One recent performance by the Eastman Saxophone Project (ESP), a transcription by Dannel Espinoza of the Rite of Spring, has recently gone viral on YouTube with over 11,000 views in two days.* Thirteen saxophonists along with five percussionists join together to interpret this Stravinsky masterpiece in a riveting performance dedicated to making century-old music in a new way à la timbre of the saxophone. The execution is compelling, the memorization shocking, the interpretation rampant and unrestrained. No longer a ballet nor orchestral work, Espinoza has effectively transformed the Rite of Spring into chamber music. Such a charismatically executed performance speaks volumes concerning the state of the modern affairs of the saxophone—an adaptable instrument demonstrating a capability for authentic recognition in most Western musical settings.
Perhaps today, the response to this rendition remains comparable to the premiere of the work and the uproar caused by the Parisian audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. In that commotion, the tradition-embracing aristocratic elite found much to differ with in the enthusiastic position of the bohemian revolutionaries also in attendance (paraphrase of the Wikipedia entry on the subject). The conflict between the groups eventually directed its way towards the stage and while Steven Walsh contends that such outbursts were “targeted as much at Nizhinsky (whose choreography of Debussy’s Jeux two weeks earlier had been disliked),” (quote found in the Grove Music Stravinsky bio) the music made a primordial exhibition of the angular accent placed over ostinato phrasing.
One hundred years later I find myself pitted against a posh musical milieu interested in revering the past by performing chic saxophone arrangements of Bach, Handel, Khachaturian, and Stravinsky; ESP is certainly not the first to do this although they may be among the most talented to realize it. In my experience such concerts often receive enthusiastic audience approval, but what does such a performance truly accomplish? Rather than proposing original repertoire that builds on the standards of great musical predecessors, these musicians choose to bask alongside those same whitewashed cadavers and blinding legacies of tradition. History will not remember such parasitic endeavors! The reward for such a performance finds its full and fleeting weight in thumbs-up YouTube votes and friendly backslaps found in a far too often innocent and undemanding public.
No, the solution for the concert saxophonist cannot nestle in the repertoire and history of other instruments, but rather must embrace its own reality and potential in classical music. Saxophonists accomplish nothing by ogling at outlying performance settings and glorifying the history of a genre not their own; an inherently versatile instrument does not necessarily merit its exploitation into every possible performance situation. Such musical masturbation may be useful as a learning tool as I imagine ESP saxophonists now know the Rite of Spring better than most orchestral musicians, but the end result still leaves me yearning for the real thing.
*Since the publication of this article, Boosey & Hawkes music publishers has eliminated the video from YouTube on grounds of copyright infraction.