steps into the garden, gleaming saxophone in hand ready to defend its tainted reputation. He brings with him the ultimate weapon to slay purists—a tone that’s pure Kir Royale.

Colin MacDonald has the ability to excel in many styles because he’s a fearless musician. On the “Romantic Saxophone” concert at the CMC, he performed a short but demanding programme of transcribed works from the Romantic Era or inspired by it. Where fearlessness may have crossed the line into folly was his decision to open the concert with the formidable Brahms Sonata in F Minor, op. 120 no. 1, originally for clarinet.

Given what shoals and tricks this sonata can throw in performance, it might have worked better to open with the final work, his own Polys Tonos. It’s lighter fare (and shorter), and his clever use of poly rhythms would also have served as a spirited wake up for our ears (and not tax him so at the outset).

Listen to a little of his Polys Tonos on Sound Cloud.

The second work, Trio After Brahms by David deBoor Canfield, was placed exactly where it should be. Together with pianist Chris Morano and violinist Kathryn Emiko Lee, MacDonald introduced us to a new work written in the style (or period) of old Herr Brahms himself. Canfield’s Trio After Brahms is both darker and lighter than real Brahms as if, like an old painting brought to light through restoration, decades of accumulated varnish were stripped away revealing bright colours not seen in generations.

The main challenge of pairing violin and alto saxophone is balance. Invariably the saxophone—even in Colin’s extremely sensitive grasp—overpowered the violin. Despite that, Colin has introduced a beautiful new/old work to the repertoire in Vancouver and for such an unusual instrumentation, it’s bound to cycle back again.

In the previously mentioned Brahms F Minor Sonata, the saxophone has to work so much harder than the instrument Brahms wrote for—the clarinet. Clarinettists are the ultimate fake-out artists when they play spooky soft pianissimos in the low register—it’s actually quite easy. Especially easy when compared with what a saxophonist goes through to produce anything in the low register that doesn’t sound like BC Hydro’s noontime Heritage Horns. But Colin was up for the challenge by exploiting the reverse sonic properties of the saxophone to his advantage. When soft, he exchanged the clarinet’s conspiratorial whisper for a burnished church bell pealing in a distant parish; and when loud, he replaced the spectral outcry of the clarinet with a sound like molten metal rolling in on itself.

No battle is ever won without a little bloodshed, so it would be an elephant in the room not to mention the frequent botched notes. I reminded myself that Colin is performing on an instrument that has a full octave fewer notes to work with than the clarinet (and Brahms wrote for the full range of the clarinet), but the muckups were unfortunate and did mar the performance (as did some crunchy playing in the piano for which there’s really no excuse).

Here too, Colin’s musicality and phrasing made it clear that he puts the music first, thus the point of the performance wasn’t lost to technical misfortune. I mean, why fault a gifted storyteller over a few piddling grammatical errors?

The upper register is where there were some very interesting surprises—and I don’t mean the fudged entrances. For the clarinet, it’s always important not to shriek in the high register and shatter that introspective veil of Brahms. As a result, clarinettists often produce a thin sound that’s not particularly interesting—kind of a white light brilliance without much colour.

Colin infused the Brahms Sonata on the saxophone with a quality not often heard on the clarinet. More than just his vibrato—common on saxophone but rare among clarinettists—his high register had a bright cherry sweetness that kept it interesting and allowed him to sail away never needing to force his sound. In Colin’s hands, the dark merlot of the clarinet was exchanged for that Kir Royale sound of his alto saxophone. It’s different, but it’s delicious.

Colin MacDonald, saxophone

If you’d like to enjoy an hour or two of some of the sweetest saxophone playing this city has to offer, you can catch the remainder of Colin MacDonald’s Summer Saxophone Series at various locations throughout the Lower Mainland this summer. Visit his site for more information

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