The piece will serve as the centerpiece of Kebyart’s ECHO Rising Stars concert programs being presented in 13 European countries between September 2021 and May 2022.
Formed in 2014, the Kebyart Ensemble is one of Europe’s most promising saxophone quartets. The group is making a name for itself on concert stages throughout Europe, and also records for the UK-based Linn Records label.
The ensemble’s name derives from kebyar, the gamelan music that is characterized by colors and dynamics. As the Kebyart Ensemble’s website states, “The unique virtuosity and energy of kebyar creates a kind of ecstasy in the Balinese community – emotions that the four saxophonists of the Kebyart Ensemble aim to bring to their audiences as well.”
The Kebyart Ensemble’s home base is in Basel, Switzerland, but the group has its roots in Barcelona, Spain, where its four members met and worked as fellow students. The four players, all of whom are Selmer Paris and Vandoren artists, include:
- Pere Méndez, soprano sax
- Victor Serra, alto sax
- Robert Seara, tenor sax
- Daniel Miguel, baritone sax
The Kebyart Ensemble’s growing stature was given a major boost when it was selected to be a 2021-22 ECHO Rising Stars performing arts organization. Thanks to this initiative of the European Concert Hall Organisation, musicians named as ECHO Rising Stars are given the opportunity to perform in some of Europe’s most famous auditoriums in such cities as Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, London, Paris, Stockholm and Vienna.
Between September 2021 and May 2022, the Kebyart musicians will be presenting programs that consist of original music for the saxophone (both classic repertoire and new creations), as well as arrangements of pieces originally written for other instruments.
The centerpiece of Kebyart’s programming is Florent Schmitt’s Quartet for Saxophones, Op. 102. Composed in 1941 for Marcel Mule’s saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire, Schmitt’s Quartet is universally acknowledged as a seminal work in the classical sax repertoire, as it represents a clear demarcation between it and works written previously for saxophone.
In the eight decades since Schmitt’s Quartet appeared, there have been countless newer classical works composed for solo saxophone and sax ensemble — and yet this piece retains its place within the very top ranks of compositions due to its quality of invention. As such, the piece is appreciated by musicians and audience members alike.
As the Kebyart Ensemble was finalizing preparations for its ECHO Rising Stars European tour, I had the opportunity to interview the four members about Florent Schmitt’s Quartet, its importance in the saxophone repertoire, and why they had decided to include the piece as part of their tour program. Highlights of our discussion, which was conducted in English, are presented below.
PLN: When was the Kebyart Ensemble formed? What was the inspiration behind its formation, and where is it based?
Víctor Serra: The Kebyart Ensemble was founded in 2014 in Barcelona. Our inspiration came when we attended a recital performed by a saxophone quartet, and in talking with each other afterwards we came to the decision that we wanted to establish one ourselves.
At first our modest goals were to experiment together, learn from each other, and discover new ways of playing the saxophone — not individually, but in chamber music. That initial inspiration has changed in some ways over the years due to our growth, new musical tastes and new contacts, but the desire to work as a team has always been there. If anything, it is stronger than ever today.
These days we are based in Basel, Switzerland, where we combine our professional performing activities with our music studies. This will be our fourth year attending the Hochschule für Musik where we are finishing our second Master’s degrees. It is one of the best educational institutions in Europe, where people of all nationalities come together to learn in a place that offers renowned instructors and very good facilities.
Going abroad to study has helped us grow artistically, work with new teachers and mentors, and experience new ways of teaching. It is also beneficial to be located in the center of Europe. Basel is very well-connected and also very convenient as a launching point for travelling to present concerts.
Being abroad has also enabled us to discover how people work in other countries — different customs and traditions that help us view life in a more objective way rather than just conditioned by our own home culture. Still, we continue to maintain a strong connection with Spain where we return to give concerts or masterclasses once a month.
PLN: How was the Kebyart Ensemble selected to be 2021-22 ECHO Rising Stars artists by the European Concert Hall Organisation?
Pere Méndez: We were selected as ECHO Rising Stars thanks to nominations by the Palau de la Música Catalana and l’Auditori de Barcelona. We have a fruitful relationship with these institutions, both of which are part of the European Concert Hall Organisation.
