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S & H International Concert Review

Prism Quartet: British Invasion, Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, New York City, November 24, 2003 (BH)


Graham Fitkin: HURL (1996)
Gabriel Erkoreka: Duduk II (2000)
Michael Finnissy: Selected Movements of Great Masters (1996)
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Two Memorials (1995-2000)
Gavin Bryars: Alaric I or II (1989)
Joe Cutler: Screaming 229a (1996)
Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone
Michael Whitcombe, alto saxophone
Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan, bariton saxophone



In a bracing recital, the deceptively decorous Prism Quartet displayed the often-surprising range of imagination deployed by some of today’s best-known British composers, several of whom must be virtually unknown to American audiences. And for those who might be worrying that the colors in an all-saxophone ensemble might wear thin, let me assure you that there are some highly creative compositional minds -- not to mention these superbly confident players -- addressing the issue.

By happy coincidence, Mr. Fitkin was in the audience, and introduced his work by saying that the title, HURL, "may or may not have anything to do with the piece." It turned out to be a luminous, tightly organized gem, with extreme contrasts between its louder and softer parts. The four players were immediately impressive, coming out rock-solid and blending beautifully in the theatre’s slightly dry acoustic.

Although born in Bilbao, Erkoreka is a young composer who has studied with Finnissy at the Royal Academy of Music, and seems similarly iconoclastic. This work, whose title refers to an Armenian oboe, seemed formed of slowly shifting plates of sound, with the instruments as drones, or in the composer’s words, "creating the illusion of their presence." The hazy atmosphere summoned up by the musicians was marvelous.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Finnissy’s music lately, and this clever outing seemed yet more evidence of his immense talents. Here he conjures up something like a smoke-filled jazz club, as if we’ve been admitted to a secret room where several dance bands are accompanying Sinatra, but simultaneously. Creating clarity from dense, crowded harmonies, the Prism excelled in getting the balances right. The work requires some movement from the players, who in turn stand up, wander off, scratch their heads, or raise their legs -- amusing gestures that further emphasize the work’s laconic spirit.

The two brief Turnage pieces were elegies written for his mother, Meryl, and for Steve Trier, his teacher and former saxophonist in the London Philharmonic. In the only solo turn of the evening, Timothy McAllister gave intense, intelligent performances: mournful in the first, exuberant in the second.

After intermission came Gavin Bryars’ poetic Alaric I or II, filled with waves of difficult arpeggios (think Philip Glass), occasional hymn-like sections, and a haunting fadeout on a soft, vibrato-less chord. The evening ended with the U.S. premiere of Joe Cutler’s Screaming 229a, a reference to the composer’s apartment in Warsaw. Filled with opportunities for the four musicians to show off, this nervous, agitated score had the most obvious difficulties, with the constantly pulsating texture interrupted by tricky, fast phrases when the entire ensemble comes to an abrupt halt. It was as if we had entered a sober, unmarked Warsaw door, only to be startled with a noisy, bumper-to-bumper traffic intersection inside, with vehicles veering madly out of control before finally skidding to a stop. I loved it.

Bruce Hodges


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