Signum Saxophone Quartet “cannot wait to play for you” on first Australia tour

Interview by Stephanie Eslake

A good team meeting will start with a hot cup of coffee – and it’s no different for the members of Signum Saxophone Quartet. Except once they’ve sipped their final drop, they don’t sit around a boardroom table with pen and paper in hand. They pick up their instruments and dive straight into rehearsal, preparing the music they’ll perform at Carnegie Hall, an international competition – or on their Musica Viva Australia tour.

“What I love most about rehearsing together is that four strong and different opinions keep the rehearsal exciting,” Alan Lužar shares. He plays tenor saxophone alongside his fellow ensemble members Blaž Kemperle (soprano), Jacopo Taddei (alto), and Guerino Bellarosa (baritone).

Through caffeine-fuelled gatherings, the young saxophonists indulge in music and conversation, conjuring the creative vision that has landed them record deals with labels as big as Deutsche Grammophon.

This Australia tour is no less substantial: it’s the first time an arts organisation has brought Signum Saxophone Quartet to the country. Alan describes this Musica Viva opportunity as “an enormous pleasure”. To him, the brightest drawcard is playing beautiful music for people he’s never met – and “having a lot of fun” along the way.

Signum was founded in Cologne back in 2006; not a decade later, the players were named Rising Stars by the European Concert Hall Organisation – an award that sent them touring through the continent’s most prestigious venues. The group may be close-knit behind the scenes, but with open arms (and trademark charisma), these players welcome audiences to join them as they “discover secret messages that music is full of”.

The versatile saxophone has proven capable of playing almost any genre of music since its creation. It’s old, in the sense that it was invented in the 1840s. It’s also new, having been designed centuries later than most other instruments you’d typically find in a chamber ensemble. As such, it’s a desirable outcast of the music world: it’s rarely invited to sit with an orchestra, yet it’s often given the solo on the rare occasion it’s composed into a symphonic work. It’s remained popular through the eras of jazz, rock, and K-pop, and it’s equally accepted among art music crowds who meditate through the repetition of a Philip Glass composition.

With Musica Viva, the saxophone will fly through music from composers as diverse as Bach and Gershwin, Bernstein and Camilo. Few instruments could so effortlessly combine such an extraordinary range of works into a single program.

Alan describes the saxophone as a “chameleon of music” capable of awe-inspiring tonal colours. Multiply its potential by the players of his quartet – who sing through soprano or boom through baritone – and you arrive at “limitless possibilities to express emotions through sound”.

It’s enough to fuel the passion of these four instrumentalists, and to attract audiences who may be curious to hear the saxophone in a classically inspired concert. It’s also drawn the interest of Australian composer Jessica Wells, who crafted a new arrangement of Kurt Weill’s 1924 Violin Concerto – reimagining the sound of an entire orchestra and giving all its themes to the saxophone family.

“This was an opportunity to be creatively put to the test, and I relished that,” Jessica (pictured below) says.

“Replacing a high flute part with soprano sax, and a pizzicato double bass with a staccato baritone sax, seemed like obvious choices. But what to do with a snare drum? All of the creative choices were actually rather fun to work out!”

Musica Viva commissioned Jessica’s arrangement under the auspices of the Hildegard Project. Jessica reckons it’s been an “unusual project”: an orchestra has tens of players, and this ensemble has four. Luckily, those four can “pack a punch and be brassy, using their metallic flare, or can be mellow and round”.

“Dynamic control allows for a huge range of tones and timbres,” Jessica says. “This all adds to the excitement of exploring how to present the contrasting movements of this work.”

Alan adds: “You can imagine what a great job an arranger has to do – that four instruments not only replace a whole orchestra, but also give new, unknown colours to the piece.”

Through Jessica’s skilful arrangement, just one instrument takes the same role it played in Weill’s original – the violin. And Canberra-born soloist Kristian Winther is tasked with performing it.

In the past, this award-winning violinist has taken to the stage with major orchestras – Melbourne, Tasmania, Sydney, and Western Australian among others. Naturally, Jessica predicts “audiences are going to be really wowed by this performance”.

“I’m super excited to be working with Signum and Kristian Winther to bring this score to life… It requires virtuosity and high levels of electricity between the musicians on stage,” she says.

“I’m thrilled to be giving some pre-concert talks on this tour for Musica Viva, and seeing the audience’s reaction to this incredible work from a century ago being brought back to the concert stage with a new perspective.”

Alan is bursting with similar enthusiasm, revealing the group “cannot wait to play for you”.

Don't miss Signum Saxophone Quartet's debut Australian tour with Kristian Winther from 6 to 24 November. Tickets are available here.