The saxophone is deeply rooted in contemporary music — but, according to the Donald Sinta Quartet, the instrument’s capabilities are broader than many people know.
The all-saxophone chamber music quartet will perform at 4 p.m. Monday, August 12 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, as part of the Chautauqua Chamber Music Guest Artist Series. Their program extends across centuries, from Ludwig Van Beethoven to brand-new compositions.
The four members – Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard and Danny Hawthorne-Foss — formed the quartet as students at the University of Michigan and named it after legendary Michigan saxophone professor Donald Sinta. After performing with their university’s symphony orchestra in Los Angeles, Beijing and Shanghai, the members decided to keep playing.
In the chamber music world, all-saxophone groups are extremely rare. According to Graser, the quartet keeps that unfamiliarity in mind when selecting and performing music.
“For probably 90% or more of the audience, this is probably their first experience of a classical saxophone quartet,” Graser said. “So rather than only playing music that only a saxophonist or certain contemporary music fans would understand, we like to present as wide a palate as possible.”
The saxophone is young compared to other popular instruments. Belgian musician Adolphe Sax invented it in the 1840s — less than 30 years before Chautauqua Institution’s first assembly. Despite how young the saxophone is, the quartet members perform music old and new: classical pieces transcribed for saxophone and new compositions with the instrument in mind.
Graser said many modern pieces in the saxophone’s repertoire draw from the instrument’s history.
“What makes (contemporary music for saxophone) accessible a lot of times is when composers take inspiration from the saxophone’s history in other genres, and use that as a thematic idea in the repertoire,” Graser said, adding that “Ex Machina” and “Tango Virtuoso” from today’s program take inspiration from the saxophone’s background.
But the program also includes Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich and traditional Irish music. Graser said the concert will illustrate the saxophone’s versatility.
“Folks can see how flexible and chameleon-like the saxophone can be — how many different sound colors, how many different genres you can suggest within just one program,” Graser said.
According to Graser, a diverse program can help illustrate the saxophone’s capabilities next to more traditional ensembles like string quartets.
“(A broad program can) show not only that we’re totally capable of making a really great classical and Romantic string quartet repertoire sound good — or in many cases even better — but that we also have a wealth of music that’s being written right now that people can really get into,” Graser said.
The Donald Sinta Quartet performs from memory and speaks to the audience about each piece, a strategy to engage with the audience, Graser said. The musicians do this, he said, “to be as engaging as (they) can.”
“But the main goal is to present the highest-quality chamber music that we can create,” he said.