News of the award arrived in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — when we were receiving cancellations rather than bookings — and suddenly this gave us a very bright future! We consider this nomination a gift for which we will be forever grateful. In Spain as in other European countries, there is a great amount of musical talent, and many soloists and ensembles deserve this degree of recognition as well. Being well-aware of this, we plan to make the most of the opportunity we are fortunate to have been given.
PLN: As 2021-22 ECHO Rising Stars artists, you have the opportunity to play concerts all across Europe. How many concerts will you be playing – and where?
Daniel Miguel: We will play 17 concerts in the best halls in Europe — in places like the Philharmonie de Paris, Wiener Musikverein, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and the Palau de la Música Catalana, to name just some. We will perform in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Austria and Hungary.
We’ll also continue with other commitments that we already had on our agenda, including playing as soloists in the Philip Glass and David Maslanka saxophone concertos as well as performing in other concerts and music festivals. And we’ll record our second CD on the Linn Records label.
It will definitely be the busiest season of our careers so far.
PLN: The program you have selected for your concerts is an interesting mix of styles and eras. Florent Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet is a centerpiece of the program. Why did you decide to include that piece?
Robert Seara: We have always aimed to have an eclectic aspect to our programs, and we try to approach programming with that sense of creativity and openness.
In most of our concerts we seek a balance between three types of works: transcriptions of music from the past that we think is worth revisiting with saxophones; new music created by composers of current times; and finally, presentation of the classic repertoire for saxophone quartet.
Within the first group, we decided to open our programming with Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Following our exposure to the fantastic adaptation of Ensemble Squillante, we wanted to perform our personal vision of the piece.
We also liked the background of this particular music, since Pulcinella is essentially a ballet built from music of the 18th century (by composers such as Pergolesi, Gallo and Wassenaar) as seen through the neoclassical lens of the 20th century Stravinsky. At the time of its creation, one could say that it was a modern reading of the music of the past. Likewise for us, in our approach to the music of the past we like to think of the saxophone quartet formation as an “updated mouthpiece,” so to speak.
To pair with the Stravinsky, we thought the best choice within original sax repertoire would be Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet. As an article on the Florent Schmitt Website recounts so well, the two musicians maintained a beautiful friendship and mutual admiration for one another. For example, in the famous evening of the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps in Paris in 1913, the Frenchman Schmitt was one of the most energetic (and vociferous!) defenders of the Russian Stravinsky.
So, in that sense we thought it would be fitting to bring their music together on the same program. (Besides, after seven years of playing so much of the original saxophone quartet music, we’ve come to believe that Glazunov’s and Schmitt’s quartets are, without doubt, the best works written for saxophone ensemble during the first half of the 20th century.)
PLN: What special musical qualities does Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet possess that gives it the reputation it holds in the saxophone repertoire?
Daniel Miguel: First of all, it is an entire quartet piece — similar to the classical string quartet structure, with four contrasting movements. The saxophone quartet repertoire has only a few works like that. Second, it is the work of a renowned composer.
Add to this the complexity of Schmitt’s writing and the mixture of interesting styles inherent in the music, and it makes this piece a particularly important work for saxophonists.
Víctor Serra: I’d also add that the length of the Quartet distinguishes it from works of the same period, which may have some stylistic similarities but are much less robust in comparison. As Daniel states, Schmitt’s piece follows the canonical structure of string quartets. It includes the initial movement (which in this case does not follow sonata form), a second movement in the manner of a Scherzo, a slow third movement, and a final movement with a lively character and tempo.
The stylistic variety between movements and, at the same time, the compelling nature of each one of them individually, make it impossible for listeners to “disengage” at any moment when listening to the piece.
Robert Seara: As my colleagues have already pointed out, I think the thematic coherence between the four movements gives it a sense of unity that is noteworthy compared to other works of the period written for saxophone quartet.
Another aspect that makes the piece special is that it allows for a wide range of readings and interpretations. It’s the kind of music where both players and listeners can continually discover new details that they hadn’t noticed before. I think this is the kind of characteristic that elevates a work of art to something that’s truly great.
