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Sax player, concerto shine in Whitworth performance

If the mention of a university wind band concert brings to your mind the image of students struggling with their spit valves and slogging through “Oh, Danny Boy” and “Air on the G string” replete with split notes and late entries, then you were not in the audience on Sunday afternoon at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. If you had been on hand for the concert by the Whitworth University Wind Symphony, you would surely have retained the sounds and images of this gifted group of instrumentalists playing with a degree of style, precision and vitality to cause professionals to shake their heads in envy and disbelief.

All the pieces on the program were of high quality, demanding much of the players, and affording nothing but pleasure to the audience. They included an “American Overture” by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins, the “Danzon No. 2” of Arturo Marquez, Robert Russell Bennett’s “Suite of Old American Dances,” the deceptively innocuous-sounding “Suite No. 2 for Band” by Victoriano Valencia Rincon, and John Philip Sousa’s “March of the Northern Pines.”

All of these works are superbly crafted, but the undoubted crown jewel of the program was the world premiere of the Concerto for Alto Saxophone, Op. 123, by Michael E. Young, a professor emeritus of music at Whitworth.

The extraordinary importance of the Young concerto is owing both to the intrinsic merits of the piece, which are considerable, and to the excellence of its soloist, American saxophone virtuoso Lawrence Gwozdz (rhymes with “dodge”), whose mastery of the instrument cannot be overstated.

The aspect of the Young concerto that strikes one most immediately is its imaginative deployment of sonority. The Whitworth Wind Symphony employs a full complement of every orchestral choir except strings, save for the use of a single string bass. The concerto opens not with a full tutti, but with a hypnotic melody on the vibraharp, which recurs throughout the work. Gwozdz’s entry, as throughout the piece, stops one’s breath with not only its beauty of tone, but with its richness and variety of color. One is repeatedly struck by the appearance of some new instrument into the orchestral texture, only to find that the sound came from the bell of Gwozdz’s saxophone.

From this widely misunderstood instrument, Gwozdz teases the plaintive tone of the oboe, the penetrating warmth of the trumpet, melancholy burr of the bassoon – whatever sounds are called for to maximize the beauty and impact of the score. One cannot, in the narrow confines of a review, do justice to the beauties either of the Young concerto or of Gwozdz’s playing. Both demand to be heard widely and often.

In the remainder of the program, the vital energy of the ensemble was unflagging, plainly fueled by its director’s love of music and dedication to his players. Special notice must be given to clarinetists Grant Parker, for his work in the Marquez Danzon No. 2, and Lauren Freeman, for her spectacular solos in the Rincon Suite.

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