Concerto review in Jersey

Lois Hicks-Wozniak was soloist for the Ridgewood Concert Band’s premiere of my Sax Concerto on Friday night in New Jersey. A friend of Lois’s, Liz Nealon, reviewed the performance in her blog. I’m linking to it because a) it’s well-written and she makes good points, b) even though it’s a blog-based review, her take is no less-valid than it would be had it run in the Star-Ledger or another big paper. Here’s the review.

Nealon raves about Lois’s performance, and even though they are friends, I don’t doubt the superlatives. Newman attended the concert and reported that Lois was the real deal, and that she had played the hell out of the piece. Newman commented on Lois’s beautiful tone throughout, as well as her technique — nailing every little alternate fingering and awkward leap. I’m excited to hear the concert recording soon.

Nealon isn’t the first person to comment about two things. First, the “Prelude,” it’s been said (not just by Nealon), is overly loud and tends to cover the soloist.

Yes, I screwed up the dynamics in the “Prelude.” I get dynamics wrong a lot, often due to my misguided trust in the MIDI playback I hear when writing the piece, and other times because I’m writing not exactly the volume I want, but the energy level I want to achieve.

I think those two reasons are connected. Frequently, when trying to get the MIDI to sound exciting, the easiest way to accomplish that is to “turn it up” — by adding a few more F’s to the dynamics. Check out the MIDI to hear what I intended.

The “Prelude” should start like shattering glass, with the crack of the slapstick, the rush of the winds, and the sparkle of the crotales and glock. (This first note also uses all of the sax “materials” — wood, felt, and metal — that will give their names and instrumentation to the movements to follow.) The entire movement is supposed to just be bright, fast, and sparkling. To get the MIDI to sound bright and sparkling, the dynamics had to be cranked to get the attacks I wanted at the front of the notes. Then I started trusting those dynamics, and before you knew it, there were 30 woodwinds playing FFF (but, to make matters more confusing, marked “lightly“) at the same time that the soloist was playing difficult runs. You can guess how that turned out. I maintain that the orchestration is fine — it’s the dynamics that are wrong. I think I was also worried that if I marked the winds at P or MP, their energy level would drop in addition to their volume, and excitement would be lost. It’s definitely something I need to revisit when I have a more extended rehearsal period with an ensemble. In the meantime, it will mean extra rehearsal time as conductors try to deal with my balance errors. I should have consulted the score for Daphnis and Chloe, since the intent was Adams + Ravel.

All of that said, I wouldn’t consider the “Prelude” a “dense wall of sound” — at least not how I hear it in my head. If it seems like that, I need to fix it.  If anything, it should sound like bright, bubbling chords — like Adams in the beginning, Reich at the 1/2-way point, and a big ol’ pretty climax towards the end as it quotes the “Metal” movement to come. The “Prelude” exists to give the audience a big, yummy, sparkly, tingly mint before they’re subjected to the weirdness of “Felt.” It also gives the concerto structural cohesiveness, being constructed almost entirely from material to be heard developed in the later movements.

There has been some confusion about the “Metal” movement’s title. The expectation, especially from people who have heard very much of my music, is that “Metal” is going to be like “Turbine,” loaded with what Nealon calls “huge, percussion-driven walls of sound.” (I may trademark that.) That’s why I wanted “Metal” to go completely against that expectation and be lyrical, using the percussion extensively but primarily be aleatoric (out-of-time) and strictly for color. The title, like the other 3 middle movements, also references the orchestration of the movement — in this case, meaning metal percussion and brass (made, of course, of metal). I wanted to use the kind of scoring I used for “walls of sound” in previous pieces and use them in the opposite way here.

Although she considers the title to be a little questionable, Nealon thinks “Metal” may be a “turning point” in my work, adding “Listening to these memorable, affecting themes, I felt as though we were hearing a maturing Mackey.” (I don’t know if that’s true, but how much do I love reading her review?!  How many reviews discuss the work being reviewed as it compares to other pieces by the same composer?!  She says lots of other really nice things, too.)

While I think “Metal” may be my favorite movement of the concerto, don’t expect another piece like that from me again anytime soon. Writing slow music is excruciatingly difficult for me. “Metal” took much longer to write than any of the other movements, and it’s only 10 pages long. Whereas sincere, beautiful lyricism comes naturally to composers like Whitacre, for me, avoiding the pitfalls of cliche’ or sentimentality or cheese is a slow, difficult process. I can write something like the “Prelude” in three days, but “Metal” was ongoing for the entire four months I was writing the concerto, and I kept changing it until I delivered the parts. With fast, loud, rhythmic music, it’s easier to think, “I know how to do this. This’ll work fine.” But with slow, lyrical music, there’s constant second-guessing.

Nealon’s review is a great read — and not just ’cause it’s largely positive (although that doesn’t hurt). I encourage you to check it out. Hopefully I’ll have a recording of the concerto soon that I can publicly share so you can hear for yourself what she’s talking about. (Grumble, grumble.) For now, you can at least hear the MIDI of the “Prelude.”

Oh, right — we need a picture. Let’s go to the archive, shall we? Here’s a shot from Coney Island a few years ago — my favorite mullet of all time. Enjoy.


Nikk says

Ew! Mullet + Red Sox fan = hideous distortion of humanity.

How did you manage to snap this picture without her noticing you? Or do you like living on the edge? ;-)

I am assuming you picked up a copy of Leopard as soon as it came out. What do you think of it? Has it been making your Finale buggy? The only thing I've noticed on my end is that whenever I quit, it gives me an error message (after Finale itself has quit), but it appears none of the files are corrupted or harmed. I could do without the Dock's stack feature, but at least the Finder is somewhat better.

Jennifer A. says

Great review! Adams + Ravel--I get it. But you'll have to check on that trademark though. I've heard people talk about drum corps as a "wall of sound" for years now. You might have to fight the Blue Devils for it. :)

Will Mego says

Couple of things:
#1: I actually liked the prelude, dynamics aside, when I heard the now-verboten-recording that was "allegedly" on the site.
#2: When you say don't expect more slow movements because they're painful for you...doesn't that mean you should deeply explore that? Maybe locked in a isolation chamber with nothing but a piano, coffee, and a stack of Erik Satie scores?
#3: I think when you write something, even when it's out of your comfort zone (see #2) that people RAVE about, perhaps you should take the hint, see if there's something really amazing waiting to be expressed.
#4: I enjoyed what I heard of the recording while it was up, but you are maturing right now (as we speak, feel it?) and I esp. liked "kingfishers". It really seems like a huge step forward for you. I personally hope you continue to move in a more lyric direction, while continuing your quirky natural style. I'll have to buy you a beer or something when you next hit Chicago, if we ever meet, that is.
#5: unrelated...I know you like a good meal out, but next time you are in chicago, consider hitting Gene and Georgetti's. pricey, but there's a reason they're considered one of the most vaunted steaks in a city famous for steaks. I want to see a HUGE pic of a steak...

Rebecca says

bra-less mullet, too!

Cathy says

I agree with Will Mego about exploring that which you may not be as comfortable with. If they're raving, John, give them more.

Garrison Pikes says

That was a great review, you should feel honored John.

MMc says

Hi John: I'm a member of the DWS . I agree with the comments about the "Metal". I found it to be the most moving music in a very solid work. If you are uncomfortable about slow mvts it dosen't show. As for agonizing about composing, you aren't alone. Willam Walton, claimed he would spend an entire day working out a section and spend most of the next day erasing it. Looking forward to working with you again.


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