The New Century Saxophone Quartet, regular visitors to the Triangle since their formation in 1989 at the NC School of the Arts, returned Saturday night, March 20, 2004 for a concert at NC State University’s Stewart Theatre, co-sponsored by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and NCSU’s Center Stage.

The program was the Quartet’s first performance of the complete Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. The NCSQ have often programmed selections from the Art of Fugue as a facet of their wide-ranging repertoire. They have gained a much-deserved reputation for combining classical tradition with the verve and spunk of contemporary compositions.

Robert Besen, the quartet’s manager, encouraged them to learn the complete AOF , first as an idea for a recording project (the CD on Channel Classics was released in January) and then as a performance project. As Besen noted in his pre-concert talk, the idea was not only to show off the quartet’s virtuosity but also to have an unusual program to entice venue bookers.

To enhance the event, Besen and the Quartet have engaged Misha Films, a computer animation company, to work up films to accompany the performance. The five animations completed so far have been shown within a one-hour selection from the AOF in two performances earlier in the year.

The RCMG/NCSU presentation was the first attempt by the NCSQ at programming the complete AOF (a technicality, as two of the sections are left out). Besen emphasized that it was a work in progress. As such, it was difficult to judge the ultimate success of the project, due to several problematic factors.

The work falls into the recognizable category of didactic composition. Bach’s mastery of the fugue is unchallenged and the study of AOF can be richly rewarding. The challenges in playing the complete work have given rise to numerous recordings by top performers in every conceivable format, from solo keyboard, to string quartet to small orchestra (there even have been at least three other recordings by saxophone quartets). Listening to recorded performances at one’s own pace is one thing, but offering the complete AOF in one concert is a different matter. Certainly such performances are occasionally given but they are highly intellectual events (and not Bach’s intention for them), overwhelming to all but the most dedicated listener.

Acknowledging the problem, the NCSQ have attempted to help by rearranging the order of the sections (Bach’s version begins with a simple statement of a theme and then progressively adds complications and layers). This does help some, allowing variety in tempo, length, density and instrumentation. However, the presentation’s overriding solemnity (abetted by the request to hold applause until the end of each half) goes against the unique character the NCSQ have established for themselves, their other concerts exuding liveliness, humor and individuality.

Their playing at Stewart Theatre was generally on a high level, the special timbre of the saxophones giving many passages a crisp character and a sharp separation of voices. The recent addition of Christopher Hemmingway on alto sax (replacing original long-term member Robert Faub) proved fortunate. Hemmingway’s mellow tones stood out, especially in the Contrapunctus No. 12 shared with Stephen Pollock on tenor. The foursome’s tone quality was better in the quieter passages than at full volume, where some harshness and edginess crept in. Impressive staccato passages (as in Contrapunctus No. 9) and jauntily precise runs (as in No. 6 and No. 16) were attention-grabbing among the otherwise narrow confines of the somber fugal elements.

The structure of the program was awkward. The short first part consisted of the sections of the AOF that had not been included in the previously performed hour-long version. The playing in the first part seems less assured, especially in Contrapunctus No. 15 for soprano (Michael Stephenson) and baritone (Brad Hubbard).

The second, longer portion was the hour-long program as previously performed, kept intact to have the five animations more concentrated. It began with the players in full darkness, the screen behind them offering black and white computer animations of swimming squiggles coming together to form a massive-looking cross, which then melted away into arches full of shadow and light. While this was mildly entertaining and generally matched to the music, later animations (a slow trip into a stone tunnel, an out-of-focus view of grass blowing in the wind and wooden banister columns slowly appearing and disappearing) seemed too simple and unrelated to the music, more a distraction than a conduit into the music’s structure. Only the final animation, with its glowing particles swirling in patterns, seemed matched to the level of the music.

It is difficult to see how further animation of this type will enhance the musical experience, which on its own is less than satisfying. The audience at Stewart warmly applauded the players, but there was a definite sense of congratulations for the mere attempt rather than a genuine enthusiasm for the concept and its execution. Those whose only experience with the NCSQ was this concert may wonder what all the fuss is about for this wonderfully inventive group. Nonetheless, both the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and NCSU Center Stage deserve thanks for such bold and intriguing programming.

(Post script: baritone player Brad Hubbard is leaving the group to devote more time to his growing family. He will be replaced by Connie Frigo, adding a new element to the mix.)