Concerto for saxophone
This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Timothy McAllister, saxophone / Sydney Symphony Orchestra / John Adams
American audiences know the saxophone almost exclusively via its use in jazz, soul and pop music. The instances of the saxophone in the classical repertory are rare, and the most famous appearances amount to only a handful of solos in works by Ravel (his "Bolero" and his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition"), by Prokofiev ("Lieutenant Kijé" Suite and "Romeo and Juliet"), Milhaud ("La Création du Monde") and of course the "Jet Song" solo in Leonard Bernstein’s "West Side Story," probably one of the most immediately recognizable five-note mottos in all of music. Beyond that, the saxophone appears to be an instrument that classical composers employ at best occasionally and usually only for "special" effect. It is hard to believe that an instrument that originated in such straight-laced circumstances—it was designed in the mid nineteenth century principally for use in military bands in France and Belgium and was intended to be an extension of the brass family—should have ended up as THE transformative vehicle for vernacular music (jazz, rock, blues and funk) in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, its integration into the world of classical music has been a slow and begrudged one.
When one evening during a dinner conversation Tim mentioned that during high school he had been a champion stunt bicycle rider, I knew that I must compose a concerto for this fearless musician and risk-taker. His exceptional musical personality had been the key ingredient in performances and recordings of "City Noir," and I felt that I’d only begun to scratch the surface of his capacities with that work.
A composer writing a violin or piano concerto can access a gigantic repository of past models for reference, inspiration or even cautionary models. But there are precious few worthy concertos for saxophone, and the extant ones did not especially speak to me. But I knew many great recordings from the jazz past that could form a basis for my compositional thinking, among them "Focus," a 1961 album by Stan Getz for tenor sax and an orchestra of harp and strings arranged by Eddie Sauter. Although clearly a "studio" creation, this album featured writing for the strings that referred to Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel. Another album, "Charlie Parker and Strings," from 1950, although more conventional in format, nonetheless helped to set a scenario in my mind for way the alto sax could float and soar above an orchestra. Another album that I’d known since I was a teenager, "New Bottle Old Wine," with Canonball Adderley and that greatest of all jazz arrangers, Gil Evans, remained in mind throughout the composing of the new concerto as a model to aspire to.
Classical saxophonists are normally taught a "French" style of producing a sound with a fast vibrato very much at odds with the looser, grittier style of a jazz player. Needless to say, my preference is for the latter "jazz" style playing, and in the discussions we had during the creation of the piece, I returned over and over to the idea of an "American" sound for Tim to use as his model. Such a change is no small thing for a virtuoso schooled in an entirely different style of playing. It would be like asking a singer used to singing Bach cantatas to cover a Billy Holiday song.
While the concerto is not meant to sound jazzy per se, its jazz influences lie only slightly below the surface. I make constant use of the instrument’s vaunted agility as well as its capacity for a lyrical utterance that is only a short step away from the human voice. The form of the concerto is a familiar one for those who know my orchestral pieces, as I’ve used it in my Violin Concerto, in "City Noir" and in my piano concerto "Century Rolls." It begins with one long first part combining a fast movement with a slow, lyrical one. This is followed by a shorter second part, a species of funk-rondo with a fast, driving pulse.
The concerto lasts roughly thirty-two minutes, making it an unusually expansive statement for an instrument that is still looking for its rightful place in the symphonic repertory.
—John Adams, July, 2013
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.
Timothy McAllister/Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson
(p) and © 2014 Nonesuch Records Inc, a Warner Music Group Company
Buy CD from our Online Shop