THE FIRST clue that the Amherst Saxophone Quartet isn't your average chamber ensemble comes in the group's program notes. Right after a windy rundown of grants and funding, a footnote reads:
Members of the ASQ met with the Governor and County Executive last night, threatening to move the Quartet out of town unless its new multimillion dollar stadium is built. The ASQ also insisted that all proceeds from beer sold at the concerts would go to the owners of the Group.
On a different page:
It is no more accurate to suggest that an animal doctor who has served overseas is a veterinarian of foreign wars than it is to imply that an eye doctor who lives forever is an eternal optometrist. (An excerpt from the self help book When Good Puns Happen to Bad People.)
This isn't to imply, of course, that the group is a joke. The ASQ, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a tremendously success. The four sax men -- Salvatore Andolina on soprano, Russ Carere on alto, Stephen Rosenthal on tenor and Harry Fackelman on baritone -- have sold out Carnegie Hall. They have played in Lincoln Center. They've been praised by everyone from Time magazine to Johnny Carson.
But back home in Buffalo, they're free to let down their hair.
Thursday night in Slee Hall, the ASQ presented a program called "Our First Concert Ever." It's part of the group's season-long anniversary blowout, and will be repeated Oct. 1 at Olmsted School 64, Oct. 15 at the Bijou Grille and Nov. 19 at Iroquois High School.
"Our First Concert Ever" is a repeat of the music the ASQ played at its first recital on March 12, 1978. There's a bit of everything on the menu, all in bite-size portions. "You can talk between pieces, and nothing's over seven minutes, so you'll still be able to remember the end of your sentence," said Rosenthal, the group's charming spokesman.
The beauty of the ASQ is that it will be whatever you want it to be. It can sound like an elegant cafe group, as during a whimsical piece by Jean Francaix. It can be a smooth wind ensemble, as in a Tchaikovsky andante. It can resemble a jazzy ragtime outfit.
What never changes is the musicians' precision. Every crescendo, every twist and turn is smoothly choreographed. At the end of a piece, the musicians have an uncanny ability to finish their notes at exactly the same instant. You can tell these guys have been playing together for 20 years. They've learned to breathe in sync.
A stately Sarabande by Bach began the evening. The famous Boccherini minuet, which followed, is something we've all heard hundreds of times -- but rarely, I'll bet, as briskly as the ASQ tossed it off. Led by Andolina, this was one bouncy dance -- nothing sedate about it. It was a delight.
The highlights were the pieces written particularly for saxophone quartet. They capitalized best on the peculiar textures of the instrument. Pierre Lantier's "Andante et Scherzetto" was a kick, as was Francaix's "Petit Quatour Pour Saxophones." Both works had a slinky grace -- so very French. The first movement of the Francaix had a nightclubby raunch, while the second part was of dark drama. The conclusion, "Serenade Comique," skipped along with hiccuping good cheer.
Should anyone feel cowed by unfamiliar music, the irresistible Rosenthal did a witty job of explaining what we should listen for. He described the Francaix first movement, for instance, as "like Jabberwocky without the long toenails," and let us in on a secret: "A composer's idea of a joke is suddenly to change the volume level."
He explained that another work, Rocco DiPietro's "Phantom Melos," was a tone poem about Buffalo. Composed for the ASQ in 1983, the work was written by DiPietro on the roof of a downtown hotel. ("And later he transcribed it to music paper," Rosenthal added, deadpan.)
"Phantom Melos" is supposed to suggest voices from Buffalo's past, from Canal District roustabouts to priests and presidents. To aid our imaginations, the ASQ cut the lights so only their music stands were illuminated. The piece proved fun to interpret. It began with long honks -- aha, Canal District foghorns -- followed by a friendly cacophony that could have been the city's church bells, all clanging together. Staccato blasts implied car horns. And the composer saved the best for last: We heard revving noises which had to be -- trust me on this -- someone on the West Side trying to start his wreck on a snowy morning.
For humor and sophistication the ASQ can't be beat, and everyone should try to catch at least a corner of their yearlong celebration. As Rosenthal said, "We still think we're students here, and when we're 21 we'll be able to go out." Musically, the ASQ are maturity personified. But I doubt they'll ever lose their sense of fun.
The Amherst Saxophone Quartet
A repeat performance of its first concert as a commemorative opener to its 20th season.
Thursday night in Slee Hall, University at Buffalo's North Campus.