Pere Méndez: Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet is a work with a lot of personality. In a sense, it is its own unique world through which we can travel and discover new landscapes. There will be familiar things — but new and stimulating discoveries as well.
Here’s another interesting point: In many 20th century works, I think that the final movements of the pieces can be relatively weak in terms of their musical ideas. Not in Florent Schmitt’s case! With him, there’s always an intelligence that makes even the most simple or obvious themes sound very sophisticated.
PLN: What sort of technical difficulties does the Saxophone Quartet pose for individual players — and for the ensemble as a whole?
Daniel Miguel: For me, the complex textures of the music is the main difficulty as an ensemble. Individually and perhaps related to the same point, it is necessary to work on a wide dynamic range — especially the aural definition in the pianissimos.
Víctor Serra: In numerous places, the musical ideas that Schmitt uses go against the nature of the saxophone. One example is the accompaniment that includes a lot of busy activity that has to be played in pianissimo dynamics. There’s also his use of simultaneous textures of great density which makes it quite difficult to “hear” the main melody — but which at the same time have great musical significance and need to be interpreted in a very specific way. Sometimes it seems as if the music was intended to be played by a string quartet instead of a saxophone quartet; it isn’t at all idiomatic!
Robert Seara: The compositional thinking in the piece is complex and dense in many places in the score. On a structural level, in numerous passages different musical gestures follow one another in rapid succession — sometimes even overlapping. At the melodic level, the motifs are very rich and sophisticated. And as for the harmonic language, in some passages (particularly in the first movement), Schmitt absolutely stretches the limits of tonality.
These aspects of complexity make the music difficult to comprehend — especially for someone who is hearing it for the first time. For this reason, I think the most daunting interpretative challenge is to be as eloquent as possible — and to be able to present all of the intricacies in the most clear and convincing way so that listeners can better enter the sound-world of the piece.
Pere Méndez: In order to deliver a successful interpretation of Schmitt’s Quartet, you have to be almost like a chameleon — and completely flexible. Within the space of a split second sometimes, you need to shift from being solid but soft, to becoming a lyrical and extroverted singer.
We shouldn’t forget to mention that there are also some extremely complex rhythmic passages of three against two. How to keep the musical pattern alive in that environment is, in itself, a very difficult task!
PLN: I’d like to ask for your observations about each movement of the Saxophone Quartet. First, your thoughts about the opening movement – ‘avec une sage décision’ …
Daniel Miguel: That Avec une sage décision description remains a big mystery to me. What does it really mean? Is it ironic — or is it serious? In either case, it’s very clever how the composer deals in a fugue style with little sparkling gestures of the material which contrapose the theme — a theme that is built with tritones and fifths! The movement is simultaneously confusing and surprising, but in the end it succeeds magnificently.
Víctor Serra: Considering that this saxophone quartet is a somewhat Impressionistic piece, it’s curious that the piece begins with such a decidedly fugue-like subject; with forte dynamics and with various accents but also making use of very particular intervals — largely tritones. From my point of view, Schmitt could be playing games with listeners with this opening that might make them think of some kind of dodecaphonic series. But in reality — analyzing the chords that are created by joining the voices of each saxophone — the music is totally tonal, while making use of dissonances to add new colors in order to enrich the piece and place it stylistically in its own time.
Once this first movement has begun and with attentive listening, we can begin to discover all kinds of nuances and interactions that have gone unnoticed for too long, due to empty and too-literal interpretations of the musical notation without taking into account the wealth of ideas that the composer intends to transmit.
Robert Seara: What composer would ever think of beginning the first movement of a quartet with a fugue? And beyond that, a structurally unpolluted fugue! First, we have an exposition with a subject and its tonal response that then interacts with the countersubject. This is followed by an episode that separates the following subject-countersubject entrance, and then a musical development that employs techniques such as inversion, fragmentation, retrogradation — and finally, a last section with false entrances and stretti that leads to a cadential coda that resolves in a major mode!
Structurally, Bach could perfectly well have created such a fugue. But as my colleagues point out, Florent Schmitt’s intervallic and harmonic material has such an incredibly unique personality, it elevates it to a completely different league.
