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Two new concertos from Gabriel Prokofiev, both unusual: the work for saxophone is as overtly tuneful as many other modern forays into the medium are not, and that for bass drum is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first for the instrument.>
In many ways the story of Jazz, and the story of the musicians who created it, is embodied in the saxophone, and this offers a composer a wealth of inspiration, whilst simultaneously making it challenging to find the saxophone a new home in the ‘classical’ orchestra. I’m a huge fan of Jazz, but I wanted to write a ‘classical’ concerto, to show the saxophone in a new musical form, and not compose the expected ‘Jazz Concerto’ with conscious jazz references. However the instrument’s sonic association with jazz (and my tendencies towards syncopated rhythms) meant that some connections to its motherstyle were inevitable, but importantly this came about in a natural and instinctive way.
What particularly attracts me to the classical concerto form is the interaction between the soloist and the orchestra: we have a protagonist and a whole community of other instruments; the options for how they interact are almost endless. The orchestra can act as a single great entity: a force of nature or emotion against which the soloist expresses him or herself, or, on the other end of the scale, individual instruments of the orchestra can directly interact with the soloist and different relationships can form.
In this concerto the saxophonist as a ‘journey-man’, going through a series of events, challenges or emotional states. I haven’t followed a precise ‘programme’ or narrative, but below are a few clues to some of the features of the concerto:
I. Largo con tenerezza – Andante deciso – Molto pesante (alla hip-hop)
The saxophone is trying to find its way, establish itself in this symphonic scene by showing different skills and characteristics: jazz sensitivity, precise technique, streetwise lyricism, muscular confidence. It converses and then battles against the orchestra, building to a stand-off between orchestra and saxophone that evolves into a hip-hop inspired section.
II. Scherzo – Con moto
This movement starts with the saxophone alone, playing shifting arpeggiated patterns, partly inspired by Bach’s solo suites, but with a minimalist twist. These patterns soon bounce against staccato clarinets and strings. Eventually the journey moves forward with an insistent syncopated bass-line, with more lyrical contrapuntal lines weaving around it. The virtuosic cadenza comes after increasingly florid conversations between the saxophone, violins, trumpets and flutes.
III. Largo mesto
I was going through a really tough time when I wrote the sketches that became this movement: sadness, self-doubt, frustration and regret. The simple minor ostinato from the violas keeps moving forward, with memories calling out in the woodwinds. Then the saxophone joins with a sad song, which grows to a dissonant stifled cry in the high register, then the violins continue the story around it. Later, the harp the opens the door to a nostalgic (then regretful) middle section, with the bassoon passing its story to the saxophone.
IV. Allegro mechanico
The main idea for the final movement came to me when I was cycling through London’s financial district. Noticing yet another set of shiny new tower-blocks just constructed—more angular, futuristic lines reaching up to the skies—brought to mind recent thoughts I’d had about our uncertain and increasingly mechanical future. The racing dystopian texture and motifs of the 4th movement came to mind. This finale is a kind of wake-up call: the saxophone’s part opposing an inexorable mechanical orchestral engine, driving to an insistent five-beat time signature. It twice rises to a pounding, almost disco-punk climax.
The Saxophone Concerto was commissioned by Andrey Boreyko and the Naples Philharmonic and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and premiered by Branford Marsalis with Naples Philharmonic, conducted by Andrey Boreyko, on 17 March 2016 at Artis Naples, Florida, USA.
Bass Drum Concerto
Also known as the la Grancassa, basstrommel, and la Grosse Caisse—which can literally be translated as ‘fat drum’ (or even ‘phat drum’)—the bass drum produces the lowest frequencies of the orchestra, and is used to create some of the most thunderous climaxes. It has never been considered as a ‘solo’ instrument or been given a concerto, and as it is un-pitched and (on the surface) seems quite a limited instrument, that isn’t surprising.
A concerto for bass drum is by no means a gimmick however, and there are firm reasons why it is deserving of such a work: the bass drum is one of the most ubiquitous instruments of our time. Wherever I go in London I hear bass drums thumping out of people’s car stereos, out of shops, and out of nightclubs and bars; the bass drum is everywhere. More often than not it is the first sound you hear when you approach a club or music event; in electronic dance music most producers obsess over the perfect bass-drum sound, and though it might drive you crazy when its pounding through your walls at 4am when your neighbours are having a party, it is one of the essential sounds of the 21st century.
