COLUMBIA — During a week when many students left Columbia for spring break, four students from the Eastman School of Music packed their saxophones into a 2002 red Mazda Protégé to make the 900-mile drive to town from Rochester, N.Y.
The group, which calls itself the Red Line Saxophone Quartet, is one of 26 ensembles that have come to Columbia for the Plowman Chamber Music Competition. The groups represent 20 universities and music conservatories such as Juilliard, Rice and Yale and come from as far as Michigan, Florida, Texas, California and the East Coast.
The annual contest, which started in 2006, is a tribute to Janice Plowman, a frequent supporter of the arts who willed the Missouri Symphony Society a sizeable amount of money to support its mission of building the Columbia arts community. The contest helps emerging professional chamber ensembles’ artistic development and encourages careers in chamber music.
“Plowman is one of the big three or four chamber music competitions,” said Doug O’Connor, soprano saxophone player for the Red Line quartet. Red Line, one of four Eastman ensembles at the competition, said the experience makes the long drive worthwhile.
“Personally you want to do your best, but it’s a fun experience driving out here with these knuckleheads, meeting new people and listening to great musicians,” said Quin Lewis, Red Line’s baritone sax player.
During the second two-hour rehearsal on Friday, the quartet moved between an informal looseness and intensity in the blink of an eye. The group admitted its rehearsal style differs from some.
“We swear a lot while practicing,” said O’Connor. “We do it because we think we are funny. It’s like comedians. They swear a lot because it’s funny.”
The quartet went over a transition it had practiced hundreds of times before, unsatisfied with its level of precision. When it finally played the section to its lofty standards, O’Connor and alto player Brandon Kies exchanged approving nods while still playing and swaying with the melodic lines.
The quartet members, who added O’Connor on soprano sax only two months earlier, play music by memory and know the others’ parts and tendencies so well that at one point Kies accidentally started playing Lewis’s part.
“I played your part!” Kies laughed. “That’s messed up.”
The Plowman contest continues to grow and evolve.
“The most significant change since 2006 is the two-category system,” said Ayako Tsuruta, artistic director of the Plowman. Ensembles are divided into either brass, woodwinds, percussion or piano and strings.
“We found that judges had difficulty comparing the contemporary repertoire of the winds and percussion with the more classical music of the strings and piano,” Tsuruta said. “We wanted the groups to be judged based on the musicians’ merit, not the skill of the composer.”
Each category has a first prize of $2,000, and $5,000 goes to the best in show. Tsuruta said that differs from most chamber music contests, but she thinks it’s more fair.
Through word of mouth, the Plowman contest has grown to attract musicians from across the country. Tsuruta said they enjoy Columbia’s hospitality.
“These musicians pay their own way to come here and it’s nerve-racking enough to compete,” she said. “The last thing they need is hostility from the host town.”
While past Plowman contests have been at the Missouri Theatre, the venue’s renovation forced a move this year to the First Baptist Church on Broadway.
“It was kind of natural since Ayako and I did so much together,” said Edward Rollins, associate pastor at First Baptist. Tsuruta is also artistic director of the Odyssey Chamber Music Series that frequently plays in First Baptist’s sanctuary. The sanctuary is easily modified to accommodate ensembles, and Tsuruta said it has nice acoustics.
“First Baptist Church wants to build community through the arts,” Rollins said. “Hosting Plowman is amazing.”
The Red Line Saxophone Quartet, which played in the preliminary round on Saturday, brought along cigars for their after-contest ritual. While the group was not one of the five finalists, it did receive special recognition from the judges.