Frank Bongiorno review in Saxophone Journal

Saxophone Journal - March/April 2003 - by Frank Bongiorno

"Saint Ambrose is based on the life and writings of Ambrose Bierce, a well-known writer and journalist in the United States during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. He was known for his cynical and often satirical wit as a writer, and in particular, for his accurate and sometimes grotesque depiction of war. He was cruelly honest with whatever topic he chose write about and, so it seems, had no fear to speak his mind about politics, war, religion, and/or life in general.

Saint Ambrose, the composition was commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke and composed by Rodney Waschka II. Between the composer's interest in creating a theater work based on the life of Ambrose Bierce and Duke's interest in expanding the role of the performer, Saint Ambrose, the chamber opera, was born.

Steve Duke has performed throughout the country and abroad. He is a champion of new music and has commissioned numerous works with computer music as well as acoustic solo saxophone pieces. Duke has recorded jazz as well as contemporary music on various record labels, and is a member of Northern Illinois School of Music faculty.

Rodney Waschka II, a faculty member at North Carolina State University, has had his pieces performed throughout the world and has enjoyed support for his compositions from the NEA, Meet the Composer, and the North Carolina Arts Council, among others. A composer/performer who has worked with algorithmic composition and intermedia pieces, Waschka's Saint Ambrose is a piece based on "genetic (evolutionary) algorithms" by the composer and uses synthesized sounds by various programs and types of equipment, in addition to the voice and saxophone. Most of the libretto for this opera has been taken from Bierce's writings or from accounts of his life, and is acted (narrated) by Steve Duke.

The piece begins with an electronically produced Overture entitled Nothing Matters. As the piece unfolds, the actor (Duke) recounts Bierce's life as a youngster, through the Civil War, and ultimately to the time of his supposed death around 1913/14. However, rather than dying, the piece suggests that Bierces is not dead, but living somewhere in Mexico and still providing his satirical, cynical commentary on a variety of topics.

As Duke recites the libretto, Waschka's music is used either as a backdrop or as an interlude to sections of the storyline. However, regardless of its function, the music almost always seems to be appropriate for the storyline at the time, setting the right mood or personality trait. Almost an extension of the libretto, each musical section was somewhat linked to the text and convincingly portrayed with the same cynicism and satire as the text, but with music.

Duke does extremely well in immersing himself within the role of Bierce. Throughout the opera he plays the part with much gusto and authenticity, and, although the musical sections on the saxophone are, perhaps, too few and far between, Duke's control as well as flexibility of instrument certainly serves him well in negotiating the demands of this piece. In each case when he performs the saxophone, Duke is able to bring his music to life and provide it with the appropriate personality at the appropriate time.

All in all, this is an enjoyable piece and duke renders a fine performance as an actor as well as a musician. For those wanting to hear forty minutes of saxophone music, this CD is not for you. However, should you want to be amused and entertained while listening to an intriguing piece of music performed by a quality musician, this CD is for you. Sit back and enjoy!"