From my point of view, opening the Quartet like this is an ironic statement by the composer — reflecting a personality that Schmitt’s biographer Catherine Lorent described as “a man with a caustic spirit, and a composer who will use humor throughout his life.”
Pere Méndez: We’ve questioned ourselves often about how best to approach the interpretation of this first movement. It is of an extroverted character — almost militaristic — based on a preterite fugal form. But on top this we have an indication in the score that engenders confusion (fugue ou presque).
What exactly would Schmitt want to tell us with this statement?
One possible answer is to consider that this “presque” is for the brief interludes between these more “militaristic” parts — but who really knows? Again, it’s Schmitt playing with us, and probably having the time of his life doing so!
A further riddle is the tonal center of the piece. Bear in mind that the piece is ostensibly in E minor, but there are very few tonal centers; the overwriting of the fugue and its counterpoints makes any tonal perception of the piece difficult to discern, and it can all be quite disconcerting in a first audition.
PLN: Turning to the second movement ‘vif’ – any particular feelings to share about the musical qualities of this one?
Daniel Miguel: In my opinion, the second movement is all about fantastic creatures. After a rather jazzy opening, the rhythmic patterns in the accompaniment make the beautiful and exotic melodies float.
Víctor Serra: It is a very suggestive movement that’s in complete contrast to the first movement. This Vif is full of life as its title indicates, but it does so in a particularly intriguing way. There is this fascinating dialogue between the three upper voices and the baritone saxophone, which fills in the temporary spaces left by the other three voices.
Moreover, there is no clear melody; rather, it is a constantly moving texture that comes and goes but never stays still. The composer’s use of hemiolas throughout this movement is quite remarkable. For example, in Un peu moins vite, the alto saxophone melody can be thought of in 2/4 time while the other three voices are in 3/4 time. Schmitt doesn’t intend to make this resource evident at all and does so in an elegant way, with a moto perpetuo accompaniment and a melody full of intervals with very singular colors — all four voices having pianissimo dynamics and which leave the hemiola in the background. It causes this movement to flow in a remarkably fluid way, and with clear Impressionistic touches.
Robert Seara: In my view, the musical atmosphere of the second movement doesn’t belong to the real world — nor does it speak of human and earthly emotions. Instead, it transports us to a kind of “unreal universe” of fantasy. The repeated use of augmented and diminished chords within the complex rhythmic framework generates a feeling of weightlessness that seems more typical of a dream-world. I think of this movement as a small reverie, in fact.
Pere Méndez: As my colleagues might say, it is oneiric music. Too often, saxophone players give too much importance to the rhythmic aspects, but with a dreamlike approach this movement achieves another dimension — everything is floating until the final bar. As in Impressionism, nothing is completely clear; the day is not bright and a bridge is not clearly a bridge. This is why I advocate interpreting this movement in a manner that’s based on a sense of the “indeterminate.”
PLN: The slow movement ‘assez lent’ is of a very different character – how would you describe it?
Daniel Miguel: I really love this movement, which is very emotional and undoubtedly the most Impressionistic one of all. Schmitt works with these “2 vs. 3” metrics to make us connect with the music. Again, the result is floating melodies with no defined sense of pulse.
Víctor Serra: This movement raises rhythmic doubt from the very beginning. The ostinato of the baritone saxophone completely contrasts with the clear 4/4 time signature of the rest of the voices. It’s very interesting how the composer uses all possible combinations of saxophone voicings to achieve completely different textures within a single movement. These range from homophonic to accompanied melody, from voices moving in parallel to super-complex and dense accompaniments. In the process, it elevates this movement far above any other slow movement written for saxophone quartet.
On a rhythmic level, we should also mention Schmitt’s interest in the “clash” between voices when they possess values with different subdivisions — for example, four sixteenth notes against an eighth note triplet, or a syncopation against a quarter note triplet. These are just two examples — and this movement is full of them — employed by the composer in order to blur the harmonies and at the same time give the music a very original texture.
