John Adams: Saxophone Concerto


Jointly commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo Foundation. The world premiere took place in Sydney in
August 2013, with saxophonist Timothy McAllister, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and John Adams as the conductor.


Adams described the Saxophone Concerto in his programme notes:

“The first work to follow the huge, three-hour oratorio ‘The Gospel According to the Other Mary’. One would normally be hard put to draw lines between two such disparate creations. One deals with such matters as crucifixion, raising the dead and the trials of battered women. The other has as its source my life-long exposure to the great jazz saxophonists from the Swing Era through the likes of Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter. Nonetheless there are peculiar affinities shared by both works, particularly in the use of modal scales and the way they colour the emotional atmosphere of the music. Both works are launched by a series of ascending scales that energetically bounce back and forth among various modal harmonies.”


The choice of using the saxophone is interesting as there is a distinct lack of concertos for the instrument. Often composers have used the saxophone within an orchestra to create a certain effect, for example in Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. Adams grew up with jazz music, with the saxophone being particularly prominent due to his father playing in swing bands. In his extensive notes for this work, Adams comments on his influences from jazz and how he has used this inspiration in the concerto:

“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’.”


The Music

Set in two movements, Adams’ Saxophone Concerto lasts around 30 minutes in performance. 


Movement I – Animato: tranquillo, suave 

The burst of energy at the start of the first movement sets the tone for the rest of the concerto. Fast scalic passages whistle through the soloist until an angular melody is played out. The level of interplay between the soloist and orchestra makes the solo part fiendishly difficult, however the final product is a really exciting one. 

Adams’ rich orchestrations prevail in this movement, with even the richest and heaviest of sections still glistening with clarity. The echo effects between the soloist and orchestra are really effective and seamlessly pass remnants of the melody through all the nooks and crannies of the orchestra. Exciting tutti sections burst through the texture and the build up to the tranquil section of the movement exhibits this flawlessly. 

The atmospheric tranquillo section sees instruments emerging from through the texture. Fast scalic runs from the soloist leaves the rest of the orchestra to decorate and support with decorations or fluctuating longer notes. The rich sound of the saxophone really shines through in this section. Adams’ jazz inspirations are also perhaps the most obvious here too. 

As the tempo picks back up the repeated structure from the orchestra allows for the soloist to sit on top playing challenging interlocking parts. The dexterity needed by the soloist in this section is clear from just the quick changes in time and pulse, let alone the notes. Interestingly, this movement ends quietly, with the atmosphere effects being at the forefront. 


Movement II – Molto vivo: a hard, driving pulse

As the performance mark suggests, the driving pulse from the offset of the second movement is full of energy. Again, intricate interplay between the soloist and orchestra is at the forefront, making it devilishly difficult for both parties. The animated character of this movement is fresh and keeps the snapshots of melody moving along at an exciting pace. The concerto ends with the soloist playing a rush of syncopated phrases, which are echoed by the orchestra. A final dialogue between the two parties ensues before the final, and perhaps quite sudden last note. 


Final Thoughts

John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto is a truly challenging work for any saxophonists. Timothy McAllister, whom the concerto was written for, even said that it was “some of the hardest music I’ve ever played. It’s traditional in a way that’s incredibly challenging.” With exciting interplay, rich textures and a jazzy flair, this concerto has certainly earned its place in the advanced saxophone repertory.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Nico Muhly: Viola Concerto


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