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Concert Review: Saxophone quartet rides 'Mobius Loop' to success

Thursday, February 07, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Composers of all periods walk a fine line -- make that five lines -- between originality and conformity. Some, like Beethoven, increasingly push boundaries as they age, others pull back during their careers and still others fluctuate between those poles. But it isn't until the balance is achieved that great music begins to emerge. Adhering too closely to trends weakens music, while too much distance from society's preferences leads to irrelevancy.

Allow me, then, to focus primarily on the work of one composer in last night's concert of new music at Bellefield Hall Auditorium, Oakland, one whose new work brought this line of thinking to a dizzying head.

The occasion was a concert in the Music on the Edge series that brought the famed Rascher Saxophone Quartet to the stage. Among other works, it performed University of Pittsburgh composer Mathew Rosenblum's "Mobius Loop."

As an experimental composer, Rosenblum has leaned in the direction of puissant originality for most of his career, using different scales, electronics and non-Western music to shape his output. He's had the predictable hits and misses with his approach.

When asked to write a piece for the Rascher quartet in 2000, however, Rosenblum was admittedly awed by writing for saxophone, his first instrument, and for such a renowned group. Rosenblum stepped back from experimentation and focused on composing for a more standard set of criteria.

Twisted like a Mobius strip, "Mobius Loop" is a fascinating work for saxophone quartet and small orchestra. Last night it received its American premiere under the direction of Roger Zahab and was performed by the newly formed Music on the Edge Chamber Orchestra.

It's a rich, layered work that would overwhelm one with its multicyclic complexity were it not for the adept use of pedal points, rhythms and harmony. Rosenblum scored it so well that it filled the hall with vibrant strains, pulling the ear forward with every measure. All the potentially disparate voices fit snugly together, and his use of the Rascher quartet supported the texture, rather than pushing it aside for spotlighted solos.

Driving music opens and ends the work, with quieter writing in between. But the piece's constant folding upon itself doesn't mean it is entirely introspective: Halfway through, there's a major outburst of imitative music, an almost satirical layering of minimalism, Spanish rhapsody and jazz.

The concert opened with the Rascher quartet playing by itself an arranged saxophone concerto by Philip Glass, a quartet by Krzysztof Penderecki and trio by Pitt composer Eric Moe. Here the quartet displayed the brilliance of technique and phrasing that is its reputation. The group's cohesion is important, since it paves the way for those unused to hearing such an unusual combination of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, myself included.

Moe's two-movement work, "Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds," did just that, jarring listeners with sudden shifts between agitation and reflection.

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