In the 19th century, the saxophone enjoyed a brief heyday as the orchestra's latest oddity and then faded from view. Now it seems that few contemporary composers can resist its sounds -- its trick effects produced by overblowing, its ability to pierce the air with a sudden cry. According even more appeal to classical music's once-abandoned stepchild are performers like classical saxophonist Gary Louie, who gave a recital with pianist William Bloomquist Sunday at the Phillips Collection.
Some composers, such as William Bolcom, view the saxophone as a vehicle for transforming music into dramatic essay. In a blatantly programmatic way, Bolcom's "Lilith" delivers what its movement titles promise: seduction, aggression and child-stealing. As the piece's direct, almost Gothic terror reached its nerve-shattering climax, Louie turned his back to the audience and positioned the bell of the saxophone against the piano lid so that the young victims' "screams" seemed to echo from far away.
A character piece in a more classical vein was Milhaud's "Scaramouche," depicting a gentle, almost sentimental side to the stock buffoon of commedia dell'arte. Here, as well as in Louie's masterful transcriptions of five Debussy preludes, the saxophone soared into realms where it seemed to embody, not merely represent, the dramatic subjects.
The afternoon's most outrageously romantic offering, Paul Creston's Sonata, received a powerful reading. The piece's charming Gershwinesque melodies spiraled forth clearly. Bloomquist, an equal partner throughout the afternoon, contributed to an exquisitely balanced interpretation.