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Written by Ronald E. Grames   
Wednesday, 06 February 2013

The Creviston Sessions

Dr. Christopher Creviston and his pianist partner Hannah Creviston (née Gruber) have been concertizing together as a duo since 2007 when they made an appearance at Carnegie Hall, an auspicious start if ever there was one. Since then they have been creating a name for themselves throughout the United States, making frequent appearances in concert series and as festival artists. In 2011 they produced The Snell Sessions , their first CD for the Albany label, and a year later they collaborated on a second program, The Columbia Sessions . The latter I enthusiastically reviewed in Fanfare 36:1. I was equally taken with the earlier release, which I review in this issue, so the opportunity to interview Christopher was an assignment I was more than happy to take.

The Creviston Duo got its start at the Crane School of Music of the State University of New York, where both musicians were on faculty until last fall. Previous to that, University of Michigan alumnus Christopher spent 13 years as a freelance artist in New York City, where he played in swing bands and worked with an amazing array of big-name jazz and pop music performers. Hannah, who earned a master’s in piano performance and a master’s in early childhood and elementary music education from the University of South Carolina, is a much sought-after accompanist and collaborator, a soloist with strong new-music credentials, and an authority on the effects of music on children with autism. The two were married in the summer of 2012. I congratulated Christopher on the wedding and on maintaining the musical partnership as they both took faculty positions at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.

CC: Thank you! I’ll pass that along. We really do enjoy playing together. Hannah is a wonderful musician, and an amazing collaborator. We’re lucky to have found each other.

REG: She is indeed a wonderful musician, and we all benefit from the collaboration! Care to share anything of how you met and how you work together? The recorded evidence is that you seem to play off each other spontaneously, but I bet there is much more to it than that.

CC: This is actually a pretty amusing story. Saxophone repertoire has a reputation for having terribly difficult piano parts; ask any accompanist. I’m so thankful for the good pianists in this world who enjoy playing with saxophonists, and I’m amazed at my luck, that I’ve actually found one for myself!

When I was contacted to come to the Crane School of Music to interview for the job there, I was informed that they had arranged for an accompanist to play with me during the recital portion of my interview. I responded by requesting permission to bring my own pianist. It was suggested that I just go ahead and use the provided collaborator. I requested another time to be allowed permission to bring a pianist with whom I’d been working, saying that I would definitely feel more comfortable. At that point the response was basically “no.” I was told that I would be using the pianist from the Crane School. Of course I went along with the plan that was drawn for me, against my wishes. (This is a point of discussion at many gatherings of family and friends!) The recital went quite well and we had a wonderful time working together and joking around. Being the one person in town with whom I’d actually spent some time, she became my go-to-person for questions regarding apartments, shopping, etc. We were close friends for some time before we finally began dating. I asked her to marry me in December of 2011, and we were both offered jobs at ASU in the spring. This past summer we were married, and we moved out to Tempe, Arizona. It’s been an overwhelmingly busy and wonderful year for us.

REG: Musical partnerships are sometimes fraught with tensions when it comes to making musical decisions regarding interpretation and repertoire. It is the perennial conundrum for chamber players. I assume that this has not been a problem for you and Hannah. Any insights as to how this works for you two? Is it just unanimity of vision, and/or mutual respect, or do you have some other secret to the successful collaboration?

CC: Oh, yes. Every group experiences that kind of frustration! I suppose the larger the group and the more opinions present, the higher the odds are for some kinds of conflict. I think young groups deal with this sort of thing much more frequently. They’re drawing from smaller pools of people, usually limited to their academic institutions or their immediate geography. Young musicians rarely have the foresight to make sure they assemble with other musicians who are of like mind. Clearly, a musician who is excited about standard repertoire won’t make a great ensemble partner for a musician looking to perform only new commissions. Neither of these ideas is inherently bad, and both musicians might be amazing, but would definitely experience some clashes. I encourage young players to come up with a clearly defined mission statement for their ensemble’s goals.

