By Carol Kramer
A Sunday afternoon in mid-November saw the return of Otis Murphy, a perennial favorite with audiences in Richland Center. Dr. Murphy has performed five times in Richland Center as part of the Richland Concert Association’s series: four as a soloist and one as founding member and soprano saxophonist of the Solaire Saxophone Quartet. He is acknowledged throughout the world as a consummate artist and master of classical saxophone, having performed to highest acclaim on four continents. Dr. Murphy has the distinction of being one of the youngest-ever professors of music at Indiana University, having been appointed in 2001 at the age of 28.
I was delighted to see a full house for this performance. Many people have never heard a classical saxophonist, let alone one of Dr. Murphy’s caliber. They are often quite surprised and amazed at what they hear! I am always heartened to see new fans of my favorite instrument and genre. The Richland Concert Association, sponsor of Dr. Murphy’s concert, does an exceptional job of bringing musical talent to our community!
Dr. Murphy opened the Nov. 18 afternoon program with a dazzling display of virtuosity in Ralph Martino’s “Jerome Kern Songbook,” a medley of several familiar popular tunes. Immediately grabbing our attention was his flawless altissimo register, which extends the saxophone’s relatively limited range of two and a half octaves by at least another full octave. Murphy’s execution of this soaring high register is not only perfectly controlled and in tune, but he makes it all look and sound effortless. It’s not. The same can be said of his blinding technique: He nonchalantly tosses off virtuosic passages with seeming ease.
In contrast to the opening flourish of technical gymnastics and soaring altissimo register, Giulio Caccini’s “Ave Maria,” a 16th-century piece, began with subdued, ethereal tones. Murphy’s wife and talented accompanist, Haruko, deserves equal praise for her precision and sensitivity to every nuance of her soloist husband’s musical expression. The musical and emotional bond between the two was evident throughout the program.
Next, the Murphy duo played a composition written by a personal friend of theirs: Ryota Ishikawa’s “Blooming Ireland,” a suite of folk tunes and a jig that evoked a feel of the Irish countryside.
Dr. Murphy ended the concert’s first half with one of my favorite original compositions for saxophone: “Tableaux de Provence” by Paule Maurice. It is composed of five charming and varied movements, each one a gem, ranging in mood from light and fun to feisty to plaintive and melancholy. Murphy executed each movement with the utmost finesse and sensitivity, imparting his personal style and virtuosity.
Following the intermission, the Murphys were joined on stage by Ethan, 13-year-old cellist and one of their six children. The trio performed Haruko’s transcription of a Baroque-era oboe concerto by Marcello, with Dr. Murphy playing the oboe part on soprano saxophone. The trio continued with “Oblivion,” a hauntingly beautiful and sultry tango by Astor Piazzolla.
The Murphy duo continued with “A Gershwin Fantasy,” a dazzling and virtuosic medley of favorite Gershwin tunes. Dr. Murphy pulled out all the stops in this highly ornamented interpretation, often soaring into the stratosphere and at times employing double-tonguing and circular breathing.
For their final selection, the Murphys were joined by two of their children: Ethan again on cello and 18-year-old Kevin on horn. The family performed together another arrangement by Haruko, “Ashokan Farewell.” The audience was eager to hear Dr. Murphy share personal information about his family of six children, all of whom are homeschooled and are following their parents’ musical lead. Their oldest daughter, Renee, just won first place in a prestigious harp competition in Japan.
Carol Kramer is a Wisconsin native who has lived in Richland Center for the past 24 years. Prior to that, she served 20 years as a saxophonist with the U.S. Army Field Band in Washington, D.C. She remains active as a teacher and performer in the area, particularly with Burlap Sax, southwestern Wisconsin’s self-proclaimed favorite saxophone quartet! She maintains a private music and art studio in Richland Center, where she teaches, rehearses and creates unique works of art. She is best known for her carpet murals, a medium she conceived and refined over the years since returning to Wisconsin.