Most instruments within the realm of Western classical music have a long and elaborate history, their origins veiled in a certain amount of mystery. Violins, flutes, cellos, oboes — all have long lines of ancestry and plumed pedigrees, all have pedagogues and pedagogies. As a result of this long history and the deeply ingrained traditionalism inherent in classical music culture, new instruments often have difficulty establishing themselves within the repertoire, forced to overcome the prejudices and obstinate attitudes of the elder instruments. This is certainly the case with the saxophone, whose origin — in sharp contrast to earlier instruments — is a clear and specific part of the historical record. Invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840, the saxophone has since become most famous for its prominence in jazz music, played virtuosi such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
But in addition to the saxophone’s well-known affiliation with jazz, the last several decades have seen the rise of saxophone in the classical music sphere. Soloists and chamber groups of enormous ability dazzle audiences with newly composed music for their instrument — and perhaps there is no more famous classical saxophone ensemble active today than the Prism Quartet, who will be performing in Ann Arbor Saturday.
“The Prism Quartet formed in 1984,” said Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophonist for the quartet and associate professor of Saxophone in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “At the time, they were all graduate students at the University of Michigan here, all under our great mentor, the professor emeritus of Saxophone Donald Sinta.”
While the quartet originally formed as a group of students seeking to advance their education through competition, it soon grew into something with a greater sense of purpose.
“They formed to perform locally and also to compete in local and national chamber music competitions — they ended up doing really well, and won a few major competitions, which led to a more serious plan and mission for the group,” McAllister said. “Very quickly the group started to get involved with commissioning new music — contemporary music by living composers, namely those associated with the University of Michigan here, faculty (and) recent graduates.”
In the years following its founding, Prism was a major force in the promotion of the saxophone as a serious chamber music ensemble rivaling the traditional string quartet, a heterodoxy which soon distinguished them from the crowd.
“The idea of the saxophone quartet being something out there that would rival the traditional chamber music models — I think that was much more a pioneering effort on behalf of Prism,” McAllister said. “(Because ensembles like the string quartet) have so much more history, (Prism) worked very quickly to make up that ground, just by getting today’s most important composers to write for the saxophone quartet.”
Since its founding, Prism has had several member changes. McAllister himself was hired in 2000, the third soprano saxophonist to be a member of the ensemble. Today, the quartet is comprised of McAllister, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, Zachary Shemon on alto and Matthew Levy — the only remaining founding member — on tenor.
“We’ve always hired from ‘Michigan aesthetic,’ which is quite singular, both born out of the playing styles of Donald Sinta himself and his teacher Larry Teal, who was the first professor of saxophone anywhere in the United States,” McAllister said. “The first professorship in that field started here at Michigan. We’re very proud of that.”
Prism has long been associated with the University, and in the past few decades has served as a model to saxophone students in the School of Music, Theater & Dance.
“I did four degrees here at the University of Michigan, in the music school, and I knew for myself I grew up knowing about the Prism quartet, I came to college here knowing its history and its trailblazing status,” McAllister said. “That was an inspiration for all of us who were in the (saxophone) studio at the time.”
For the concert on Saturday, Prism will be working with several creative collaborators. Renowned jazz saxophonists Diego Rivera and Andrew Bishop will be joining the ensemble for performances of “Improvisations” by Chris Potter, “Found” by Matthew Levy and John Coltrane’s ballad “Dear Lord,” arranged by Dave Liebman.
“We wanted to really collaborate with some really fantastic local jazz musicians, because the program called for that,” McAllister said. “The goal has been to show this merging of the classical tradition with the more academic jazz tradition, and basically to show the middle ground, to create a collaboration that demonstrates both sides of the instrument as a single organism.”
The program’s primary featured piece is “Improvisations” by Chris Potter — a legendary jazz saxophonist — which was composed for the quartet, the concept being that the composer/performer would join the quartet to play in their own piece. When the piece was premiered it was played by Prism, Potter and Ravi Coltrane, the son of John Coltrane. On this week’s program the piece will be performed with Rivera and Bishop.
“The whole concert is quite a collage of a lot of our activity. It showcases some of our more serious classical pieces, it showcases some heavy concert jazz music and it has some transcriptions,” McAllister said. “So it’s kind of a nice survey of our legacy, of the kind of activity that we’ve embarked upon for the whole history of the group but also in the more recent history of the group.”
In the upcoming concert, Prism will also be premiering a new piece by William Bolcom, a Pulitzer prize winning composer and professor emeritus in Composition at the University. Bolcom’s work, “Schumann Bouquet,” is a transcription of piano music by the Romantic era composer Robert Schumann.
“We wish for no major composer living composer to leave this Earth without at least considering writing for saxophone quartet,” McAllister said of the quartet’s mission. “And if we can have a place in getting those people to write for our medium, great; if we can be at the forefront of getting their attention, great … but we really actively seek out the leading figures of our time.”
Those who attend Prism’s Saturday concert will witness a broad collection of musical styles, as it is a program designed to break the oft-found stylistic unanimity common in classical music concerts.
“There can be such a chameleon-like quality to the instrument so much that from piece to piece, style to style, genre to genre, you will feel that each of those is genuine, and almost complete identifiable with the saxophone,” McAllister said. “And yet each piece will sound different.”