Even with those larger goals agreed upon, there can be vast differences in timbral concepts, vibrato concepts, rubato concepts, etc. If you’re lucky enough to find people with whom you’re basically on the same page, there are still going to be isolated conflicts of opinion about the way to handle the occasional phrase. To deal with these occurrences, one must remain open-minded to the idea that one’s own way might not be the only successful way, and be flexible enough to musically commit to making music the way the majority chooses. In my quartet, there have been moments when we’ve basically played a section a number of ways, then taken a vote. It’s that simple. We’ve also gone back and changed our minds about things and revamped our group interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with that: People grow and change their opinions. In my rehearsals with my wife or with Fader,* there would be only two of us voting, so obviously that wouldn’t work. When differences have arisen though, I have to say, the discussions have always been respectful and lacking in drama. In every chamber group in which I play, the members are such wonderful musicians that I really have to thoughtfully consider their views. It wouldn’t be smart for me to not. And again, there’s usually more than one way to successfully interpret most music.

(The * Fader to whom Christopher refers is classical guitarist Oren Fader, another collaborator in the wide variety of musical activities in which the versatile saxophonist is involved. We talked about him in another thread in which we discussed Christopher’s background and interests, and the various collaborations in which he is involved.)

REG: You worked as a freelance musician, primarily in the pop and jazz world, for quite a few years. Judging from the names mentioned in your biography, you were very successful. What led to the decision to join academia and turn to recording more ‘serious’ contemporary concert fare? Obviously your studies with Donald Sinta would have led to the repertoire you are currently recording, but was it hard to turn your back on the more popular culture scene? Or have you?

CC: To be honest, I’ve always wanted to be involved in a variety of styles. From when I first began studying music in middle school, I was introduced to quite a breadth of periods and performers. I was very lucky to have attended Otsego, Michigan, Public Schools, a good public system with an excellent tradition in music, both instrumental and vocal. My high school afforded me the opportunity to perform in a madrigal singing ensemble, concert choir, wind ensemble, chamber groups, jazz groups, and pop groups, and school musicals. I was even allowed to conduct and rehearse the larger ensembles on occasion. I can’t stress enough how important my ensemble’s directors (Richard Hintz, Warren Newell, James Hewitt, and Greg Maynard) were in shaping my understanding of what music is. They created an environment that produced a number of professional musicians, and an enormous number of educated, appreciative, and discerning listeners.

I took private lessons from Trent Kynaston while I was in high school; he was on the faculty at Western Michigan University then. He had me winning concerto competitions playing Ibert’s Saxophone Concerto and learning transcriptions of Phil Woods’s saxophone improvisations. I continued playing in any situation I could, all through college. During my college years, I toured with chamber groups, won some classical competitions, conducted some high school and collegiate jazz ensembles, and began freelancing as a classical and jazz musician.

For a variety of reasons, at times I become busier in one style than another, but I hope to always keep playing as many styles as I can. For me, that’s always been the ideal. In regard to my ‘return to academia,’ that’s definitely been the plan all along. I know some players don’t feel the same way, but for me, teaching is just another way of sharing music!

REG: The straddling of both worlds is, I am finding, fairly common in the saxophone world. Sounds like you were doing it from early in your studies. I don’t remember finding much jazz influence in most of the works on the two Albany discs—parts of the Albright are an exception—but I will be going back to refresh my memory. You have a couple of interesting transcriptions, some works that you commissioned, and a couple of standards. It is a nice mix. Is there a thread that runs through the two programs?

CC: From an academic standpoint, theme discs are very attractive. In programming these discs, I actually tried to put together programs including a variety of styles that might be attractive for a listener. I know it’s not a very popular train of thought, but I must say that I’ve received a number of e-mails from people stating that they really like the broad spectrum included, and that they enjoy listening straight through them. I won’t pick the rep for every disc in this same way, but I am very happy that I’ve approached these the way that I did.

The Capitol Quartet just released a new CD, FLEX: Five Works for Four Saxophones (White Pine Music), on which each piece is new and written for our quartet, though still containing quite a variety. There are a couple of gorgeous slow movements (Weiser and Ashe II), some very textural music (Wanamaker and Ashe I), a slightly jazz-influenced work (Goldstein—complete with improvised solos), and a captivating and colorful work that almost makes the quartet sound like a full orchestra (Rogers). If I had to pick a favorite on that disc, I’d probably just refuse! We were very lucky that all of those pieces, written for us in the same time period, are so incredibly different from one another. The recording and production of this disc was made possible by a generous grant from the Aaron Copland Foundation.

