Saxophone Concerto (2016)

Saxophone + Symphony Orchestra // 29 mins
Orchestration: 2(pic).2(ca).2(bcl).2(cbn)/ alsax/strings
[Commissioned by Naples Philharmonic & Detroit Symphony]


Programme Note

This commission to compose a Saxophone Concerto for Branford Marsalis with Naples Philarmonic and Andrey Boreyko came at perfect time in my career. Over the last 4 years I have been primarily focusing on the Concerto form and have now composed 5 Concertos, for both non-traditional solo instruments: Turntables, Bass Drum, and Trumpet, Percussion & Turntables; as well as traditional classical solo instruments: Violin and Cello. And now the Saxophone, which though it is an extremely established and popular instrument, actually has very few widely recognised concertos. So composing a saxophone concerto really feels like the ideal next step in my journey of Concerto composing: a ‘non’-classical instrument, but an instrument that has incredible expressive potential, and an instrument that deserves many more Concertos and classical works. 

The Saxophone has such a strong personality and identity; individualism, innovation, inner-expression, strength, pain, loneliness, tenderness, exuberance, confidence… are just some of the ideas it brings to mine. These characteristics are embedded in it’s rich and versatile tone, and have been explored and developed primarily through it’s use as a Jazz instrument. In many ways the story of Jazz and the story of the musicians who created it is embodied in the Saxophone. So it’s an instrument that offers a composer a wealth of inspiration, yet it is also undoubtably challenging to find a new orchestral home for the Saxophone.

It was clear to me that I wanted to write a ‘classical’ concerto for the Saxophone, and resist the natural attraction of falling into Jazz idioms when composing this work. I believe that the Saxophone can be a truly ‘classical’ instrument, especially in they hands of a musician such as Branford Marsalis, and in the 21st century a whole new classical journey is potentially waiting for this instrument.

However, the strong association that the Saxophone has with Jazz meant that it’s almost impossible not to have moments when we hear a connection with it’s past.

What particularly attracts me to the Concerto form is the interaction between the Soloist and the orchestra; we have a protagonist, and we have 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-herself, or on the other end of the scale, individual instruments of the orchestra can directly interact with the soloist, different relationships can form.

In this Concerto, the Saxophone is on a journey, we can perhaps see the soloist as a journey-man, going through a series of events, challenges, emotional states. I haven’t followed a precise ‘program’ or narrative, and I prefer for the listener to find their own meanings, but I can give a few clues to some of the features of the concerto:

First movement: After the suspenseful opening orchestral crescendos, we hear the tender side of the Saxophone, but it is soon sent spinning into a tempestuous journey… We witness the confident and decisive character of the Saxophone, but eventually orchestral stabs and punches aggress it, pushing it down… This leads into a tough Hip-hop inspired section (marked ‘Molto Pesante all hip-hop’ in the score) in which the Saxophone emerges with a defiant muscular show of strength, successfully standing up against the power of the full orchestra.

The Second movement, shows the lighter, more optimistic side of our protagonist, as he bounces against staccato clarinets and strings, and then weaves lyrical contrapuntal lines around a syncopated ostinato bass-line. A virtuosic Cadenza comes after increasingly florid conversations between the Saxophone, Violins, Trumpets and flutes.

The Third movement, marked ‘Largo Mesto’, is a slow pensive walk, taking the Saxophone into cold open planes of regret and remorse; slowly responding to calls from the Clarinets and Cor Anglais, and then weaving a melancholic melodic story in-between them. The harp then opens the door to a nostalgic middle section, with the bassoon introducing a melody which is eventually passed to the Saxophone.

The final movement, is a wake-up call. The saxophone is thrust into a distopian world, fighting against an inexorable mechanical orchestral engine, driving to an insistent five-beat time signature, which twice rises to a pounding (almost disco-punk) climax, with various adventures in-between.

Composing for Branford Marsalis, Naples Philharmonic and Andrey Boreyko, has been an exceptionally inspiring experience for me, and I am really honoured to be here in Naples for the premier performances.

© Gabriel Prokofiev 2016

First performance given by the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrey Boreyko, featuring soloist Branford Marsalis (Alto Saxophone) at Artis Naples, Florida, USA, on 17 March 2016.

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