The June 19 concert at Duke University was a much-anticipated event, and people were lined up well into the Bryan Center lobby, hoping to get a good seat for this unique presentation. The Ciompi Quartet along with pianist Jane Hawkins teamed up with celebrated musician and new Durham resident Branford Marsalis for an evening of music entitled “Classical Sax.” This was presented as part of Duke’s 2003 Summer Festival of Music and was the most popular event so far. Reynolds Theater quickly filled to capacity – some people were even getting downright nasty as they vied for the “better” seats. Why all the fuss? In a word, celebrity. Marsalis comes from a distinguished musical family and has a storied history of commercial and critical success, including a gig as musical director for the Tonight Show. He has recorded several classical albums in addition to a large jazz discography. Did some people show up expecting a jazz concert? Hard to tell, but it was refreshing to see a somewhat younger crowd at a chamber music concert.

There is not a great deal of original chamber music that includes saxophone, so it was especially revealing to hear the works presented. The evening was filled with a great diversity of styles and was made even more interesting because Marsalis had the chance to show off his talents on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones.

The evening began with a frighteningly difficult work for all three players. Paul Hindemith’s Trio for Tenor Saxophone, Viola, and Piano, Op. 47, was written in the late 1920s and is a slowly building but ultimately frenetic and wild ride. The piano, brilliantly and passionately played by Hawkins, is first to introduce the thematic material in a long, unaccompanied passage. You immediately recognize the distinct style of Hindemith – hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it. The viola takes off next and you soon recognize the special affinity and skill of the writing for this instrument, as Hindemith himself was an accomplished violist. This is virtuoso viola writing of the highest caliber, and Jonathan Bagg carried it off in a seemingly effortless manner, with a beautiful, clear tone and impeccable intonation. Finally, the tenor sax enters – at first, seeming a bit like an unwanted guest. After all, this is an unusual combination, and how these sounds mesh does take some getting used to. Soon I became fascinated by the viola/sax sound, especially; and their range and timbre seemed to complement each other in a totally natural way. Marsalis had complete control of every nuance of this work as it progressed from a sedate character to one of wild energy and abandon.

Three-fourths of the Ciompi Quartet, along with guest pianist Hawkins, then reprised a work that they had played a few weeks earlier at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Gabriel Fauré’s Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15, is always welcome, and it was interesting to compare two different performances of the same piece by the same musicians. This is a highly romantic and passionate work that requires an emotional bond, at least for the duration of the work. The sweep and grandeur of this intense composition was conveyed to the packed auditorium so completely that it almost felt as if it were too personal to be so open to strangers…

After intermission, we went from the sensuousness of Fauré to the somewhat academic and impersonal style of Adolf Busch (1891-1952). His Quintet for Alto Saxophone and Strings is a kind of hodge-podge of musical styles ranging from strict Bach-like fugal sections to meandering romantic harmonies. By this time, all the performers had loosened up considerably and were obviously having a great time with what was not a particularly inspiring composition. There were some nice moments, but for the most part it seemed rather disjointed and schizophrenic. I think the musicians had a better time than the audience on this one.

Despite the Ciompi Quartet’s commitment to young composers and the numerous world premieres they have undertaken, audiences still tend to groan when they see “Premiere” in the program. However, grinning and beaming was the reaction of everyone present after the playing of “Reminiscence” for Soprano Saxophone and Strings by Mark Kuss (b.1960), who received his Ph.D. in composition from Duke University. This was a work where you can immediately tell that the composer understood how best to combine the soprano sax with the quartet of strings. Unlike the other works on the program, you didn’t have the sense that the saxophone was an outsider or a featured guest. The writing and playing was natural and cohesive without the “look, there’s a saxophone playing” trap that plagued the Busch work. Marsalis handled the virtuoso part with ease and delight. Although not, strictly speaking, a “jazz” work, it does possess the spirit and swing that underlies jazz. All in all, this was a great evening with a little bit of everything. Welcome to Durham, Mr. Marsalis. We hope you will share your immense musical talents with us soon again – and often!