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Singing in the Dark for alto saxophone and string quartet (2002)

Commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest. Premiere 4 July 2002 by Marty Ehrlich and the Miami String Quartet. Published by MMB. 30’.

Comment: Like 4 Sisters, this work requires an improvising soloist. It was written in response to the events of 9/11/2001.

Review: “The soft-sweet sigh of a saxophone echoed in the ear after the last notes of David Schiff’s music ended at Chamber Music Northwest on Thursday. Singing in the Dark is the composer’s response to Sept. 11 and represents the festival’s chief event this month. Schiff has been associated with the festival for three decades. Like many composers, the former New Yorker fell silent in those early weeks, unable to trust himself to know what to say. Then, one night in October, he says, he felt a transformation seize him, and he threw out his previous work and let his new voice flow. The result is an enthralling work for saxophone and string quartet that combines Schiff’s trademark blend of classical and jazz elements with an aura of prayer. Marty Ehrlich, the prolific recording artist, and the Miami String Quartet premiered the 30-minute work at Reed College where the composer teaches. The performers were first-rate. The key was Ehrlich, whose assurance with the saxophone made the exploration of new territory an exciting experience. Ehrlich’s tone changed color to fill any shape he needed, while the string players, whose music began with high, static harmonics, spun a quivering web around Ehrlich’s volume-filling sound. Schiff has replaced his customary hustle with a serene-hearted meditation. In four linked movements, the music moves from a soulful incantation to a rhythmic dance, back to an even slower meditation based on fragments from the Jewish Day of Atonement services, to a song obliquely inspired by Duke Ellington. But despite the music’s quiet aura, a couple of Schiff’s trademarks stood out. As in his Scenes from adolescence and other chamber works the music is a journey, beginning with the saxophone’s lone stance against the four strings before they gradually fall into step with him. Episodes unfolded in seeming fragments but actually described continuous action. As in much of his non-liturgical music — Schiff estimates that about half his music is inspired by Jewish ideas — classical and jazz influence each other. Ehrlich’s mellow sax lifts you straight into late night New York, veiled in cigarette haze and blinking neon. Improvisation also plays a key role. While the strings stick to the written score, Schiff sends the saxophone player on a couple of wild excursions. Ehrlich put his stamp on the piece with his extended cadenza before the final movement, a series of two and four note repetitions that climbed Schiff’s jazzy scales with hues that ranged from aggressive honks to bell-whistle beauty.” David Stabler, The Oregonian, 6 July 2002.