My duo with Oren Fader, amazing classical guitarist, was also very lucky in that regard. We recently recorded an album of new music for saxophone and electric guitar called THRASH! (White Pine Music) on which the spectrum of styles is enormous: a gorgeous arrangement of a Balkan folk song (Djupstrom), a piece in the style of Indian folk music (Claman), some quirky little texture pieces (Wanamaker), a wonderfully introspective and lyrical work (J.A. Lennon), a piece with some clear jazz influences (Ashe), a work that hearkens to Bach-Stravinsky-Americana Rock (Coughlin), an intimate and whispering avant-garde movement with mutiphonics (Chang), and a piece based loosely in the style of Scandinavian Black Metal (Schwartz)! The production of this disc was also made possible through funding provided by the Aaron Copland Foundation.

(Obviously such a wide range of works calls for variety in performance style, as well, and one of the things that first impressed me about Christopher’s playing was the way he varies his approach to match the needs of the music. That said though, his is, at its core, a brighter, more sharply focused sound than I was used to in the types of repertoire on the Albany discs. The tone produced by individual saxophonists is a hot topic. Fans and players use a variety of terms: French, American, jazzy, classical, and a range of descriptions relating to the color and emotion of the playing. I thought I would take a chance and ask about it.)

REG: I am curious: in the two CDs you and Hannah have produced so far, you have generally used a fairly jazzy sound, though I have been impressed by how much you vary it. How does one decide on an ideal sound in general and for a particular work, especially when your repertoire varies so much? And do you ever change mouthpiece or instrument when working on some of the repertoire? One saxophonist I interviewed was working on a software program for displaying overtones in real time for providing feedback to students, but I suspect there are decisions regarding gear that would have to come first. Anything in this you would like to share?

CC: From the time that I began playing the saxophone, I was also involved in vocal music. Vocalists commonly talk about the color of their vowels and how it affects the mood they are presenting. The best musicians I encounter discuss the colors with which they would like to paint a given section of music. Being able to effectively use colors as a musical tool is one requirement of being a high-level musician.

Perhaps having a beautiful sound can work for you if your career is built on playing four-bar solos in an orchestra, but to hold an audience’s attention for an hour-and-a-half recital is a different matter. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was something a professional flutist said to me after I played on a concert in Merkin Hall, though it was actually more of a compliment to the capabilities of my instrument than to me personally. She said that she never knew a saxophone could sound like I made it sound: that at points it sounded like a French horn, at points like a flute, at points like a violin. I believe she used the words “captivating,” “exotic,” and “beautiful.” This encapsulates my philosophy of sound. I’ve heard of a few saxophonists who don’t appreciate my sound because it doesn’t reflect their paradigm, but I’m okay with that. I’m getting better every year at achieving what I’m trying to achieve with my sound, and I receive all sorts of wonderful feedback from musicians I respect.

As far as equipment goes, I’m a believer that your sound identity is in your noggin, and that you’ll figure out what to do physically to get the sound you want out of any set of equipment. But some equipment makes a player work less to get particular sounds. I’ve picked some very flexible equipment that allows me the spectrum I’m after with the least amount of work. Right now, I’m playing on Yamaha horns with Selmer mouthpieces for classical. For jazz, I use the same Yamaha horns with a Selmer mouthpiece on soprano, but a Meyer for alto, and an Otto Link on tenor. I don’t envision that changing, but one never knows.

REG: I hope my questions were not perceived as any kind of criticism, as it was certainly not intended as such. I ask about sound because it is such a big topic on saxophone message boards, or so it seems. It is the flexibility of your sound quality that impresses me, assumedly the same thing that led to the flutist’s compliment. I am even more impressed now that I know that it is all done with the same mouthpieces and instruments.

CC: No worries! I know my approach differs somewhat from that of some of my colleagues, and I appreciate the honest inquiry.

REG: So, how do you decide on a sound to express your ideas about the work? Could you, perhaps, talk about the process in relationship to one of the works on these two discs?

CC: It’s about controlling the timbre changes and utilizing them to create contrasts between larger segments of music. A sound with subdued high partials and less edge seems very appropriate to employ in the second movement of Villa-Lobos’s Fantasia , in contrast to the much more energized third movement. This can help create contrasts between forte s, as well. The kind of aggressive and colorful forte that I use in the second Chang prelude would just not be successful anywhere in the miniatures by Delvincourte. As Sinta said to me once, “There are many different kinds of high energy.”

REG: Would you want to say anything about studying with Donald Sinta?

