solo alto saxophone, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, harp, piano, celesta, strings
First performance: 22 August 2013. Sydney, Australia. Timothy McAllister, saxophone. Sydney Symphony Orchestra. John Adams, conductor.
John Adams is an American composer whose works reside in both minimalist and post-modernist realms. Adams has developed an extensive composition career, writing operas, chamber works, vocal and choral works, and film scores. Many of his operas use libretti based on current or recent world events. One such piece is his profoundly emotional work, On the Transmigration of Souls, composed in 2002 to commemorate the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Adams’ most admired piece is his 30-minute-long Phrygian Gates, a minimalistic yet sophisticated work for solo piano.
Adams was born and raised in Massachusetts to a family of musicians; his mother was a singer, and his father was a touring clarinetist. He credits his musical affinity to his exposure to jazz, Americana, and Broadway, which all ultimately influenced his unique compositional identity. Adams attended Harvard University, earning Bachelor of Arts (1969) and Master of Arts (1971) degrees in composition. He studied with several teachers, notably Leon Kirchner and Roger Sessions—two figures that exposed Adams to the modernistic style of the works of Pierre Boulez. Adams moved to San Francisco in 1972 and taught at the Conservatory of Music. Here, he experimented with tape recordings and wrote several electroacoustic pieces. He also wrote some of his respected operas like _Nixon in China _(1987) and _Doctor Atomic _(2005). Both operas and his later works exemplify Adams’ use of repeating patterns, coinciding with minimalism and atonal centers, alluding to post-modernist characteristics.
Adams’ Saxophone Concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra exemplifies this duality. The Concerto was composed in 2013 as a joint commission between the Sydney, St. Louis, and Baltimore symphonies and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estato de São Paulo. Adams was influenced to write a piece for solo saxophone after his father, who also played the instrument on tours. Adams was also enamored by the talent of many jazz saxophonists like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Wayne Shorter. The composer notes, “while the Concerto is not meant to sound jazzy per se, its jazz influences lie only slightly below the surface.” The Concerto aims to showcase both the immense dexterity of the performer and the idiomatic tonal sequences affiliated with the saxophone. The Concerto begins with the first of two movements, “Animato: tranquillo, suave.” Here, the saxophone and orchestra begin with a lively conversation, which is followed by a gradual reduction in texture. The saxophone then plays dexterous flourishes while the orchestra supports with atonal chords and melodies reminiscent of the style of Charles Ives. The second movement, “Molto Vivo: a hard, driving pulse,” is a whirlwind of a finale, beginning with yet another technically-demanding interchange between the saxophone and strings. The lively conversation continues until both voices unite, building upon each others’ energies, culminating in a rather abrupt ending.
notes by Dr. Philip Hoch
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