During the darkest days of the pandemic, good art was hard to find. Opera houses, once bustling with activity were empty. Gone were the spectacles of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. Fortunately, this pause in the usual fare allowed new voices and new musicians to fill the silence. At the University of Iowa, alto saxophonist Kenneth Tse recorded a new album, The Voxman Project featuring the faculty and staff of the University of Iowa. Two of the works on album cover an influential era in saxophone history in the 1920s: one from the seedy cabarets of Berlin, and the other from the Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Kurt Weill and Darius Milhaud wrote seminal theatrical works featuring the saxophone, and The Voxman Project provides an impeccable approach in both sound and execution. This album is a reminder that when it comes to studying saxophone literature, we should not ignore operas and ballets featuring the saxophone, since these works are important to the history of the saxophone.
The Voxman Project follows with a larger trend in the past year of featuring the music of Kurt Weill. At a time where opera companies were cancelling performances due to Covid, Weill’s works were staged more during the pandemic than the previous year. What is it about Weill that speaks to the pandemic moment? Partly it’s due to the smaller orchestration which makes it easier to stage. But what makes his work relevant is due to Weill’s collaborations with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose work conveys the human suffering as a byproduct of living in a capitalist society. When the only news of the day was the latest obituaries, Brecht’s cynical take on humanity may seem a little too real. What makes Brecht goes down so easy is Kurt Weill.
The Threepenny Opera, written in 1928 centers around thieves, beggars, crooked cops, and prostitutes. Weill’s approach to music fit in with the radical scripts of Brecht. Weill believed his music represented “an international folk music of the broadest possible consequences”—truly music for all people. This radical approach to music demonstrates how easily Weill’s songs travel from a Tom Waits dive bar to the stage of La Scala. The Voxman Project features the Little Threepenny Music, a collection of eight song from the stage version that Weill arranged in 1928. In the Little Threepenny Music, Weill keeps the alto, tenor, and soprano saxophone but eliminates the baritone saxophone (which in the original has a fun little solo in the “Cannon Song”). The other notable missing instrument in the suite is the Hawaiian Guitar, which you can hear in the original stage version of “Zuhälterballade” (Tango-Ballad).
The suite starts off with the “Overture” and its bombastic prelude that develops into a Bach-like fugue and sets the mood to the dark tale. This angsty overture is the perfect setting for this anti-hero tale.
“Mack the Knife,” features trombonist Davod Gier and tenor saxophonist Elissa Kana, whose delightful take on the melody is joined by Tse on alto. Kana’s take on the solo fits with the “Sprechgesang” style, where the singer has more of a spoken voice approach to singing, which was popular in Weimar cabarets and is how Weill’s music was originally performed (see the great Lotte Lenya for example of sprechgesang).
Tse gives a sentimental treatment to one of my favorites from the play, the venomous “Tango-Ballad”—an anti-love song set in a brothel. The accordion accompaniment, played by Rayne Dias, provides the perfect sound for an escapist fantasy. The entire movement is required listening as Tse plays the intricate obliggato in the second verse of the ballad.
The rollicking “Cannon Song” is a masterclass of orchestration. Few composers are brave enough to combine the bassoon and the banjo–played by bassoonists Benjamin Coelho, Alex Widstrand and banjoist Steve Grismore–with Stravinsky-like counter melodies played by flute and clarinet. The Voxman Project’s interpretation of the “Cannon Song” balances the energetic spirit of the drinking song with just enough angst.
Other stand out performances from the suite are flutist Nicole Esposito and clarinetist Jeiran Hasan’s tender take on the melody of “Polly’s Song.” Both the Little Threepenny Music and The Threepenny Opera are foundational works in saxophone history. Weill’s use of the saxophone is as inventive and expressive as the next composer featured on The Voxman Project, Darius Milhaud.
Darius Milhaud wrote La Création du Monde in 1923 for the Ballet Suédois. Milhaud, a relatively unknown composer, shared the bill of the premiere on October 25, 1923, with another up and coming composer, Cole Porter. The critics savaged Milhaud’s work, calling it “succès de scandale” partly due to the cumbersome costumes designed by Fernand Léger. Despite the negative reviews, La Création du Monde became one of Milhaud’s best known works, regularly performed on the concert stage.
The alto saxophone occupies a unique role in the ballet. It replaces the viola in the string quartet, which can be heard in the “Overture” as the saxophone is the lead voice in the string quartet. This approach to orchestration is notably unique in comparison to other French ballets that use the alto saxophone as an isolated solo.
Tse highlights the jazz influences in the fugal texture of “Chaos Before Creation,” adding the occasional scoop. The syncopated melodies and emphasis on the minor 3rd in the melody—reminiscent of Gershwin’s symphonic works written after La Création du Monde—appear in “Birth of Flora and Fauna” and “Birth of Man and Woman.” The rollicking end of “Dance of Desire” dissembles as Tse sores above the chaos.
My focus on this site is mainly on opera and ballet, but the third piece on this album, Kirk O’Riordan’s Ductus figuratus, Concerto for Alto Saxophone is an expansive and dramatic concerto for chamber ensemble. The chamber ensemble creates a soundscape as Tse plays among the clouds in the “Cadens” which is fitting since it is inspired by the Cathedral at Rouen, France.