John Adams on Saxophone Concerto

My Saxophone Concerto was composed in early 2013, 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. The first work 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 color 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.

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 THEtransformative 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.

John Adams and Tim McAllister talking about the world premiere

Having grown up hearing the sound of the saxophone virtually every day—my father had played alto in swing bands during the 1930’s 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 that f the human voice. The form is by now 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 combing a fast movement with a slow, lyrical one. This is followed by a shorter second part with its “fast, driving pulse.”

Screenshot 2015-04-12 15.39.39

The concerto last 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

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I. Animato; tranquillo, suave

II. Molto vivo: a hard, driving pulse

Eb alto saxophone
2 flutes
2 oboes
English horn (=oboe 3)
2 clarinets in Bb
Bass clarinet in Bb
2 bassoons
3 horns
2 trumpets

Commissioned by Sydney Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Orquestra Sinfonica Do Estado De Sao Paulo Foundation. First performance, August 22, 2013 by Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney, Australia with Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone and John Adams conducting.

Published by Hendon Music (Boosey & Hawkes).

Duration: approximately 30 minutes



Timothy McAllistair, alto saxophone, St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor (Nonesuch)