When Adolphe Sax first invented the instrument he's known for in 1840s Belgium, it's a sure bet he wasn't thinking of a John Coltrane or even a Kenny G. For much of its first century, the saxophone was used in brass bands and orchestras, and French composers wrote for the soprano-alto-tenor-baritone foursome in Sax's own time.
This quartet configuration was immortalized by master saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr. Born in Wuppertal, Germany, he moved to the U.S. before World War II. Almost single-handedly defining the classical use of the instrument in the 20th century, Raschèr also championed the development of overtones and the extension of the instrument's range to four octaves. Over 300 works have been dedicated to him by the likes of Philip Glass and Iannis Xenakis.
In 1969, Raschèr founded a saxophone quartet with his daughter, Carina, to encourage contemporary composition for the instrument. This experiment was so successful that the Quartet still exists today, several years after his death. Like Raschèr, current quartet members Kenneth Coon, Christine Rall, co-founder Bruce Weinberger and Elliott Riley are "early music" purists: playing the way Adolphe Sax intended.
"They use old Buescher horns from the early 20th century, with original mouthpieces," explains Pitt composition professor Mathew Rosenblum, whose Music on the Edge series hosts the group this week. "Their sound is very unique in that it has a warm, round blend to it, different than the modern Selmer [instruments] which have a sharper, harsher tone."
Besides a traditional Bach fugue and works by Charles Wuorinen and Hungarian composer Miklos Maros, the Quartet will reprise a work by Rosenblum called "Mobius Loop," which the group first performed here in 2002. "They premiered it as a concerto in Düsseldorf," recalls Rosenblum, "but then they asked me if I could write it in a quartet version."
In fact, Rosenblum is riding along for a three-city tour with the Raschèr Quartet, starting in Boston with that city's Modern Orchestra Project. Rosenblum is recording a disc of his works for New World Records featuring the B-MOP, the Raschèr, and a double concerto for baritone sax, percussion and orchestra.
So what can listeners who are mostly familiar with the sax in jazz or rock expect from an ensemble of this caliber, which a Vienna newspaper once called "the uncrowned kings of the saxophone"? "They're almost like a string quartet in terms of how accomplished they are as an ensemble," says Rosenblum.
"The new pieces they play are written especially for them, which includes a whole slew of European composers, though they seem to particularly love the Finnish. They don't play jazz, and they're not improvisers, but they're very close to the concept of an avant-garde New Music ensemble."
So leave those Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman discs at home -- there's a new "top brass" in town.
Raschèr Saxophone Quartet. 8 p.m. Wed., Jan. 24. Bellefield Auditorium, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. $10 ($15 at the door). 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org