Colin MacDonald's Baroque SaxophoneThursday, January 03, 2013
While I never did learn to properly read complex music I did learn to play the alto saxophone. This was not by choice but by the strong urging (an offer I could not refuse) from Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. back in Austin, Texas in 1957. One thing going for me was that I had a very sweet tone. I attempted to imitate the sound of Paul Desmond. I, of course loved the sound of Stan Getz’s tenor sax and especially Gerry Mulligan’s baritone. I could never appreciate the playing of Charlie Parker because I could not stand the raw sound of his alto sax. But of all the saxophones my least favourite is the soprano (both the straight and the bent kind, like the one that Malcolm Parry used to play). I never appreciated; in fact, I loathed Sidney Bechet’s vibrato sound and just tolerated Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax in Weather Report.
So why would my friend Graham Walker and I go to the New Westminster campus of Douglas College to listen to a free concert featuring the soprano saxophone?
The concert, the first one of a series of the free afternoon concerts at Douglas College for winter 2013 was organized by sax player/composer/teacher Colin MacDonald. The concert was called The Baroque Saxophone: Music from the 17th Century Venice.
Anybody, just about anybody knows that the saxophone was invented by Belgian Adolphe Saxe in 1846. So the title of the concert had to be some sort of a joke. When the trio, MacDonald, cellist Stefan Hintersteininger (a very serious man) and harpsichordist Christina Hutten (a very serious woman) appeared from our vantage point at the front row we knew we were into a serious afternoon of serious music.
What we did not know was that the concert with the music of Vivaldi:
Concerto in F major, RV 455
Sonata VI for cello, RV 46
Concerto in E minor, RV 484
Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV 387 attributed to George Frideric Handel (the Largo was played)
was to be a sweet and most wonderful concert in a very long time. MacDonald made his soprano sax sound like a flute, on the lower register and his baritone saxophone, played on the higher register, like a bassoon and sometimes even as an oboe. At times MacDonald used the baritone to play in tandem with the harpsichord as continuo for the Sonata VI for cello, RV 46.
MacDonald’s sound with both his saxophones was spectacular. My idea of the sound, the terrible harsh sound of the soprano saxophone, was obliterated in one 50 minute afternoon.
And this was not all, MacDonald composed (it was a world premiere) something called Folie à Deux which was a modern composition of variations to renaissance melody (the Louie Louie of the period and of the later baroque) called La Folia in versions by Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani. MacDonald’s piece was very modern and yet I could easily discern that tune that some people call a tune of madness. In fact one of the movements resembled an early 20th century Argentine milonga with its accelerated ¾ time.
There are those who say that Vancouver is boring and by extension, the whole of the Lower Mainland. There are those who say nothing happens in our Lower Mainland. There are even those who attribute to our fair city the moniker of “no culture city”.
And yet, MacDonald’s concert (and I must say I did discern smiles in Christina Hutten and Stefan Hintersteininger’s faces) is ample proof the innovation, expertise, wonder, virtuoso performance are alive in our city and if we would only know how to look for these events we would be most pleasantly surprised as Graham Walker and I were today in New Westminster. And my very Scottish friend would add, “The price was very Scottish, too.”
Addendum: Why were the pieces not kept in baroque tuning? Colin MacDonald’s writes:
As for the modern vs. baroque tuning issue, it was really just a case of it being the easier choice. If I had to tune my saxophones at A=415 Hz, the instruments wouldn't play properly as they are designed with the best acoustic response at the more modern A=440 Hz. Also, I would have to pull out my mouthpiece so far to tune it down to that level that it would probably fall off of the instrument.
The other option would have been to transpose the music down a half-step, but that just changes everything from relatively easy key signatures to more difficult ones, and all of the music would have been harder to play. Since the modern harpsichords can transpose between the different tunings by a simple mechanical shift of the keyboard, it was much easier for the modern instruments to play where we were used to and have the keyboard accommodate our tuning.
Colin MacDonald - Saxophonist/Composer
The Laughing Musketeer
The Pocket Orchestra