This past Friday, the U.S. premier of John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto was performed by saxophonist Tim McAllister and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere took place with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last month. In an article published by the New York Times before the Baltimore concert, titled Classical Saxophone, an Outlier, Is Anointed by John Adams Concerto, Mr. Adams and Mr. McAllister discuss the piece. McAllister says, “This is some of the hardest music I’ve ever played”, due to the fast passagework, large leaps, and polyrhythmic structures. Mr. Adams has always loved the saxophone and the way it overlaps jazz and classical genres, so he has previously written for the instrument in his symphonic work, City Noir and his opera, Nixon in China. In the article, Adams wonders why there are so few saxophone concertos. The saxophone concertos that do exist are not regularly performed, and Adams does not consider them to be as great as, for example, a Mozart Clarinet Concerto.
I agree with Mr. Adams that the saxophone concerto is a great idea. The blend of the saxophone and string sounds allows for many rich and interesting timbres. I wonder if expanding the use of the saxophone in orchestral music would help bridge the gap between “classical” and other styles. Other than piano, guitar, drums, and bass, the saxophone is possibly the most commonly used instrument in popular music. Famous artists such as Dave Mathews and Bruce Springsteen have incorporated it into most of their well-known songs. Even amongst conservatory-trained musicians, there is somewhat of a divide between jazz/funk and classical styles. Pieces such as Adams’s Saxophone Concerto that combine many elements from different musical genres, could appeal to a much broader audience than many works currently in the standard orchestral repertoire.
Mr. Adams does go a little too far though in talking about the current state of music, saying that we are in a time of low culture where “absolute mediocrity” could go on and on for generations. He stated:
"We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity – from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter – and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite. People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now."
I have to disagree with him here. One of the pieces I’ve listened to most frequently in the last several months is the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw. Every time I listen to it I hear something new, and I am intrigued by the beautiful harmonies contrasted with unexpected pitches, sounds, and spoken words. This piece is complex on several different levels, and unfortunately, I don’t think it would be considered user-friendly or easily accessible to an audience made up of the general public. Although other recent Pulitzer Prize winners such as Steve Reich and David Lang use minimalistic techniques in many of their compositions, I would not categorize their music as simplistic or user-friendly either. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Adams’s music as well, and I believe that it is the individual styles of these and many more composers that are allowing us to maintain a period of high culture in music.