BERRIEN SPRINGS - Winning the grand prize last May in the 2012 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition at the University of Notre Dame was especially gratifying for Justin Polyblank, who plays baritone in the all-saxophone Barkada Quartet.
"It meant a lot because this was the third time for me," Polyblank says by telephone from South Bend. "As undergraduates both myself and Chris were in other saxophone quartets that never got this far. We honestly hadn't anticipated going as deep as we did. We were just there with the intention of making music as best as we could."
It was good enough for the foursome of Christopher Elchico (soprano), Martí Comas (alto), Steven Lawhon (tenor) and Polyblank (baritone) to earn the $7,500 grand prize and the $3,000 gold medal in the senior wind division at the Fischoff, which, in its 39th year, has become the largest chamber music competition in the world. In addition to the prize money, the Bloomington, Ind.-based quartet earned a spot in the Emilia Romagna Festival in Italy in 2013 and began a winner's tour last week, which includes a stop today at Andrews University's Howard Performing Arts Center.
"For us to make it all the way through to the grand prize was quite amazing," Polyblank says. "It's something really special that we'll remember for a long time."
The Barkada Quartet formed last year as a student chamber ensemble at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music as a last-chance opportunity for Polyblank, who recently graduated from Indiana University with a master's degree in saxophone performance, and a first-chance opportunity for Comas, now a junior, who had just arrived from Terrassa, Spain. Just eight months later, the friendship and musical camaraderie that defines the group earned them the Fischoff's top prize.
"That's why we chose the name," Polyblank says, adding that the word "barkada" is a noun from the Filipino language Tagalog, meaning "a group of friends" or "a form of family." "We thought it was perfect to describe the relationship we have with each other."
The program for today's performance features several of the pieces the Barkada Quartet used in the process of becoming champions, including the opening number, George Frideric Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba." The work, composed 100 years prior to the invention of the saxophone, was originally a sequence from his 1748 oratorio "Solomon." Yet in the hands of the Barkada Quartet, the baroque piece, which is well-known in classical music circles, becomes a showcase in the saxophone's versatility.
"That's why we chose it," Polyblank says. "The saxophone is able to change its character and change its sound in order to invoke older traditional styles. Originally that piece would have been played by a small chamber orchestra and the solos would have been oboes."
The program also features starkly contrasting works by Philip Glass and György Ligeti as well as contemporary, and recently commissioned works for saxophone quartet by composers such as Gabriel Pierne, David Maslanka, David Salleras Quintana and John Leszczynski.
"Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet," by Hungarian modernist Ligeti, was originally part of a collection of 12 bagatelles composed for piano. In 1953, Ligeti transcribed six of the bagatelles for a wind quintet made up of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon that has now been adapted for saxophone.
"Its a great piece to demonstrate how quickly the instrument is able to change character," Polyblank says. "That piece is known for its harmonic tension."
Glass's "String Quartet No. 3," written in his typical minimalist style, offers yet another change of pace for the quartet.
"It uses a very narrow harmonic and melodic palette as its basis," Polyblank says. "That was a lot of fun for us to explore. As a string quartet, it doesn't have any rests at all so we had to work on our circular breathing technique in order to make the piece sound cohesive."
Comas' suggested piece "Quartets per a saxos, volum 1" by David Salleras Quintana, a friend and mentor from his native Spain, is also featured in the program as is the contemporary piece "They Might Be Gods" by Bloomington, Ind., composer Leszczynski. The concert concludes with one of the works the Barkada Quartet used to win the Fischoff Competition: Maslanka's "Recitation Book."
"That's a piece written with the saxophone particularly in mind but it uses Bach chorales throughout," Polyblank says of the finale. "It allows us to harken back to different compositional styles as well as showing off the saxophone's virtuosity and power and the variety of tambour and tone colors."
It's also the perfect piece, he says, to emphasize what the quartet is all about - offering up all the different colors available on the instrument's palette.
"We're really four students who had a friendship before starting a quartet," Polyblank says. "But we've also really grown together musically. As a group we're always playing styles we may not be initially comfortable with as we look to expand our playing experience."
-- WHAT: Barkada Quartet
-- WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday
-- WHERE: Andrews University's Howard Performing Arts Center, 4160 E. Campus Circle Drive, Berrien Springs
-- HOW MUCH: $5, free for students, faculty and staff
-- CONTACT: 471-3560 or howard.andrews.edu
-- ARTIST INFO: www.barkadaquartet.com