The acoustically perfect Hazel Waters Kornegay Assembly Hall of the University of Mount Olive was the venue for a remarkable concert of straight classical music on an instrument more usually associated with, as Dorothy L. Sayers put it, “the wail of the jazz band” – the saxophone.

Michael Stephenson, a graduate of the UNC School of the Arts and Ithaca College, playing soprano saxophone, accompanied by Mark Hooper, piano, began with “Fantasie” by Jean Baptiste Singelée (1812-1875). The composition is a mixture of incredible high drama sounding like music for a silent movie (“…he tied her to the railroad track and then the train began to come, and then Indians on horseback…”) with beautifully lyrical passages. Stephenson’s technique and personality were well up to handling both aspects of the piece. Hooper, a graduate of Samford and Mars Hill universities, was no mere sidekick; all of the accompaniments were complicated and demanding. Of interest was Hooper’s exclusive use of an electronic tablet with page-turning pedal, a concise and neat practice. Stephenson was somewhat hindered by a rather large quantity of printed music and by not having both soprano and alto saxophones on stage, resulting in a backstage trip early in the concert.

Stephenson briefly introduced each of his pieces in a gentle and personable style. Introducing Bach’s Violin Sonata in C minor, Stephenson said, “A lot of Bach’s music works really well on saxophone.” He played the first two movements, Largo and Allegro. There were some failed ornaments, which I would attribute to a shortcoming of the instrument, not the player’s otherwise very nimble fingers. The Zuckermann kit used for accompaniment had a string gone berserk; between movements Hooper tuned it. Hooper did his best with this kit, but otherwise the less said about it the better.

For “Oblivion,” by Astor Piazzolla, Stephenson switched to alto saxophone and Hooper returned to the beautiful white Kawai. Hooper’s playing was filled with expression; Stephenson was a one-man jazz band alongside the piano accompaniment. In “Libertango” by the same composer, it became quite clear that Stephenson cares passionately about his instrument, always trying to get the most from it and to elevate it to the highest possible level.

Eugène Bozza‘s “Aria” was dreamlike, as restful as possible for the saxophone, which seems to have no transient attack sound, just full-on volume.

The undoubted high point of the evening was the piece before intermission, Darius Milhaud’s “Brazileira,” from Scaramouche (sadly misspelled in the program).

Stephenson’s very poignant remarks about the piece, Calvin Hampton‘s Variations on “Amazing Grace,” originally for English horn and organ, explained that Hampton had written this composition on his deathbed, with the variations being reflections on his early life, wild living, and contentment at the end of his life. Even as brilliant a player as Stephenson is, the saxophone is no English horn, and it got in the way of the spirit of this piece. A secondary handicap was the hall’s electronic organ, although deftly played by Hooper.

The Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano of 1945, by Paul Creston (1906-1985) although very skillfully played by Stephenson and Hooper, left me unamused. On the other hand, the “Rumba” of Maurice Whitney, was loud but rollicking fun.

For the finale, Stephenson and Hooper played arrangements of “The Water is Wide” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” from Down by the Riverside: Six Songs for Saxophone & Piano by Daniel Kallman. Both performers played with elan and were well-received by the Mount Olive audience.

For other concerts at Mount Olive, see our calendar.