A Year with Keuris’ Music for Saxophones

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We recently shared a performance of Tristan Keuris’s Music for Saxophones from the opening concert of the MANA Saxophone Institute 2019, held at San Jose State University (SJSU). The Institute concert was our season finale. In years past, the opening concert is usually a kind of “homecoming” concert for us, marking the completion of another quartet trip around the sun. This performance was very special to us because, at that point, in July 2019, we four had been together continuously for many weeks of international concerts—in addition to more than a dozen performances of the Keuris over the season. This performance was our last in this series of events and a culmination of the experiences we shared on the road. Prior to this point, it had been 10 years since MANA had performed Tristan Keuris’ masterwork. In our planning for that anniversary season, we four felt strongly that it was time to program it again. And when it became clear that the Mid-Atlantic Saxophone Institute would not be possible this year, due to a growing concern around COVID-19, the recording came to mind as a kind of poignant season summary.  

As musicians (and especially as saxophonists!) we often learn music quickly, perform it, and move on. This happens all the time! So often do we find ourselves wanting more time with one piece or another for musical and ensemble/personal growth, but it’s not always possible. Living with and performing a great musical work for an extended amount of time is actually quite a rare privilege. Each MANA season, in addition to many brand new works for saxophone quartet, we take the opportunity to present pieces that we are intimately familiar with through repeated performance. These are hefty, often musically dense, original works for the saxophone quartet: Glass, Glazunov, Xenakis, Sandström, Nørgård, etc. In 2018/19, Keuris was our “second half symphony.” There was always more to be done—more to consider—more to discuss—new lines of thought to digest. The opportunity to continuously explore such scores for a year is one of the most precious things about our quartet or any long term ensemble collaboration.

Looking back

In 2015, video of the world premiere surfaced online—an absolutely amazing artifact of saxophone history! The piece was commissioned with funds from the Dutch state for a premiere at the Dutch Music Festival of 1987 at Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw. It was the very first concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra, and MANY more followed. 

Accompanying the premiere video is a similarly wonderful interview with Keuris himself, in which he discusses the piece and the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet (RSQ), for whom the work is dedicated. Keuris speaks on just how much the experience of hearing the RSQ changed his view of the saxophone, and that their playing ultimately convinced him of the instrument’s legitimacy.

Keuris referred to the nearly 25-minute concerto as a “non-thematic work,” which, while accurate, might be a little misleading. His music is motivically driven, but never sterile or austere. Keuris was actually maligned throughout his career for being too commercialist, writing music that was considered by the establishment as cinematic or even—god forbid—tuneful! The progression of the piece’s well-defined sections is much like a traditional symphonic form, each section melodic and memorable. Doubly impressive, it exists in two published versions: the seminal Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, as well as a standalone quartet.  

In the midst of this shutdown, it is only human to reflect on what life had been like before and what had brought us together. For an entire year the Keuris’ Music for Saxophones played an indispensable role for us. We four can’t wait for the day when we will again be able to sit together and create sound, breathing the same air freely.

In the meantime, we’ll be posting videos of performances other value-add saxophone content to our YouTube channel, so please Subscribe and Enjoy!