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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.
from notes by Gabriel Prokofiev © 2019