Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Saxophones full of flint in Civic Music concert


PHOTO: Members of the New Century Saxophone Quartet are, from left, Chris Hemingway, Michael Stephenson, Drew Hays and Stephen Pollock, who was substituted for by Xin Gao in a concert of Brown County Civic Music Association.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The New Century Saxophone Quartet showed how adaptable the instrument is in a feisty concert Sunday afternoon, March 9, for Brown County Civic Music Association at Green Bay West High School’s Ralph Holter Auditorium. The performance (4½ stars out of 5) earned a standing ovation at the end.

The players were Drew Hays, baritone; Chris Hemingway, alto; Michael Stephenson, soprano; and Xin Gao, tenor, substituting for Stephen Pollock. The men dressed casually, in keeping with much of the fare they performed.



- Johann Sebastian Bach: “The Art of the Fugue,” three movements

- George Gershwin: Selections from “Porgy and Bess,” including “I Got Plenty ’o Nuthin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Summertime”

- Leonard Bernstein: Selections from “West Side Story,” including “I Feel Pretty,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Officer Krupke,” “America

- Jose Oliver Riojas: “Veracruz

- Robert Burns: “My Wife’s a Winsome Wee Thing,” “Bannocks O Bearmeal”

- Astor Piazzolla: “Bordel 1900”

- Jacques Press: “Wedding Dance”

- Glenn Haynes: “My Lord What a Morning”

- Dmitri Shostakovich: “Folk Dances”

- Encore: Gospel-rooted selection featuring Chris Hemingway


New Century Saxophone Quartet is at home in complex, interwoven takes on existing material. A piece becomes not just a reciting of a melody but a web of colorful music threads.

Its weakest section – to me it was dry – was its tip of the hat to Johann Sebastian Bach and his fugues. The playing didn’t add anything to Bach’s wondrously interlocking music. The sound was a step down from the original. The selection, in name only, gave deference to the musically typically heard on a program of the Brown County Civic Music Association. A minor grumble, considering the splashy playing the rest of the way.

Sections on “Porgy and Bess” and “West Side Story” were brim with melodic riches and spicy harmonics of the varied saxophone voices – the players bobbing and weaving, swooping and dancing on one leg or the other as they added oomph to a note, a passage or the final note, precisely met. 

In the second half, the quartet delightfully explored folk music of Mexico and Scotland to Argentina and Russia, with a hymn and a Hebrew wedding tossed in. It was fascinating hearing how the saxophone can be so many things in so many cultures. One of the interesting effects came in the midst of the Scottish section as – imitating a bagpipe – three players faced away from the audience and produced a single long, long, long wailing note as the soprano saxophonist played the high-pitched song. It was clever use of breathing technique.

Many of the pieces on the program expressed deep knowledge of what makes the saxophone tick and how its sound can be sculpted to vivid soundscapes. The work of the arrangers often dazzled.

REST OF SEASON: Paul Jacobs, organ, at Weidner Center, April 11; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, May 17; info: www.BCcivicmusic.org.

2014-2015 SEASON: Anthony Kearns, Irish tenor, Sept. 27; Red Priest, Nov. 7; Isthmus Brass Ensemble, Dec. 13; I Musici di Roma, March 21, 2015; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, May 9, 2015

THE VENUE: Ralph Holter Auditorium in Green Bay West High School for decades served as Green Bay’s main performance hall. Its overall look is of the Beaux Arts architectural style. The two-level, 1,500-seat hall features two massive Corinthian columns that bracket the proscenium stage, with wood-like beams set in the high ceiling and classical ornamentation in the balcony line, door frames and walls. Doors leading from the lobby to the hall echo those of a medieval castle. The acoustics are such that the highly intricate sounds of a group like the New Century Saxophone Quartet can easily carry throughout the hall without the assistance of microphone with no problem whatsoever. The history the hall and that of Brown County Civic Music Association goes hand-in-hand to 1927. The two have been responsible for a whole lot of culture.

THE PERSON: Ralph Holter spoke softly and carried a big impact. He was conductor of the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, which performed regularly in the hall that bears his name. Holter taught music at Green BayWest High School, in which the hall is located. He played violin and enjoyed playing in quartets with friends. He taught violin, and some of his students remember him warmly for his guidance. A pride and joy of Holter was the Dickens Village display of Victorian-era ceramics that he put up in his home.  

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

More Stories

Don't Miss

  • Movie Listings
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • High School Sports Xtra
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Local 5 Fish Fry Guide
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Latest News

Video Center