Friday, October 7, 2016, morning – A unique missionary journey and a saxophone takeover
Sometimes it is difficult to imagine a composer of art music being directly involved in mission work, but John R. Akins walked us through the exciting call he and his son, Christopher Akins, heard to go to Haiti through the Convoy of Hope. How timely, even as Haiti once again endures another season of rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew’s direct hit only days before we arrived in Mississippi! As it turned out, the Convoy of Hope has been operating an orphanage in Haiti since 2006. A now-famous picture caught one of the kids there, Johnny Mac, who was playing the drums with broken cymbals and crumbling drums. This inspired Convoy of Hope, with John’s and Christopher’s help, to send musical instruments to the orphanage, and then stay a while to teach the kids music. John combined American Christian and Caribbean folk music by writing “Cantique pour Dieu” loosely based on “Frère Jacques.” A video of the orphanage showed them singing this new song quite enthusiastically, accompanied by praise band plus congas and claves.
As John stayed in the Delmas section of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, he heard two roosters crow repeatedly. This inspired him to record their calls and many other ambient sounds around him, then weave them into a stunning piece of musique concrète entitled Les Coqs de Delmas, an artistic way to take us to that remarkable place. This work rides an ascending volley of light manipulations of these cockcrows to a dramatic climax that explodes into a couple of phrases of his “Cantique pour Dieu” as sung by the orphanage children.
Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone by Heather Savage, next on the program, led its performer, the renowned saxophonist Lawrence S. Gwozdz, to remark how the saxophone is the most represented instrument in this year’s CFAMC National Conference. And how well it is represented, too – there were several excellent works presented, including the Savage suite. Savage is stunningly resourceful with scant material. The first movement, Moderato, uses virtually only half-steps to climb up to a virtual mountaintop before plummeting down octaves to end peacefully. The next movement, Adagio, limits itself exclusively to whole steps. I was fully prepared to compare this movement with Claude Debussy’s famous Syrinx for flute solo, but, although the materials are similar and both pieces (along with the first movement) end on a Db, this is a very different experience. The closing Allegro caprice uses all the intervals, but it represents a culmination of the first two movements by featuring half-steps and tritones (three whole steps) prominently. It is exciting to see saxophonists requesting and obtaining more literature, and here now is a work that could easily fit in any senior saxophone recital very effectively. It is very difficult to believe that this marvelous suite is a student work; it displays a maturity well beyond its inspiration from a composition professor!
As if to underscore Gwozdz’ observation above, this recital concluded with Entartete Musik by David Horace Davies, the newly-installed president of CFAMC. Michael Kemp and Craig Young, alto saxophonists, presented this collage of styles of music forbidden by the Nazis with wonderful passion and polish. While all of us reveled at the flashy jazz and the sultry moments of Klezmer (the saxophone might well wrest this genre away from the clarinet!) we were also transported to profound melancholy periods low in their range as Kemp and Young alternated a dark melody in A minor with startlingly eerie tremolos, which, for me, formed a new experience with the saxophone. How refreshing it is for them to end so triumphantly, or, more accurately, simply stop their powerful ascent into heaven and let us imagine the rest!