September 16, 2007
Really, truly, totally done
I finished the parts for the Sax Concerto today. Total length of the parts: 448 pages. Lordy.
I kind of can’t believe I’m done. Tomorrow I’ll print the score, bind it, and just kind of look at it all day in disbelief. Now I’m dying to hear the damn thing. The premiere is on October 23 with the Dallas Wind Symphony at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Don Fabian will be the soloist, and Jerry Junkin is conducting.
I just wrote the program note for the piece, and I’m posting it here for the curious/incredibly bored. Oh, also because I don’t have anything else to say. My brain has been all-consumed with this thing for more than four months. Now I just want to relax and play Wii Tennis…
Anyway, here’s the program note as it will appear in the DWS program. (The program in the score, as seen on the concerto’s web page, is slightly different.)
Concerto for Soprano Sax and Wind Ensemble
In March 2006, the Dallas Wind Symphony performed my piece, “Redline Tango.” Don Fabian, the ensemble’s principal saxophonist, played the soprano sax solo that anchors the middle section of the piece, and right after the dress rehearsal, Don approached me about writing a full concerto for soprano sax. By the time the concert was finished, Jerry Junkin, the Dallas Wind Symphony’s conductor, was on board, and before I knew it, he had assembled a consortium of more than 25 other wind bands. Suddenly, it was apparent that I needed to come up with an actual piece.
To me, the saxophone is a kind of hybrid instrument; it’s essentially a brass instrument with a woodwind reed on it. Instead of valves like a brass instrument has, the sax has keys like a woodwind. (Many sax players even switch effortlessly from sax to a woodwind like clarinet, and back again in the same concert.) So, I had an instrument made of three materials: felt (the pads of the keys), metal (the body), and wood (the reed). In fact, every instrument in the band can be placed into one (or more) of those “categories.” The brass section is made of metal, the harp is made of metal and wood, the wind section has keys, and so on. This realization gave me the central idea for the piece: a multi-movement work with the inner movements called Felt, Metal, and Wood, and with instrumentation chosen to essentially match those materials for each movement. The outer movements would be scored for the entire ensemble.
The piece starts with “Prelude,” a very brief overture to the concerto, with material that foreshadows each of the movements to come. If you hear something you like in the “Prelude,” you’ll probably hear it more developed in the following movements. (Conversely, if you hear absolutely nothing you like in the “Prelude,” you may be in for a long night.)
Movement two is “Felt.” This movement is a study of the keys of the instrument, so it includes lots of runs (requiring quick fingers), lots of pitch bending (to show what different pitches the sax can produce with minimal movement of the fingers), and a bit of alternate fingering. On the saxophone, the player can play the same pitch by using different combinations of keys, and each fingering combination results in a slightly different color. In this movement, you’ll hear repeated notes that are accomplished with changing fingerings, so the color will shift from note to note, even as the pitch stays the same.
The other question – besides “what is a sax made of” – that I wanted to consider when writing the concerto was, “what does a sax do?” Movement 2, “Felt,” answers that question with, “well, the sax can play some weird sounds.” With that pitch bending and crazy fingering, it’s a peculiar five minutes.
Movement three, “Metal,” answers that same question with, “the sax can play high and pretty.” This movement, scored primarily for metal percussion and brass, is a calm, lyrical contrast to the weirdness that preceded it.
It seemed silly to write a sax concerto and not deal with the fact that the sax is often heard simply playing a song in an intimate setting – say, at a jazz club. Movement four, “Wood,” is really just that: a simple song. The scoring here is, as you’d expect, woodwinds (including flutes, which aren’t technically made of wood anymore), double bass, harp, piano, marimba, and – as in every movement – the sax section. Since the piece that got me this commission in the first place was, at its core, a tango, I gave Don Fabian another tango here.
Finally we reach the “Finale.” First, just a little background. My teacher in college was a composer named John Corigliano. Before I ever studied with him, one of my favorite pieces was his Clarinet Concerto. It’s not just a spectacular piece, but it’s easily (to me, at least) one of the greatest wind concertos ever written. When I got this commission, Corigliano’s concerto cast a pretty intense shadow over me. How could I possibly write a concerto anywhere near the quality of that work?
Well, I couldn’t – so I stole his. “Finale” starts with a nearly direct quote of John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto. In order to make it as meta as possible, my quote is in fact a quote of a quote. I’m quoting the Corigliano, which was, in these 6 bars, quoting a work by 16th century composer Giovanni Gabrieli, “Sonata Pian e Forte.” After my little tribute to my teacher, the solo part takes off for roughly four minutes of non-stop virtuosity. Here my answer to the question “what does a sax do?” was simply, “well, the sax can play some monster-difficult stuff.” Or at least Don Fabian can.
My sincere thanks to several sax players who worked with me throughout the process of writing this piece: Don Fabian, Timothy Roberts of the US Navy Band, Timothy McAllister of the Prism Quartet, and Erik Steighner of Austin, Texas.