All sax, all the time, with The Asylum Quartet



This weekend, music fans will get to kick some musical brass at the First Congregational Church in Southington.

The Asylum Quartet, which features four saxophones, plays a variety of music from classical to indie rock. And they take the stage on Saturday.

We caught up with the Hartt School of Music alumni via email to talk about the group—which is Joseph Abad on soprano saxophone, Tony Speranza on alto saxophone, Max Schwimmer on tenor saxophone, and Andrew Barnhart on baritone saxophone.

OBSERVER: First of all, in more general terms, what is it that you like about the sound of the saxophone family?

ANDREW: We love the range and flexibility of the saxophone. When Adolphe Sax set out to create a new instrument in the mid-19th century, he aimed to combine the finesse and delicacy of a woodwind instrument (clarinets, oboes) with the power and bravado of a brass instrument (trumpet, trombone). The result was the saxophone, which, to this day, accomplishes both of these things. Above all, the sound of the instrument is incredibly flexible; it is used in contexts ranging from lush symphonic music (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Ravel’s Bolero), to funk music like Tower of Power. We try to take full advantage of this flexibility to harness the saxophone’s expressive potential.

O: What do you like about the sound of the saxophone family more particularly in a classical music context?

A: Due to the flexible nature of the saxophone, our ensemble can emulate the sounds of many other standard chamber music ensembles; string quartets, brass quintets, and even choruses. The saxophone quartet has a very unified sound, as all of the instruments are so closely related, but each voice has its own unique qualities. Soprano saxophone is often compared to a violin or a flute, while baritone saxophone can be reminiscent of a cello or a bassoon. While many audiences might not associate saxophones with classical music, the saxophone quartet is a very popular ensemble among many contemporary composers.

O: You four are all young musicians. How do you try to inject your youthful energy into your repertoire?

TONY: We love to preface each piece by speaking of its back story and our personal connection with it. But aside from that, we aim for a repertoire that is expansive—performing pieces written recently and pieces written some time ago—and try to let the entire program speak for itself.

O: Speaking of repertoire, do you try to stick with music specifically written for the saxophone quartet or do you shape the compositions to your configuration? And how do you handle the arrangements for your performances?

MAX: Our repertoire is a mix of pieces that have been written for saxophone quartet, and others originally intended for another instrument or group of instruments. Sometimes we use existing published arrangements, and sometimes we have to create arrangements ourselves. For example, last fall, we fell in love with the music of Ljova, a composer based in New York City. He had never written for saxophones, and no one had ever arranged his music for our instrument, so we adapted one of his string quartet works – the Vjola Suite – for our ensemble. We’re excited to share this piece in Southington.

O: Talk to me a little bit about the music you perform. First of all, what criteria do you use to decide, “Hmmm, this is a perfect piece for Asylum Quartet.” What pieces are likely to show up and what do you like about those selections?

M: We look for pieces that are enjoyable, virtuosic, and well-written. Right now, we tend to gravitate towards works that show a variety of influences. At our concert in Southington, you’ll hear musical references ranging from Radiohead, Elliott Smith, and Django Reinhardt to Indian raga, Cuban songs, and Turkish folk songs. We love presenting these diverse selections because they offer so many possibilities for musical expression.

O: The evening is billed as a conversation as well as a concert. What do you talk to the audience about and what kind of questions do you get in the Q&A?

JOEY: We love sharing our experiences with other musicians (past, present, and future) and love being able to evoke—and create—memories.  As outreach artists for Musical Masterworks in the Old Lyme area, we had the tremendous opportunity to answer questions from kindergartners to eighth grade students—all of which were perceptive, inquisitive, and extremely varied.  Questions range from how much air it takes to get a saxophone to work, to how heavy or light the instruments are, and how we come up with our programming. We love talking shop and revealing our process as musicians. It’s an inseparable part of our lives that we aim to share.

O: When the evening is done, and you take your final bow, how do you want audiences to feel about what they have heard that night?

T: We really want them to feel musically satisfied, inspired, and blown away by something they’ve never heard before.

The Asylum Quartet plays the First Congregational Church, 37 Main St., Southington on Saturday, Jan. 24 at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $8 at the door. Doors will open at 2:30 p.m.

The Asylum Quartet performs Saturday at Southington’s First Congregational Church at 3 p.m. in the Peace Cafe.

The Asylum Quartet performs Saturday at Southington’s First Congregational Church at 3 p.m. in the Peace Cafe.

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