North America
REVIEW: Calefax Reed Quintet – Coffee Concert (Brighton Dome/Corn Exchange)

It’s the year of Adolphe Sax’s double centenary and still in Britain, classical music fans remain slow to absorb the saxophone into their aural receptivity. But it’s slowly happening. And one of the reasons in the coming years will be Calefax Reed Quintet.

Anyone at the October Worthing Symphony Orchestra concert encountered Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto and had their eyes opened, not only to the fun and excitement of its sound and expressiveness, but will have realised they were listening to a Concerto played merely by the sister of the clarinet. Calefax on Sunday helped those listeners make a leap.

Those people under 70 having grown up with rock and pop culture have no difficulties but there’s an anti-jazz sentiment slowly breaking down in classical loving hearts of the older generation. Someone unengaged by big band dance music or by, say, post-war jazz improvisation, will have heard a saxophone in Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony and been satisfied it was a parody or caricature.

But what about its overtly sensuous use by Ravel in Bolero? Many will not have realised a saxophone was what they were listening to. Or the puritan in them may have refused to acknowledge its aptness. Calefax were ready to entrance those who do enjoy the sax as one of their favourite Bolero sounds.

The Coffee Concerts audience around seven years ago will have undergone a Damascus event had they heard Acoustic Triangle’s ravishing two sets at The Old Market. Tim Garland playing soprano saxophone and bass clarinet will have been a startling and compelling revelation. Now came Calefax Reed Quintet.

There were staid lovers of string quartet sound staying away from Sunday at the Corn Exchange. It’s their chamber music preference. Wind music’s not their taste. No Mozart Serenade combinations, no quartets of saxophones or clarinets, please. None of those people will have heard and been startled and profoundly moved by the Hilliard Ensemble’s sublime use of an improvised soprano saxophone in unaccompanied Spanish sacred vocal music. In this, the instrument materialises to take its place in aural context with the jaw-dropping impact of a visitation by the Angel Gabriel.

Calefax Reed Quintet’s unique line-up has innovated a new instrumental genre of oboe/cor anglais and clarinet, soprano/alto saxophone, the bass clarinet, plus bassoon. Saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, who also plays acoustic guitar, but was shown pop sax by his father, told me Calefax was formed exactly 29 years ago by “The brats in the back row of the orchestra at Baraeus Gymnasium High School in Amsterdam”.

For 18 years, their line-up has stayed intact. A German record label, not an English-speaking one, gave them their break, and much like the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in the 1970s, they have spawned dozens of imitators across the world. Those two ‘Tim Garland instruments’ have elevated Calefax into a new sphere of expressive power and range that has to be heard to be believed. They had to generate their own repertoire and re-clothing existing music formed the bulk of that. Already they are 17 CDs towards establishment and admiration.

So, into the round on Sunday stepped five Dutchmen, all in suits, none formal black, none in the same coloured shoes, one (the saxophonist − and why not?) in an up-front charcoal pinstripe, and the two playing the longest instruments both tall as basketball players.

From their first intake of breath, their concert was a complete knock-out. The saxophones completely integrated and blended. And the music combined tightly-harnessed energy and verve with beautiful subtlety and nerve-tingling sounds textures.

Bach arranged for solo organ a Vivaldi Concerto for two fiddles and a cello. Here was their own arrangement. Gentle smiles and wide eyes appeared across the audience. In post-Renaissance Spain, Sebastian Aguilera de Heredia wrote Ensalada and bass clarinettist Jelte Althuis’ arrangement brought to life a canzone-style piece including a section unleashing the rawness of shawms and rackets. Even readier smiles gave way to chuckles across the listening faces.

Next a Mozart piece for Mechanical Organ. Late Mozart (K608) but a reluctant workaday composition, yet what Calefax did with it elevated it into the realms of a new Mozart Wind Serenade. After which their delivery of Beethoven’s crackling virtuoso piano variations on God Save The King was a steamy show-stopper.

Cheered into the interval, they returned to stun the Corn Exchange even deeper. Now into 20th Century music, Calefax’s four of Ravel’s six Le Tombeau de Couperin pieces took the event onto an even higher plane of virtuosity and involvement, and the final plateau attained was through Gershwin’s An American In Paris. Blue notes now very present, and the alto sax’s version of the most familiar theme was, if anything upstaged by its initial appearance on cor anglais.

Classical jazz territory attained with the audience right there with them.

The encore was Tchaikowsky’s Overture to The Nutcracker. Not a cheap, sleazed-up version of some great Tchaikowsky syncopations but a genuine development with integrity of arguably the jazz and vigour already there in the music. The Calefax Reed Quintet work with choreographers and animators so this version, knowing Dutch modern dance, may already be in a company’s special repertoire.

To call this Coffee Concert a winner is the understatement of the season.

Richard Amey, Bognor Regis Observer
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