Strings, saxophones take top Plowman prizes

Monday, March 31, 2008 | 6:15 p.m. CDT; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — By the time the winners were announced Sunday evening, Kirk Trevor, music director of the Missouri Symphony Society, joked that it felt like three in the morning. Closing events of the Plowman Chamber Music Competition, including about three hours of music, had taken the better part of five hours.

The third annual Plowman, which began Friday, attracted 26 ensembles representing 20 universities from across the country. Top honors went to two groups from Texas and a third from Connecticut.

Plowman Competition Winners

Grand Prize: Jasper String Quartet, Rice University, Click here to learn more about the quartet. First Place Winds/Brass/Percussion: Halcyon Saxophone Quartet, University of Houston, no Web site First Place Piano and Strings: Atria Ensemble, Yale University, no Web site Honorable Mention: H2 Quartet, Michigan State University, Web site accessible through ; Tasman String Quartet; University of Colorado-Boulder, Web site through Click here to learn more about the Missouri Theatre.

The Jasper String Quartet proved to be the audience’s and judges’ favorite, winning both the $500 audience choice and the $5,000 grand prize for best in show. The group, formed at Oberlin Conservatory in 2003, is the graduate quartet-in-residence at Rice University in Houston and is under transition to play professionally.

“Competitions like this are a great way to get out there and get experience and publicity,” said J. Freivogel, a violinist in the Jasper quartet.

The ensembles performed this year at First Baptist Church because the Missouri Theatre is being renovated.

Freivogel recognized several other groups from past chamber music contests. But he laughed when asked about rivalries. “It’s not so much of a gang mentality in the chamber music community,” he said. “We’ve built respect and a sense of camaraderie through competition.”

One group he hadn’t met in competition before was the Halcyon Saxophone Quartet. “And now for something completely different,” a phrase from the old “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” would aptly describe this ensemble. Playing last on the program of five finalists, Halcyon played contemporary and experimental works — one of which included stomping. That’s tough to do while still playing, they acknowledged later.

The piece in question, “Memory” by Marcelo Zarvos, was written for string quartet. Tenor saxophonist Holly Carlton said the group immediately fell in love with the work when they heard it, so they got a friend to transcribe it for saxophones.

“We expect to play strange and contemporary music,” said alto saxophonist Jameka Byrd. The group was formed in 2007 at the University of Houston with the intention of collaborating on new music and exploring ways to reinterpret the standard repertoire.

Two of Halcyon’s members play in jazz ensembles and bring that experience to their classical performance.

“It’s good to get all perspectives of jazz and classical,” Carlton said. “It really helps in the music’s interpretation.”

The group’s final piece, “Quattour de Saxophones” by Jindrich Feld, was composed using serialism and chromaticism. Serialism, a 20th-century technique influenced by jazz harmonies, uses all 12 notes of the scale and avoids traditional tonality and a single key.

This atonality is often used to create feelings of uncertainty and alienation within the audience — think the anxiety-generating score to “There Will Be Blood” — but did not alienate the three judges. They rewarded the group’s efforts with the $2,000 prize for first place in the winds, brass and percussion category.

“It is definitely a risk playing contemporary repertoire in a contest like this,” said baritone saxophonist Bob Eason. “But if you pull it off, people will like it.”

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