Recital takes a capricious turn

This past Friday, the Williams community experienced music faculty talent for the second time this semester. Steven Dennis Bodner, adjunct teacher of saxophone and music director of the Williams Symphonic Winds, provided a program of 5 pieces for alto saxophone. All of the works were from the twentieth century.

Debussy’s “Syrinx,” originally composed for flute, then transcribed for alto saxophone, provided a delicate opening to the concert. Bodner held the motives together with a consistent tone color and subtly played dynamics. He also created a nice echo effect. Although “Syrinx” was a short piece, lasting only a few minutes, it was played well, with a technical soundness.

Next on the docket was contemporary Japanese composer Ryo Noda’s “Phoenix,” the most unusual piece of the night. Bodner opened with a haunting first line, offsetting the faint echo with silence. In this short sketch, coherence was achieved largely by occasional repetitions of recognizable motif fragments.

Bodner played the quiet dynamics called for in the piece quite well, especially considering the physical constraints of the instrument. Near the end, the piece fell into chaos, representing the death of the mythical bird of the title. Here, Bodner employed extensive contemporary techniques such as microtonal tremolos. The opening theme was restated again, fading dramatically to nothing, and drawing this short composition to a close.

Pierson Wetzel, piano accompanist, joined Bodner for the third piece on the program, Henri Tomasi’s “Ballade.” This energetic piece, although well-played, seemed to cram too much material into a short amount of time. It opened with a basic modal-sounding piano melody with chords underneath. When the saxophone came in, the piano played running triplets under the melody. The piano accompaniment throughout this piece was rather patchy; at first Wetzel lagged behind a bit, then caught up, overestimated the pace, slowed down, and so on. The piece changed moods on a dime, from happy to energetic to slow to mysterious to flowing to energetic again.

As the duo kept on, their intonation wavered, but Bodner was able to cover it effectively with vibrato. Wetzel seemed to play too independently of Bodner. He also tended to rush near the end, which didn’t help the solo, as it entailed many quick running figures. Although the piece was played nicely and with a good amount of panache, it was too flighty for my taste.

After an intermission, Bodner played the meatiest piece of the night, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” This well-known piece transcribed for alto saxophone and piano opened softly, building up the theme only to diminuedo back to nearly nothing.

The piece was based on a minor tonality but still seemed cheerful, perhaps due to the hope suggested by the rising and falling motives. Not only the soloist’s playing but also his stage presence and movements conveyed the mood. Bodner’s stage presence lent a lot to this piece (and to the others as well); his movements and facial expressions seemed to mirror his playing. In the instrumentation of this piece, however, I felt some of the classical edge replaced by a jazzier feel. Here the soloist and accompanist were more at peace with one another; their interaction seemed more seamless than in the Tomasi.

The duo then presented the fifth and last piece, Aleksandr Glazunov’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone.” This remarkable composition showed traces of jazz as well as some Arabic and native African influence, perhaps Glazunov’s way of breaking the traditional Russian art music mold. Throughout the piece, Bodner showcased his technical and expressive prowess. Although this piece was a bit capricious as well, it seemed less scattered than did the Tomasi piece.

In the cadenza, Bodner did not take as many liberties with dynamics as I would have liked to hear, perhaps due to concern over the technical aspects of the line. Inserting more silence would have increased anticipation and suspense. Near the end, during the triplet melody, the piano had a tendency to rush, forcing Bodner to quicken to keep them together, in turn resulting in a rushed-sounding line. After that, however, came some broad motives that were perhaps the best playing of the evening ? those uninhibited, freely played lines captured a joy and liberty that was unprecedented earlier in the concert.