Arnold Bennet reportedly said the saxophone is the embodied spirit of beer.
Times have changed, however. As the Harvey Pittel Saxophone Quartet demonstrated Sunday afternoon in Glendale High School Auditorium, if the instrument has the spirit of a beverage, it is light beer.
Of course, that can be very positive. Pittel's Community Concert program, "The Golden Age of Saxophone," was entertaining, superbly played and packaged with flair.
But it is not long before one begins burping, mentally at least.
Pittel has carried the talk-and-toot format pioneered by brass ensembles to an extreme. The anecdotage vies with the music not only for laughs and interest, but in time as well, and the group offered only one movement of one piece in its original version.
That lone original was the Choro and Tango from a quartet by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero, a work of sufficient vitality to awaken interest in the unheard movements. The musicians--Pittel, soprano and sopranino saxes; James Roetter, alto and soprano; Vincent Gnojek, tenor, and Allen Won, baritone--play with remarkable cohesion and nuance. Indeed, their ensemble subtleties ultimately proved more impressive than even their individual prowess, as amply demonstrated as that was.
In addition to the Romero Quartet, the printed program listed as options Quartets by Glazunov and Florent Schmitt. But what we heard were all the arrangements.
On the "classical" side was a lot of Bach and one piece each by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel. Pittel's own arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor revealed the imposing personal virtuosity of the foursome, although it rivaled the first movement of "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" in pitch problems.
The popular selections included medleys of Glenn Miller and Gershwin hits, in arrangements by Mark Watters that made very effective use of the instruments' wide range of color and articulation. A number of rags, some vaudeville tunes and "Stars and Stripes Forever" in encore, completed the agenda.
The four proved genial raconteurs in describing their coming-of-age experiences on the saxophone, and embedded in the humor was an exposition of the nature and technique of the instrument.
The byplay between whoever was speaking and the other three is typical of brass ensembles, as is the effort to vary stage appearance.
The Pittel Quartet began the second half with a procession up the aisles, wearing straw hats for the vaudeville numbers. All that was missing was peanuts and popcorn--or substantial repertory.