Opus Pocus

for Saxophone Quartet

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  • Commissioned by/written for
    Zagreb Quartet
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  • Year revised
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    known performances
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Henry Fogel
Fanfare Magazine
Very few composers would have the wit and courage to title pieces Opus Pocus or Smart Alex, and fewer still would be able to bring the witty elements off with the élan and professionalism of Canfield.

Warmth, genuine lyricism, and humor are qualities in short supply in much of the music written in recent decades, but they are ever-present (and much welcomed) in the music of David DeBoor Canfield. Very few composers would have the wit and courage to title pieces Opus Pocus or Smart Alex, and fewer still would be able to bring the witty elements off with the élan and professionalism of Canfield.

           Take Smart Alex, for example. It was composed for a young saxophonestudent named Alex Van Dyke and employs some avant-garde techniques that do notget in the way of accessibility. There are also quite witty interjections by a“page-turner/assistant,” who can be heard arguing with the saxophone soloist attimes. Even Canfield’s tempo marking in the score (“Zippity Quick”)demonstrates his easy good humor, as does the sudden C-Major cadence that interruptsthe harmonic chaos at the end. Opus Pocuswas originally written for a more conventional wind quintet, but thecomposer arranged it for a saxophone quartet. Canfield had a quotation of the Sacre du Printemps bassoon solo in theoriginal, but he changed it for a quote from the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto inthis version. (He couldn’t stop himself from being cute, however—the Glazunovwas composed for alto sax, but Canfield gives the quote to a tenor sax here). Opus Pocus is filled with delightful turnsof phrase and a surprising variety of color from four saxophones (soprano,alto, tenor, and baritone).

           The disc’s opening Five Lyric Pieces are genuinely touchingand lovely, and the lyrical Elegie nachBrahms stays in the memory. Canfield relates a touching story about thepiece’s origins in the excellent notes that accompany the disc. The Sonata after Poulenc is one of a seriesof works for different combinations of instruments where Canfield replicatesthe sound world of other composers; this one is particularly effective. Aabac was written for thewonderfully-named Zzyzx Quartet (I am grateful I am not currently announcing onthe radio and having to figure out how to pronounce that). The title Aabac mirrors Zzyzx from the other endof the alphabet. I will confess that this is the piece I had the most troubleconnecting with, perhaps because of my own fairly conservative tastes. Canfieldstates that he composed it in a more advanced tonal language than was his norm.Repeated hearings allowed the music to grow on me.

           Canfield was born in 1950, and the mostof the music here was composed relatively recently, between 2012 and 2016. Awide range of influences is evident, but Canfield’s individual voice is alwaysheard. This is a delightful, engaging collection, well performed throughout andwith a surprisingly consistently good recorded sound given the wide range oforiginal sources.

Opus Pocus was begun on June 28, 2011 and completed on July 16th of the same year. Originally written for the Arundo Donax Reed Quintet, the work was arranged in February for saxophone quartet as I had long been desiring to create a work for the renowned Zagreb Quartet. The title of the work came to me before I had written even a single note. As an inveterate punster, I felt that such a title would inspire e to create something novel. However, it was not until the entire first movement of Opus Pocus had been composed that the idea of basing each movement on a famous magician (or sorcerer) occurred to me. At that point, I expanded the number of planned movements from three to five to allow for more practitioners of this art to be portrayed. Since the first movement, "The Witch of Endor," was composed before it was titled, this is the one movement that does not consciously portray the person memorialized. Nevertheless, the music, given its unusual harmonies and mysterious aspects, might suggest to most auditors that there is some sort of sorcery being depicted. The story of the Witch of Endor is found in the biblical book of I Samuel, chapter 28, wherein King Saul, whose life was soon to be taken from him by the Lord, commanded her to bring up the spirit of the deceased prophet, Samuel. Whether she actually conjured up the spirit of the departed prophet is debated among theologians. The second movement, "Simon Magus" (Simon the Sorcerer) is also taken from Scripture, in this case the Book of Acts, chapter 8. Simon attempts to purchase power to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit upon believers, and is thereupon condemned by the Apostle Peter. The term simony comes from this incident, and refers to the purchase of an ecclesiastical office. Simon was considered by some of the Church Fathers to have been the initiator of all heresy. The outer sections of this movement are the most tonal of the entire work, portraying Simon's pleading with the Apostle Peter--first for attempting to purchase a gift that could not be purchased, and then that the curse of the Apostle would be removed from him. In between these tonal outer sections is a dissonant section to suggest the true condition of his heart. "Merlin" is the slow movement of the suite, and looks back to the fictional magician often associated with the court of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. His character first appears, however, in the Historia Regum Britanniae, written ca. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. The movement is mysterious and subdued throughout, to suggest legend and facts obscured by the mists of time. Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz) was doubtless the greatest escape artist of all time. His mastery of this art is suggested by the mercurial lines in the various woodwinds in the fourth movement that bears his name, the drifting into and out of tonality throughout the movement, and the fact that this movement is the only one in which there is no quote in the Basset horn of the famous opening theme of the saxophone concerto of Glazunov (which I substituted in this arrangement for the famous opening bassoon solo from The Rite of Spring used in the same places in the reed quintet version). The idea is that the quote has "escaped" from this particular movement, its presence being obvious to listeners in the other movements. The final movement, written in tribute to the most famous living magician, David Copperfield, attempts to suggest Copperfield's ability to seemingly make things disappear. He has, for example, made the Statue of Liberty disappear on national television. The form of this movement is ABRACADABRA, where the "R" stands for "repeat." Thus, each time the "A" and "B" themes come back, there are measures (in increasing numbers) that have disappeared, such that by their last iteration, there is almost nothing left. There is a chiastic aspect to the work: The Witch of Endor makes someone appear, balancing the ability of David Copperfield to make things disappear. Simon Magus attempts to escape from a sticky spiritual problem, while Houdini routinely escaped from "impossible" physical situations. Merlin, as the pivotal movement, combines fact with fiction.

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