CC: Don is an incredibly caring and inspiring musician . He constantly pushes students to become interesting, intelligent musicians . Of course, one has to have the technique to pull one’s ideas, but technique was always approached as a vehicle. He would always address large scale musical ideas in my lessons. Again, this is where I feel like I’ve been so lucky, as my musical experience—from middle school choir to university band—has always been so wonderfully focused on expression. The older I get, the more aware I am becoming that my experience was not the norm. From Richard Hintz addressing the color of our vowels in a choral ensemble to James Forger asking me to consciously select an appropriate vibrato for a given moment, I’ve had wonderful role models. I just hope that these influences come across in my playing!

REG: I would say that they most certainly do, as your playing is quite expressive. Would you be willing to share some of the other musical ideas—above solving technical problems—that Donald Sinta imparted?

CC: Don is a big proponent of being in the moment, making music with a spontaneous energy and making decisions based on the energy that lead you to where you are and where you think you would like to go. He encourages experimenting with phrasing and taking risks. I think perhaps he was the person in my life that really challenged me to play in a way that I believe in, which is a step beyond playing musically. I think his students end up understanding that it’s really not enough to play musical phrases. Rather, the ideal musician has a unique and passionate voice: an identity as a musician. Obviously, where one person draws a certain line may not be in the same place as another. And these choices of how much rubato, how much vibrato, what colors, how much portamento, etc.—these decisions are huge factors defining who we are as musicians. I hope I’m remembered as an energetic and charismatic player whose interpretations hold your curiosity. This is my goal, anyway. Again, I feel like I am getting a bit better at this every year.

REG: Back to the earlier question: Though theme discs are certainly done, I hear plenty of recital discs that are just that: very nicely balanced recitals of pieces in a variety of styles, often with some sort of connection to friends, colleagues, or mentors. In discs with a fair number of commissioned works, this is particularly true. In other cases, the choices are simply a matter of what the performer likes to play. Could you tell us some of the reasons for the choices you made in the two Albany CDs we are highlighting?

CC: While it might be more attractive to say that there was an underlying connection in the pieces selected for these albums, this is not the case. I was honestly just trying to put together balanced programs that I would enjoy sitting through myself. Hannah and I have recently recorded a disc of very accessible and ‘pretty’ music about which I am very excited. There is a definite theme to that album, but again, nothing too academically intriguing: just a collection of quality pieces that I really enjoy playing, and that I think absolutely anyone would enjoy hearing. It’s a sort of ‘classical pops’ disc for saxophone and piano. A couple of things that are standard from the saxophone rep—the concerto by Glazounov and a charming little piece by Jean Baptiste Singelée—and a number of favorites stolen from the rep of other instruments—Bruch’s Kol Nidrei , Poulenc’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Ravel’s Sonatine, and Debussy’s Syrinx . I know there is absolutely nothing cutting edge about this program, but I am simply in love with these pieces and very excited about this disc.

REG: I must say that I am looking forward to hearing that new disc. Meanwhile, would you comment on what appeals to you in some (or all) of the pieces played in The Columbia Sessions and The Snell Sessions?

CC: So many factors came into play. I wanted to play pieces that really spoke to me: pieces that I’ve wanted to play since I first heard them. Most of the music falls under this description. Obviously, this isn’t the case with works like Dorothy Chang’s Two Preludes, or David Heinick’s Mantis, which were written for me. I had agreed to play them before I had even heard them. Now that I’m well acquainted with them, though, I feel very lucky to be the dedicatee of such strong new works, and I think they deserve to be heard. They’re both fantastic recital pieces with a very high wow factor. I was asked to play the Bolcom with the Northern Symphonic Winds in northern New York, and my wife and I decided to program it on a recital tour that followed the performance with band. Audiences enjoyed the performances with piano, and many people seemed surprised to learn that the piece wasn’t written for saxophone with piano: a credit to the reduction by Evan Hause. After that tour, we decided that perhaps a recording of that performance option should exist, for the musical value of the track, and as a model for players preparing the piece with piano, since most performers won’t have a full wind symphony at their disposal.

The standards—pieces by Albright, Muczynski, Bedard, Delvincourte, and Villa-Lobos—I approach somewhat differently than the recordings that already exist, and I thought perhaps a fresh perspective might be intriguing for others to hear. I’ve always adored Poulenc’s Flute Sonata! I only began working on it as a study in high tones, but I thought it was coming together pretty well, so I suggested that we program it. We received wonderfully supportive comments, many from flutists, and we thought perhaps it was worth showcasing our version in a recording. I’m glad it’s out there. It’s one of our recordings that has garnered some airplay too, which is gratifying.

