John Adams Saxophone Concerto: Compact Disc

This review was published on: July 9th 2016

Mozart had Anton Stadler as inspiration for his major clarinet works, and John Adams it seems has saxophonist Timothy McAllister, for whom he has recently written a major concerto. This is big news for the classical saxophone community. Adams is probably the most high profile composer to have written for saxophone and orchestra since Claude Debussy abandoned his sketches for Rhapsodie in the early years of the 20th century He commands huge media attention, occupies the closing chapters of both Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise and Richard Taruskin's monumental history of Western music, and, perhaps most importantly, writes in a tonal, post-minimalist style that appeals to both core classical audiences and casual listeners alike. 

On this disc Adams' Saxophone Concerto (2013) is paired with his City Noir (2009) a symphony that features the saxophone as its main solo voice In both cases Timothy McAllister appears as saxophonist with the St Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson. It was during the course of writing City Noir that Adams met McAllister, who's fearless playing inspired the composer to produce his Saxophone Concerto which he describes as 'an unusually expansive statement for an instrument that is still looking for its rightful place in the symphonic repertory.' 

City Noir is the third in a triptych of orchestral works in which Adams examines Californian history, in this case what he describes as 'the dark, eerie chiaroscuro' of 1950s Hollywood crime thrillers. The first movement; 'The City and its Double', certainly opens as if the cameras have swooped in on a chase scene, with orchestral stabs slicing through the panning, scurrying texture like bullets, and brass chords skidding across the musical surface like a lorry sideswiping a shop front. With another cinematic conceit, the music cuts to pared-down jazz bass and drums, the ride cymbal or so and insistent without ever overpowering the ensemble. The remainder of the movement is notable for a lyrical but unsettling melody for strings, whose nocturnal quality brings to mind Raymond Chandler's archetypal mean streets. 

The second movement; 'This Song is for You' recalls Ellington at his most impressionistic. A rhapsodic saxophone solo emerges from clouds of translucent harmony to hover around the blues until a vertiginous trombone solo launches the orchestra into a violently energised riff. 

The final movement; 'Boulevard Night' centres on guttural Stravinsky-like ostinatos before McAllister is allowed to let rip, with some thrillingly executed trills, leaps and growls. From a saxophonic perspective the most satisfying aspect of the work is not that the instrument features so heavily as a solo voice but that it is also fully integrated into the ensemble. Adams' use of the instrument to shade his melodic writing for strings is particularly effective. 

When composers write concertos for established orchestral instruments they often have to contend with the worry that they can't possibly do anything that hasn't already been done. For the saxophone the problem is quite the opposite. As Adams puts it, there are precious few worthy concertos for saxophone, and the extant ones did not especially speak to me Instead he turned for reference. inspiration and cautionary models to jazz saxophone albums such as Stan Getz 's Focus and Canonball Adderley's 'New Bottle Old Wine', both recorded with strings and too often dismissed as middlebrow American kitsch. The result is by no means a jazz concerto, but it does bring the more jazz-inflected elements of Bernstein, Gershwin and Stravinsky into the 21st century. The solo writing in particular is angular and intervallic, sometimes channelling the cool jazz style of Paul Desmond, at other times invoking Chris Potter's post-Coltrane energy. 

Adams has spoken of his aversion to the expressive cliches commonly associated with classical saxophony, particularly with regard to vibrato and between him and McAllister they seem to have arrived at a contemporary performance style that crackles and sparkles with energy, bringing a strong sense of melodic force to even the most virtuosic of passages. Their approach does, however, bring is own mannerisms, notably in a bulging character that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the melodic line although this is a minor quibble. 

The interplay between soloist and orchestra is of the highest order, particularly in the echo effects at the end of the opening Animate. Adams is a master orchestrator. and however dense his writing becomes it never loses clarity. At times however, his use of vivid orchestral colours - particularly in the Tranquillo - can begin to sound a bit like an oversaturated photo. 

As far as the saxophone community is concerned Adams has put his head on the block with this concerto in that it cannot hope to live up to expectations that it will launch a golden age of symphonic saxophone repertoire. However. when the world's most famous living composer writes a saxophone concerto and one of America's top record labels promptly records it with a soloist the equal of any musician on the planet you can't help but feel that there might be a future for the class cal saxophone outside the small world it currently inhabits after all.

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) Tel: 01642 769 558

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