Susan Fancher described the freedom from excess baggage (in this case, piles of old manuscripts) that saxophone players enjoy. She and the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet might be considered trailblazers with a spirit of adventure. On this occasion, they filled Baldwin Auditorium with glorious sound; all the music was written in the twenty-first century by contemporary composers for saxophone quartet, and two were commissioned by RCSQ. Members of the quartet are Susan Fancher, soprano saxophone, Robert Faub, alto saxophone, Steve Stusek, tenor saxophone, and Mark Engebretson, baritone saxophone. They performed works by Anna MeadorsCarl SchimmelPaul LearyStacy Garrop, and John Anthony Lennon.

“Motor and Soul” (2014) by Anna Meadors (b.1989) was commissioned by RCSQ and premiered in Greensboro on November 1, 2014. In her notes, Meadors describes the motor as “the brain or the heart, maybe both…..”  The composition is built in layers; little by little, the texture thickens with melodic material woven throughout. Gradually the baritone cushions and lifts the soaring soprano lines. With each note made clearly audible, the quartet made the piece sing. The audience gave the young composer (who was present) and the performance itself a thumbs up. I’ll be keeping tabs on this very talented composer.

Flight of Icarus (2012) by Stacy Garrop and “Elysian Bridges” (2010) by John Anthony Lennon made the ideal pairing, not just their evocative titles, but also by the contrasting styles. Garrop’s composition draws on the power of the ancient myth in two parts. In the first movement, “Icarus Ascending,” we hear the slow, gradual ascension of the winged boy who ignores his father’s warning. The pastoral sound of the quartet reminded me of Vaughan Williams’ lark soaring higher and higher. But Icarus’ romance is cut short as he falls tragically to his death. The second movement is entitled “Daedalus Mourns.” The dissonance coupled with RCSQ’s exquisite performance simulates the sorrowful cries of his broken-hearted father.

Lennon describes his piece as  “… a carefree divertimento….” Coupled with Garrop’s composition, I like to think that “Elysian Bridges” lead to the final resting place of Icarus. Lennon’s 2010 composition is minimalistic in style with slow-moving textural changes. I found myself lost in the beauty of the music, the perfect repose.

The quartet also performed Carl Schimmel’s brilliant “Peregrinations in Praise of the One Who Observes the Sounds of the World” (2012) and Paul Leary’s imaginative I have a Past Life Memory from the War that Blew the Fifth Planet into the Asteroid Belt (2006/2014). Schimmel and Leary are both graduates of the Duke Graduate Composers Program.

While runners, walkers and students enjoyed the outdoor pleasures of a spring-like afternoon, a handful of dedicated and curious listeners soaked up stimulating and beautiful music. (Surely packed with essential nutrients). Don’t miss their next concert!

RCSQ will perform in Greensboro on March 22; for details, click here. Follow them on Facebook.

Read more about the instruments here.