Speed metal meets saxophone in chamber music performance


If the thought of sounds akin to a blend of Motörhead and Mozart bouncing around Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall piques your interest, soprano saxophonist Dan Graser is ready and waiting.

Graser and the rest of the Donald Sinta Quartet are bringing their unique take on the already uncommon field of saxophone quartets to the Logan Chamber Music Series at 4 p.m. today in Lenna Hall. If the concept is unfamiliar to Chautauquans, then that’s right up the performers’ alley. 

“When I talk to the audience at the beginning of a show, I like to ask how many are seeing a classical saxophone quartet for the first time,” Graser said. “Nearly every hand in the room shoots up. They’re curious to see what this group does and what this instrumentation can sound like.”

Named for University of Michigan professor Donald Sinta, whom Graser called “the father of American saxophone,” the group was born out of the University of Michigan Symphony Band’s 2011 tour of China, during which the band performed William Bolcom’s “Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet and Band.”

Graser, alto saxophonist Zach Stern, baritone Danny Hawthorne-Foss and tenor Joe Girard were the four featured soloists on that tour.

They have since won top honors at prestigious competitions in Los Angeles and New York City.

“[Sinta’s] impact on the group is everything you’d expect from the best in the business,” Graser said. “His artistic mentorship, constant advice, weekly coachings; you can see his range of influence within the group.”

For their Chautauqua debut, the group will be playing a variation of their program “Then and Now,” which covers both standard chamber music repertoire and newer, more modern works.

“We program concerts the way we do because we want to show that our great influences are the great chamber ensembles,” Graser said. “We can do that repertoire, and we also have this mission to be expanding the repertoire for our instrumentation and our ensemble.”

With classical music, “new” can encompass anything within the last 50 to 100 years, depending on the source.

The quartet tends to lean much closer to present day — one of the pieces featured in today’s program, “Phantoms,” by University of Michigan graduate student Natalie Moller, was one of two 2013 winners of the quartet’s annual composition competition.

Other scheduled works include “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber,  Saxophone Quartet in B flat, Op. 109, by Alexander Glazunov and a one-minute piece called “Speed Metal Organum Blues.”

The latter is a 2004 composition by Potsdam, New York, native Gregory Wanamaker and sounds exactly as the title implies. Lest one think the group doesn’t fit the mold of a true chamber quartet, Graser believes their style is true to the core of the genre.

“People who attend our concert are there to hear something new, and they’re usually pretty surprised that we’re able to play the string quartet repertoire at such a high level,” he said. “Then we get to expose them to a little bit of new music — it’s a huge pool of influences and resources.”