On 22 September the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a gala concert in Freiburg. This is a sample of their versatility, with works by such diverse composers as Bach, Xenakis and Auerbach, and with the collaboration of a choir and a chamber orchestra. The concert is dedicated to baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon, who died last May. I interviewed the Dutch tenor saxophonist Andreas van Zoelen, who joined the quartet five years ago.
Wish come true
In 1969 alto saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001) ended his solo career and founded the saxophone quartet named after him. Although the New York Saxophone Quartet Club was already active in the nineteenth century (1873-1885), this type of ensemble was far from self-evident. For a long time the instrument was mainly associated with jazz and Raschèr had fought tirelessly for acceptance of the saxophone in the classical music world. With the founding of his quartet a long cherished wish came true.
Members of the first hour were Raschèr’s daughter Carina (soprano saxophone) and two of his students: Bruce Weinberger, (tenor) and Linda Bangs (baritone). The ensemble quickly gained fame through its adventurous programming and collaborations with orchestras and even choirs. Once again, Raschèr was doing pioneering work. As the repertoire for the saxophone quartet consisted mainly of arrangements, he bombarded friendly composers with requests for new pieces.
New ensemble, new repertoire
‘Now there are about four hundred of them,’ says Andreas van Zoelen, who succeeded Bruce Weinberger as tenor saxophonist in 2014. Many of these compositions are now among the cornerstones of the repertoire, such as XAS by Iannis Xenakis and the quartets by Tristan Keuris and Philip Glass. He considers it a great honour to follow in the footsteps of the last co-founder: ‘Bruce was full of ideas and constantly came up with different repertoire combinations, for which he succeeded to engage such greats as Luciano Berio’.
For Van Zoelen, these interrelationships largely determine the attraction of the Raschèr. ‘Recently we played Music for Saxophones by Tristan Keuris with the Badische Staatskapelle. In the combination of quartet and orchestra I find this piece the absolute highlight, because of its incredible eloquence, depth and colour. But also Water Music by Brett Dean is fantastic, because Dean asks us to explore our limits.’
The latter is also an essential characteristic of the quartet: ‘Thanks to Adolphe Sax’ design strategy, our instrument has an immense range of possibilities. We see it as our task to fully explore this, together with the composer. As performers, we are the connection between the spiritual world in which he or she conceives the work and the audience, who get to experience a completely new landscape of sounds and colours. However, we are averse to empty virtuoso display, it is always about the content, which is why we choose our composers carefully.
This certainly applies to the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973), who in 2016 composed the full-length 72 Angels for the Raschèr and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Van Zoelen: ‘The premiere in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam was one of the most profound experiences of my career. We have performed the piece many times since then and recorded it on CD last February.’
He finds it difficult to explain what precisely moves him so deeply and rather quotes Auerbach’s words from an interview I had with her for this blog. ‘She called it “a long, intense prayer of passion and hope” and said that “a saxophone quartet can ignite the fire, but at the same time can transcend its flame”. For me, that’s exactly what lies at the heart of this work.’
In addition to the special repertoire, Van Zoelen also praises the distinctive sound of the Raschèr. ‘We play on Buescher saxophones from the 1930s. Characteristic is the mouthpiece which, with its so-called ‘large chamber’, differs substantially from modern examples. In combination with the specific construction of these old instruments, this results in a sound that is faithful to the original intentions of Adolphe Sax.’
‘With his self-designed instrument Sax wanted to bridge the gap between the strings and wind instruments of a symphony orchestra, but also between the wood and brass instruments of a military marching band. This chameleonic character explains its overwhelming richness of colour.’
For Van Zoelen this pertains especially to the altissimo register, in which tones are played that are considerably higher than would be possible with the usual grip technique. ‘These are realized by a form of overblowing, using the natural overtones of the tube,’ he explains. ‘Sigurd Raschèr, pioneer of the classical saxophone and founder of our quartet, continued to elaborate on this technique, but even Adolphe Sax himself already managed to conjure up almost four octaves from his instrument!’
Demise of Kenneth Coon
The fiftieth anniversary is overshadowed by the absence of baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon (1967-2019), who succumbed to cancer after months of struggle. However, there is no question of stopping, says Van Zoelen. ‘When we recorded the CD with 72 Angels, Ken was already seriously ill, and we asked Oscar Trompenaars to play the baritone part.’
All planned concerts were performed with various replacements, for the three musicians didn’t want to make a hasty decision about Coon’s succession. ‘It was all too fresh for that’, says Van Zoelen, ‘but after ample consideration we have decided to invite Oscar to take his place in our quartet. – Which will be fifty percent Dutch from now on.’
Coon had emphatically asked his colleagues to continue playing after his death. ‘The last thing he said to me was: “Stay upright!”. – We have taken this to heart, and will dedicate our new CD to honour his memory.’