Robert Seara: I feel that Assez lent is built on a great musical arc that spans the whole movement. It begins with an impassible ostinato of the baritone saxophone, then builds to an ecstatic climax, and finally dissolves into a liberating F-sharp major chord.
To me, it presents a very interesting parallel to the Passacaille of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio (also a third movement), which likewise develops from a bass motif that, implicitly or explicitly, will be present throughout the movement until the music dies away at the end.
Pere Méndez: I like to think of this movement as something that comes from far away, finally reaches you, and then dissipates as if it never existed. It’s a beautiful example of writing for saxophones — full of stimulating melodies and extraordinary sonorities.
PLN: The final ‘anime sans excès’ takes us on an interesting journey. What do you find particularly memorable about this movement?
Daniel Miguel: Let’s start by saying that it’s a savage movement for saxophone players! The middle section is quite a nightmare for the alto saxophone in particular. Tons of notes — and in the end the four saxophones join in fast and crazy passages. It’s a difficult movement to bring off successfully, but definitely the best sort of way to end the piece.
Víctor Serra: This final movement is probably the most varied one of the four. It’s thanks to these contrasts that the formal structure in the A-B-A form becomes clear. Throughout, each of the four saxophones has moments of prominence, along with being forced to play all sorts of roles in the construction of the whole within the texture.
The indication Animé sans excès is a clear declaration of intent on the part of the composer who, despite the fact that this is a concluding movement written for four saxophones, doesn’t want to forego delicacy and elegance. On numerous occasions the writing forces the players to pass from one extreme to the complete opposite, as if it were a spell or an illusion.
This is the movement that is most clearly intended to showcase the virtuosity of the performers — but in fact every one of the Quartet‘s four movements requires musicians to exhibit a wide variety of skills — and virtuosity everywhere.
Robert Seara: In French music of this era, it was quite common to end pieces with a folkloric fast movement that sometimes lacked much in the way of musical depth. This is most certainly not the case with this Anime sans excès. Although Schmitt draws on dance influences, he manages to detach himself from any superficialities — instead offering us rich, vibrant music that journeys through a myriad of musical effects.
On top of all this, Schmitt reemploys the motifs and intervals of the previous movements in a camouflaged way. In this manner, the close of the work maintains a coherence that gives it an an unusual degree of artistic unity and integrity.
Pere Méndez: This movement also illustrates an extraordinary trait of Florent Schmitt — his ability to be popular but at the same time sophisticated. I am amazed at the fact that he worked so meticulously on each of the instrument voices – some of them with nearly inaudible dynamics. It’s an achievement that’s rarely been matched by other composers.
PLN: Do each of you have a “favorite” moment within the Saxophone Quartet?
Daniel Miguel: The ending of the third movement is my favorite moment. After all the emotion, an ascending melody is shared by the saxophones and ends in a peaceful F# major chord that sounds round and full of harmonics.
Víctor Serra: For me there are two very special moments in this work. The first is when the alto saxophone “sings” the melody in the second movement; after all the busy activity generated in the opening bars, the arrival at this solo is as if time suddenly stops to give way to a timeless — even surreal — event. What’s also wonderful about this moment is the intimate atmosphere that is created, requiring all four voices to be in pianissimo dynamics and leaving the audience with a sense of surprise and wonder at the incredible textures created by the four unified voices.
I also love it when, in the fourth movement, Schmitt paints in Spanish nationalistic colors — for example in rehearsal numbers 1 and 2, as a result of the sum of voices that gradually appear until the four saxophones come together. The composer accomplishes this in a very subtle, homophonic and elegant way.
Those are a couple special moments, but throughout the piece Schmitt utilizes all sorts of compositional tricks, and with careful listening one could perceive an infinite number of details. Truly, Florent Schmitt spared nothing in the way of ideas when he composed this work.
Robert Seara: For me, I find the transition between the first and second sections of the slow movement to be especially beautiful. At rehearsal number 4, Schmitt splits the first notes of the initial ostinato between the baritone and tenor sax, resulting in a new motif of three ascending notes in the baritone. This new motif is precisely the one that starts the melody of the alto saxophone from rehearsal number 5, which will intensify until it reaches the climax at rehearsal number 7. It’s a brilliant idea of the composer, who in this manner connects both sections in an almost imperceptible way. The initial ostinato is still present in the second section, but concealed. It’s masterful.
