The four young saxophonists of the Barkada Quartet approach their work with the energy of a jazz ensemble and, when they are at their best, the suppleness of a string quartet. Saxophone ensembles can be a tough sell in the classical music world – the instrument was invented in 1840, which makes it, for the most conservative classical listeners, nearly as newfangled as the synthesizer – but these musicians have done remarkably well since they banded together in 2011. Among their other accomplishments, in 2012 they became the first saxophone ensemble to win the grand prize (as well as the gold medal in the wind division) at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, a contest with a good track record for spotting promising groups.

The quartet paid a visit to Corthell Concert Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus on Wednesday evening, and played a program that demonstrated the considerable strengths of this ensemble, which is arrayed like a string quartet, with soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones.

But that said, the program also helped explain why classical audiences remain so resistant to the saxophone, except when it is used either as a color instrument (for example, in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”) or as a no-holds-barred engine of avant-garde exploration (as in the works of John Zorn and Nick Zoulek).

It’s the repertory. The works the Barkada Quartet played on Wednesday were all pleasant and energizing, and one – Pedro Iturralde’s “Pequeña Czarda” (1949), an arrangement of a set of lively variations, originally for alto saxophone and piano – was clever, virtuosic and a lot of fun. But there was not much music of great depth or consequence here. The concert was a bit like going out for dinner and ending up at a cotton candy stand instead.

Of the premieres, the more ambitious was the Quintet No. 2 “Sierra Vita” (2016) by David Martynuik, an associate professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Martynuik tells us in his program note that he loves to ski, particularly in the western United States and Canada, and that the work, which is scored for saxophone quartet and piano, embraces the range of feelings skiing gives him, from the excitement and anticipation he feels when driving off on a ski trip to the various kinds of snow he might encounter and the feeling of speeding through the final stretch of a ski run.

You can feel that joy in the music, which is tightly scored and full of bright, cheerful melodies, particularly in the soprano saxophone line, and insistently burbling accompaniments. As a quintet for saxes and piano, though, it doesn’t work so well. Mainly the problem was balance: from where I sat, toward the front of the hall, the ensemble so consistently overpowered the pianist, Anastasia Antonacos, that only an occasional rippling, Rachmaninoff-like figure or between-the-sax lines chordal burst could be heard.

It’s possible that Martynuik meant it this way – that as a chamber piece, the texture was meant to be heard as a solid whole, without the piano having a solo role (though that is generally not the way quintets for piano and either winds or strings typically work), or perhaps the relationship would have sounded more equitable in another hall. But at this first performance, I spent much of the work’s 26-minute duration wondering what the piano was meant to bring to the proceedings.

The second premiere, Christine Delphine Hedden’s “An Daingean” (2016), a brief, misty reminiscence of a visit to Ireland, was generally more pleasing. It lasts less than five minutes, but Hedden’s ability to resist the saxophone’s robust side, and to give the ensemble fluid, meditative, harmonically nebulous textures, serves her (and the players) well.

The quartet opened its program with David Salleras Quintana’s “Tango Pour une Princesse Désésperée” (“Tango for a Desperate Princess,” 2006), a frenetic, punchy vignette, with a brief slow section that let the quartet demonstrate its ability to phrase subtly. The program also included Alfred Desenclos’ Quatuor pour Saxophones (1964), a three-movement study in Gallic urbanity.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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