Prism Quartet

By Sharon Smullen, Eagle Correspondent

WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Think of a classical music quartet and strings likely spring to mind — certainly not saxophones.

For 37 years, PRISM Quartet has put the single reed-powered brass instruments front and center stage; and on Saturday, Sept. 18, Close Encounters With Music brings them to TurnPark Art Space for an outdoor concert amid two dozen sculptures.

“PRISM Quartet is an astonishing, vibrant group of four saxophonists,” said Yehuda Hanani, cellist and Close Encounters artistic director. “They are superb, very fine musicians, [with] a varied repertoire with lots of contemporary composers.”

Their program, “Hit Parade,” includes works from Bach to present day, “mixing new and old music adapted by wonderful composers,” said Matthew Levy, the last original member still performing with the Philadelphia-based quartet. “These are some of our very favorite pieces that we love to play. It’s all very listenable and enjoyable.”

Levy, tenor, along with Timothy McAllister, soprano; Zachary Shemon, alto; and Taimur Sullivan, baritone, make up PRISM Quartet. 

“[Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom] made a gift to PRISM of ‘Schumann Bouquet,’ a beautiful adaptation from Robert Schumann’s piano book ‘Album for the Young,’” Levy said. “Bolcom has written many pieces for saxophone, so he really understands the sound world and lens.”

He added, that Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Pagine” (Pages) is an anthology derived from works by Bach, Scarlatti and Gershwin, while Michael Daugherty’s “Steamboat” is a “fun rollicking piece drawn from his tuba concerto, [with] strong jazz influence.”

“A saxophone quartet can blend in this incredibly homogenous way, like an organ, with resonating overtones,” Levy said. “It’s a journey; we’re always trying to find a little more beauty.”

Formed in 1984 by students of renowned University of Michigan saxophone teacher Donald Sinta, the ensemble “evolved very organically,” Levy said, with successful competitions, early management, and regional touring leading to national and international engagements.

“We self-present concerts in three states and produce our recordings on our own label. A whole infrastructure helps us realize our vision,” he said. “[Dating back to the 1840s,] you can find groups throughout the saxophone’s history. [As] more and more spring up, chamber music competitions are inundated with saxophone quartets, there’s been an explosion of interest.”

PRISM draws musicians from saxophone studies “mecca” University of Michigan, where performance practices help them blend into the quartet, Levy said. Current members are all 15-25 year ensemble veterans, who teach at Temple, Northwestern and Missouri universities. Soprano player McAllister replaced Sinta.

“Education is really core to our work,” Levy said.

They also have expanded saxophone quartet repertoire by commissioning some 300 pieces over the years.

“When we [started], most repertoire came from mid-20th-century French conservatory school. We wanted to develop works through collaborations with composers at different stages of their careers — master composers who’ve never written saxophone music, Pulitzer Prize-winners, students,” he said. 

This concert follows open-air park performances in Philadelphia and N.Y.C., their first since early 2020.

“Given the state of the world, I think playing outside is a good idea,” Levy said.

Audiences at TurnPark’s rustic stone amphitheater will sit on cushioned stone ledges, folding chairs, or their own lawn chairs.

“In addition to showcasing and adding to [our] own sculpture collection, one of the park’s objectives has been a complementary performance program,” said Alexander Zaretsky, special projects associate for TurnPark Art.

Past events range from classical music concerts by chamber groups and BSO musicians to dance, theater, comedy and film nights. Patrons can arrive early to view artworks.

“It’s exciting to welcome something new and different,” Zaretsky said. “The park is, to some extent, a blank canvas that we try to fill in.”

During lockdown, PRISM released five backlogged albums, with two more due this fall.

Close Encounters With Music also made the most of the pandemic pause.

“We did not miss a beat,” Hanani said. “We had six concerts in the Mahaiwe, sometimes with an entirely empty house, and everything was streamed to our audiences.”

The one bright spot, he said, “was we reached people far away, in Latin America and Europe.” Plans include streaming future concerts, including PRISM Quartet.

Close Encounters returned to in-person programming this summer with two outdoor performances at The Mount in Lenox.

Hanani describes the TurnPark event as “our Janus concert,” referencing the Roman god of transitions’ two faces — one looking back, the other forward. “It finishes our summer season and previews our next season at the same time.”

“The main thing is to keep going, it’s a whole new reality,” he said. “We’re being very optimistic: our slogan is ‘Music Undefeated!’”