The short history of the current iteration of the Lawrence University Saxophone Quartet could be told in one word: successful.
When four Lawrence University saxophone students decided in the spring of 2010 to combine their talents to perform interesting music at a very high level, they had no idea just how rewarding that decision would prove to be.
The latest in a long line of successful ensembles in the conservatory’s saxophone studio, this quartet — seniors David Davis, Sussex, and Sumner Truax, Chicago, Ill., junior Will Obst, St. Paul, Minn., and sophomore Phillip Dobernig, Mukwonago — won the annual Lawrence Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition last fall.
In March, they shared first-place honors in the annual Wisconsin Public Radio-sponsored Neale-Silva Young Artists competition in Madison.
And the nec plus ultra came this month via DownBeat magazine, which named the quartet its 2011 undergraduate college winner in the classical group category of its 34th annual Student Music Awards.
The classical group award was one of two Lawrence musicians received. Garth Neustader, a 2010 graduate, earning outstanding performance honors in the magazine’s undergraduate college jazz arrangement category for his work on “Tenderly.”
The awards were announced April 26 in DownBeat’s June edition. Known as “DBs” and presented in 12 categories in four separate divisions (junior high, high school, performing high school and college) the DownBeat awards are considered among the highest music honors in the field of jazz education.
“With their dedication and initiative, David, Sumner, Phil and Will are truly deserving of their success,” said Steve Jordheim, Lawrence professor of music and an award-winning saxophonist himself. “Though they’ve played together only one year, they have presented three full recital programs and premiered several works by Lawrence student composers. Their commitment to, and high level performance of, the art of chamber music is inspiring.”
The quartet was recognized based on a live recording of a diverse program they performed last fall that included Greg Wannamaker’s “Speed Metal Organum Blues,” “Just a Minute, Chopin” by Adam Silverman and “Quatuor pour Saxophones” by Jun Nagao.
Members credited the quartet’s success to a combination of chemistry, technique and great mentoring.
“Our personalities really allow us to work well together,” said Truax, who plays alto sax in the quartet. “Our rehearsals are very efficient because we don’t have a problem telling each other what we think needs to be fixed.”
“The way we rehearse is very methodical,” said Obst, the group’s baritone saxophonist. “We’ve informally devised a step-by-step process to work on intonation, rhythm, balance or phrasing.”
“I attribute much of our success to having truly amazing teachers,” added Davis, soprano saxophonist. “If it was not for the dedication and intense care and knowledge of Mr. Jordheim and Ms. (Sara) Kind, I would not be half as good as I am now.”
While thrilled with their DownBeat recognition, Dobernig said it’s important to keep the honor in proper perspective.
“One thing that we’ve found from doing competitions is that different judges have contrasting musical preferences that influence their decisions,” said Dobernig, the group’s tenor saxophonist. “The reality is that we played very well, and there were, without a doubt, many other groups that played very well. It’s certainly exciting, though, because of its prestige and national recognition.”
Although Davis will graduate in June, that doesn’t mean the quartet was a one-year wonder.
“We have a couple different possibilities in mind for the future,” said Truax. “All of us will be in the area next year, so we will continue to perform together. The plan is to enter some major national and international chamber music competitions in the future and if things go well, we’re definitely open to the idea of making a career out of it.”
Neustadter, a first-year graduate student pursuing music composition at Yale University, was honored for his arrangement of the 1946 Walter Gross ballad “Tenderly,” a jazz classic that has been recorded by more than 80 major artists. He wrote his five-minute arrangement for studio orchestra and vocalist near the end of his senior year at Lawrence last spring.
“I’ve written a lot of original music but wanted to try my hand at arranging a ‘classic,’” said Neustadter, who won four DB awards in composition, jazz performance and classical performance while a student at Manitowoc Lutheran High School. “‘Tenderly’ has been successful through the ages because it retains the sophisticated elegance of the great ballads without sounding ‘dated’ or ‘old-fashioned.’ With such a wealth and variety of previous recordings and arrangements, it was somewhat intimidating and difficult to bring a ‘fresh’ compositional voice to the arrangement.
“Winning the DB continues to be a huge honor,” Neustadter added, “and I’m indebted to the jazz program at Lawrence for fostering such an atmosphere of collaboration, as well as to [director of jazz and improvisational studies] Fred Sturm for his continued mentorship and guidance.”
The two awards push Lawrence’s total to 19 DBs — including eight in the past five years — since DownBeat launched its student music awards competition in 1978. This year’s competition drew a total of 964 ensemble and individual entries for all categories in all four divisions.