(Of course, one can only hope that there will be more gratification in the future. It is hard to imagine why there would not be. Earlier in this interview, Christopher stated the hope that he’d be remembered as “an energetic and charismatic player.” Well, there is energy here indeed, and charisma, along with many other creative attributes such as subtlety and sensitivity, which both of the Crevistons abundantly demonstrate in these two recordings. However they manage to do it, these two Albany recordings are a terrific document of the duo’s collective work to date. The CDs Christopher has made with the Capitol Quartet and with Oren Fader sound like fascinating documents of those collaborations as well, and I look forward to exploring them further. This is already an impressive legacy, and there is, with the promise of that new disc of familiar works for saxophone and piano, hope for more to come. I for one can’t wait to hear whatever these artists can come up with.)

THE SNELL SESSIONS Christopher Creviston (sax); Hannah Creviston (pn) ALBANY 1285 (51:22)

HEINICK Mantis. ALBRIGHT Saxophone Sonata. KARG-ELERT Sonata Appasionata. FAURÉ Vocalise-etude. BÉDARD Fantaisie. MUCZYNSKI Saxophone Sonata

In a way, I have already had my say on this release. In Fanfare 36:1, I reviewed the second of this duo’s releases on Albany, The Columbia Sessions . In that review I said, “ The Snell Sessions …CD is too short as well, but still manages to offer the most engrossing recordings of the William Albright and Robert Muczynski sonatas that I now know.” Nothing has come along since to change that impression.

Christopher Creviston was a busy and successful New York jazz and pop freelancer earlier in his career, but there are only a couple of pieces on the program that will strike the listener as being jazz-inflected. The cool and slightly urban noir Andante maestoso of Muczynski’s sonata—though the original title for the sonata was Desert Sketches —and the last movement of the Albright sonata are the obvious exceptions. Still, these are performances clearly influenced by Creviston’s jazz experience. There is always a fresh improvisatory feel to the playing, like the music is being composed as it is being played, and he shows his jazz experience as well in his brilliant, sometimes even edgy, tone. Those who have read my previous saxophone recital reviews will realize that I generally prefer a warmer more rounded sound, but it is a preference that I easily leave behind in light of Creviston’s remarkable ability to shape his tonal color and vibrato to the demands of the music.

I suspect the general approach to tone production is part of the secret to his amazing facility in altissimo. It is on display in several works, notably another wonderful performance of a piece for flute, the Sonata Appassionata , op. 140, by Sigfrid Karg-Elert— The Columbia Sessions CD includes an amazing performance of the Poulenc Flute Sonata—and in David Heinick’s whimsical and ultimately fearsome Mantis . While at times the tone can approach stridency—always, I must add, where it mirrors the musical intent, as in that final Mad Dance of Albright’s sonata—Creviston is also capable of the most gentle whisper of a tone. This, combined with his ability to play on the tip of the note—lightly, as if the phrase is spun glass—creates moments of extraordinary beauty and delicacy. This is most evident in the marvelous performance of the Scherzo: Will o’ the Wisp s from the Albright sonata. It is also used to great effect in the beginning of Heinick’s work and in the Denis Bédard 1984 Fantaisie —a perfect accompaniment to the transcription of a lovely 1906 Fauré Vocalise-etude —where he matches the crystalline purity of his partner’s playing.

Throughout this recital, in fact, Hannah Creviston is the perfect partner, matching her saxophonist husband in technical facility, musicality, and imagination. At times they become almost indistinguishable from each other, as if one person was performing both roles. It is quite amazing to hear. What is more, Creviston, in his interview, comments on the notorious difficulty of many of the piano parts to saxophone works. That Hannah performs these formidable pieces with such apparent ease is further testimony to her exceptional abilities.

They now call themselves the Creviston Duo, since their marriage this last summer, though Hannah Creviston will likely still appear as Hannah Gruber in recording listings. I am most pleased that the duo has been maintained, with both partners now members of the Arizona State University faculty, since their seemingly clairvoyant collaborations are a joy to experience. Readers who have read the interview with Christopher in this issue will know that there is another CD in the works, likely available soon after this hits the mailboxes. I assume it will benefit from the same fine engineering—clear, present, but with a nice sense of space—and top-drawer presentation as its predecessors. Long may the Creviston Duo prosper. Ronald E. Grames


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
 
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