Pere Méndez: I particularly enjoy playing the third movement. In fact, I wish there were more pieces with its very special musical language in the saxophone quartet repertoire.
PLN: How long has the Kebyart Ensemble had Florent Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet in its repertoire?
Víctor Serra: The first time we performed the piece was in 2015. It was the second year of our ensemble and we wanted to work on an original piece for saxophone quartet. At the time we also listened to the Alfred Desenclos Saxophone Quartet. After comparing the two works, we decided by vote to work on Schmitt’s piece. During the 2015-16 season we played it in several concerts in Spain — Catalonia, Valencia, and at the Roman theatre of Baelo Claudia in Andalusia.
We also played the piece in several competitions, such as the 84th Permanent Chamber Music Competition of Juventudes Musicales de España where we obtained Second Prize, and the 12th Chamber Music Prize Montserrat Alavedra – Music Prize BBVA where we won First Prize.
Following those competitions, we had not performed it again until we put together the program for the ECHO Rising Stars tour that we’ll be presenting all over Europe.
PLN: What is the background of the musicians who make up the Kebyart Ensemble? How and where did you meet?
Daniel Miguel: All four of us were studying Bachelor in Performance – Classical Saxophone at Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (ESMUC), in Barcelona. Surprisingly, Victor and Robert had attended the same elementary school — but they didn’t realize this until they saw old school photos that their parents had kept!
Pere and I knew each other before, too. But studying together in Nacho Gascon‘s class, we decided to start a saxophone quartet project not only for the chamber music credits, but also as a way to share the passion of playing with others and learning together.
We started with modest goals — first performing a concert outside the University, then participating in a small competition. We received good feedback from those early efforts, and the positive results continued to make our venture initiative grow bigger and bigger.
Today after eight years, the passion has not dimmed and the Kebyart Quartet is making a name for itself on the European scene after presenting more than 200 concerts and earning ten international prizes.
PLN: What are the future plans of the Kebyart Ensemble, following the completion of your ECHO Rising Stars touring?
Pere Méndez: Our goal is straightforward: to continue growing as a chamber group and consequently as musicians. We hope to become more international in our touring activities and to continue discovering and exploring repertoire — as well as commissioning new works from noted living composers to help generate a legacy for our generation and beyond.
PLN: As we wrap up, are there any additional thoughts you would like to share about Florent Schmitt’s music and its place in the saxophone repertoire – or within classical music in general?
Robert Seara: As a relatively new instrument, the saxophone is still shaping its repertoire. Although nearly two centuries have passed since its invention by Adolphe Sax, the relatively small number of works that have been written for the instrument as either solo or chamber music are subject to the filter of time. Time will determine which music will live on versus falling into semi-oblivion.
For us, it is clear that Florent Schmitt’s works for saxophone (both his Légende Op. 66 and his Quartet for Saxophones Op. 102) will always remain cornerstones of the literature for the instrument. This is due to the undeniable quality of the music; both pieces are treasures that compel saxophonists to study, learn, play and program them again and again.
Lastly, like any other artistic creation, Florent Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet is a reflection of an era and a time gone by. In 1941, in the midst of the conflagration that was World War II, the history of music was taking its course. Dmitri Shostakovich was writing his Leningrad Symphony, Olivier Messiaen was premiering his Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a Nazi prison camp with other imprisoned musicians, and Florent Schmitt was secluded away at his country retreat in the Haute-Pyrénées, finishing work on his Saxophone Quartet — a piece that remains a unique and memorable composition to this day.
When interpreting this piece and performing it for audiences, we like to think that we’re revisiting and reliving a little piece of the past — from the perspective of one of the most exceptional composers of the 20th century.
With Florent Schmitt’s Quartet for Saxophones and the other interesting repertoire that the Kebyart Ensemble has chosen for its programming, its upcoming performances are sure to resonate with audiences. Here’s hoping that the Ensemble’s ECHO Rising Stars European concert tour will be a great success in every respect.