In classical music the bass drum only gets occasional and simple use, but it has a serious range of sonic possibilities, and with some experimentation many sounds emerge: wooden ‘tocks’ and ‘clicks’ from hitting the rim of the drum; metallic snaps from striking the metal lugs; whale-like moans through to rubbing the skin with a wet finger or superball (or friction mallet). Hitting the skin itself can give so much variety depending on what type of mallet is used, where on the skin it is hit, how much the drum is dampened, and what extras (such as chains) are placed on the skin. This concerto easily evolved into four movements, all inspired by the range of sounds, colours and textures that the drum can produce, as well as the rhythms, beats, power and energy it can generate.
The orchestra’s role is equal to that of the drum, and of course they carry the harmony and melody, but the bass drum leads most of the melodic shapes. Joby Burgess can produce several clearly differentiated tones, with the bass drum marked to help consistency. There was a clear sense of musical journey for me in this concerto, drawn from the simple excitement of composing for a huge drum through to subconscious (and occasionally conscious) influences from the often tumultuous events (such as the riots in London, the Arab Spring) that happened across the world during its composition in 2011.
I. Lento scuro (Bass war)
The (usual) dampening is removed to reveal the bass drum’s full bass and power in a slow crescendo roll, followed by a sort of ‘bass-off’ between the drum and the low-end of the orchestra. After this a chain is placed on the drum to give a grimy, aggressive rumble (a dirty, metallic, snare effect), playing a ‘half-step’ groove. Finally the drum rotates to reveal a gut string from its centre, which is bowed to give a ‘lion’s roar’.
II. Largo mesto (In the Steppes)
The second movement is more contemplative, less dissonant with a slightly Russian, modal/minor feel. Joby uses only his hands for the entire movement: gently tapping it with his palms, fist and fingers; using thimbles on his fingers to create clicks and ticks on the rims and lugs. The second half freezes to an open, non-vibrato strings chord, over which Joby rubs the drum skin with a wet finger and a super-ball to create haunting moans and sub-bass tones.
III. Allegro moderato leggiero (Four to the floor)
A concerto for bass drum wouldn’t be complete without a section dedicated to the ubiquitous ‘thud thud thud thud’ beat of club music. Though rhythmically simple, the subtlety is found in the way Joby alters the dampening of the drum, starting completely dead (just like an electronic bass drum) before varying the tone. The orchestra play repetitive off-beat chords (based on a corrupted B minor chord), starting with straight eighth-notes before subtle varied triplets are introduced to play between a swinging and straight groove.
IV. Allegro brilliante (May speed)
This is a break-neck finale, in which Joby smacks the hell out of the drum with two wooden sticks (reminiscent of Japanese Taiko drumming), and the orchestra play a spiralling Hindemith-meets-hardcore continuously modulating melody.
The Bass Drum Concerto was commissioned by Princeton Symphony and the London Contemporary Orchestra (with support from the PRS Foundation for Music). It was premiered by Joby Burgess with Princeton Symphony, conducted by Rossen Milanov, in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, on 9 February 2012, with European Premier by Joby Burgess with the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt on 3 March 2012, as part of Reverb2012 festival at The Roundhouse, London, UK.
Gabriel Prokofiev © 2019
Branford would like to thank Harvey Pittel, Matthew Oberstein at Opus 3 Artists, and David Gould & Andrew Hadro from Vandoren.
Joby would like to thank the many dedicated staff and musicians at Princeton Symphony Orchestra, University of Princeton, Chicago Composers Orchestra and London Contemporary Orchestra for their work in bringing this concerto into the world during the Spring of 2012. My friends and colleagues at Adams Percussion, Grover Pro Percussion, Mike Balter Mallets, Remo Percussion and Vater Percussion for giving me the tools to perform ’solo’ bass drum. The wonderful staff and musicians of the Ural Philharmonic for making my first visit to Russia such a joy. Lastly to Gabriel, for his passion, perseverance and this truly inspiring score!
Alexey would like to thank Ural Philharmonic: every single musician in the orchestra! Gabriel and all his creative talant, and our wonderful soloists.
Signum Classics © 2019