The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment.
At its heart, the piece is playful, heard in marked dynamic contrasts, stop-start behaviour and alternations between slow and fast tempi (Weir intends it to be a two-part invention). However, it really doesn’t take long before all this highly motivic back-and-forth starts to sound repetitive, even monotonous. It’s rather like listening to an insistent but terminally polite heckler. Even when it develops a more dance-like behaviour later on, substance still feels a long way off, the constant recourse to melodic bursts in octaves suffering from the law of diminishing returns. It has to be said that Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance was outstanding; for all its blandities, Day Break Shadows Flee does at least afford the chance to show off his awesome technique. But is that enough to give a work life? Perhaps sometimes, but not here; music as utterly safe and inconsequential as this is perhaps beyond redemption. Safe, inconsequential – if Weir continues in this manner (and one sincerely hopes that she won’t), the British royal family will no doubt feel she was an ideal choice as the new Master of the Queen’s Music.
From the perspective of expectation, Zhou Long‘s piano concerto Postures, being performed for the first time in Europe, could not have been more dramatically different. Where Weir ploughed a familiar furrow to predictable ends, Long is largely unheard in the UK and this piece could hardly have been more capricious. Indeed, it’s tempting to think of Postures as a 26-minute stream of consciousness, which for some might prove off-putting. The huge heraldic burst that rudely interrupts the first movement’s funky rhythmic opening is prescient in this respect, as barely a minute goes by without Long pulling both soloist and orchestra into a new avenue of enquiry. There are landmarks; both the first and second movements return to their opening ideas at various points, pit-stops of familiarity in a maelstrom of novelty. That sounds like a negative way of putting it, and on a first listening, that might be the most instinctual reaction (it was mine), but the work as a whole seems to get away with it. Long may be fickle with material, but much of it is very effective, especially the less intrusive ideas, such as a slow piano line doubled by piccolo high above, or the vague, mysterious atmosphere permeating the central movement (which wouldn’t seem out of place in a respectable horror flick), and the curious high oscillating motifs that appear towards the end of this movement. Even when his music inhabits a land of pure romp, as in the third movement, Long can’t resist flitting between ideas and allusions, evoking Zappa, Varèse and Stravinsky in quick succession through a whirlwind of basslines, xylophone clatter and hectic textures. Melody is abandoned here, the music demonstrating most vividly the work’s title, pulling shapes with a devil-may-care bravado. Postures really is a bit mental, but it’s hard not to be carried along by its unstoppable enthusiasm.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Postures, though, is that, for all its chop-and-change mentality, there’s a strong sense of identity at the work’s core. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for John Adams’ recent Saxophone Concerto. Anyone dreading a standard-issue essay in minimalistic noodling can relax to an extent, as the work’s overall resemblance to that kind of frippery is for the most part slender. There is, in fact, a considerable lyrical effort at work here, both a display of Adams’ fondness for the saxophone as well as something of a demonstrative gauntlet throwing-down, highlighting the versatility and beauty of the instrument. As a vehicle for such, the concerto is admirable and even impressive, yet as i said it greatly suffers for want of a clear sense of identity. Adams’ determination to be melodic is perfectly clear—the instrument is given long tracts of material filled with the stuff—but every phrase feels entirely ephemeral, there and gone in an instant. As such, listening over time becomes frustrating, feels flat (exacerbated by a largely unchanging dynamic palette), an experience not helped much by plunging into an ersatz impressionistic landscape. None of this is unpleasant, but it is all relentlessly superficial, and as the work literally goes through the motions in its brief, rapid, arpeggio-fuelled second movement, the proximity of minimalism becomes all too apparent. In hindsight, maybe the Saxophone Concerto does have an identity, but it’s a cosmetic, prolix one, and as a result the work’s scope and ambition are disappointingly slight.
Zhou Long’s Postures was given its first European performance by pianist Andreas Haefliger with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra directed by Lan Shui. Adam’s Saxophone Concerto received its UK première by Timothy McAllister and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.
Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première)
In atmosphere and expression the music is another kind of two-part invention, contrasting bright, upwards-arching phrases (heard at the opening and evoking the arrival of light at the beginning of the day) with veiled, mysterious scurryings, suggesting the stranger, more nervous life lived at night and in the early morning.
Day Break Shadows Flee is around ten minutes in duration. It was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Proms 2014.
(c) Judith Weir, July 2014
Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee
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Zhou Long – Postures (European Première)
Zhou Long – Postures
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John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)
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.
Having grown up hearing the sound of the saxophone virtually every day—my father had played alto in swing bands during the 1930s and our family record collection was well stocked with albums by the great jazz masters—I never considered the saxophone an alien instrument. My 1987 opera “Nixon in China” is almost immediately recognizable by its sax quartet, which gives the orchestration its special timbre. I followed “Nixon” with another work, “Fearful Symmetries,” that also features a sax quartet in an even more salient role. In 2010 I composed “City Noir,” a jazz-inflected symphony that featured a fiendishly difficult solo part for alto sax, a trope indebted to the wild and skittish styles of the great bebop and post-bop artists such as Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano and Eric Dolphy. Finding a sax soloist who could play in this style but who was sufficiently trained to be able to sit in the middle of a modern symphony orchestra was a difficult assignment. But fortunately I met Tim McAllister, who is quite likely the reigning master of the classical saxophone, an artist who while rigorously trained is also aware of the jazz tradition.
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
John Adams – Saxophone Concerto
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