Concertos for Saxophone Quartet

Concertos for Saxophone Quartet

Four saxes, one orchestra, two pieces.
William Bolcom
Steve Mackey
PRISM Quartet
Timothy McAllister
Zachary Shemon
Matthew Levy
Taimur Sullivan
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose
Catalog Number: 
new classical

Boston, MA

Release Date: 
Dec 11, 2011
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

Perennial champions of new music, the PRISM Quartet joins forces with Maestro Gil Rose and the ever-adventurous Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a stunning recording of concertos for saxophone quartet by William Bolcom and Steven Mackey, composers whose concert music draws collectively from rock, jazz, blues, ragtime, folk music, and more... 

National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner William Bolcom (b.1938) is a composer of cabaret songs, concertos, operas and symphonies. He intended his Concerto Grosso "purely as a piece to be enjoyed by performers and listeners." According to Bolcom, when the PRISM Quartet commission the work, "this immediately called up two precedents in my mind: the Schumann Concerto for Horn Quartet, and (of all things) the early Beatles in their mode of dress and style of movement. The first movement, Lively, in simple sonata form, evokes blues harmonies in both of its themes. Song without Words, which follows, is a lyrical Larghetto. The third movement, Valse, begins with a long solo stretch for the saxophone quartet; the development of this theme alternates with a pianissimo Scherzetto section. The final Badinerie, a title borrowed from Bach, evokes bebop and rhythm-and-blues." 

Steven Mackey (b. 1956) has composed for orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance and opera. He has been honored with awards from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Though he classifies his concerto Animal, Vegetable, Mineral as "pure music...without a text or program," it was inspired by "steep and deep" skiing in which the sportsman is dropped by helicopter onto un-groomed mountainside. As he puts it, "'Graceful' never described my skiing or musical styles, but 'joyous', 'athletic', and 'intense' ring true in both." The work is permeated by a dramatic descending motive which plunges repeatedly from the high end of the saxophone's register, where the instrument's sound is "thin, pinched, and oxygen-starved," to its "robust, thick, and reedy" low end.

Reviews: radiates charm and affection for the vernacular roots of the saxophone. Scampering lines, bluesy swoons, crooning ballads, a ballroom waltz and a swing-band blitz leave the scent of jazz and impressionist harmony in the air.

- Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

.....And as with their previous recording of composer William Albright's music for saxophones, the Prism Quartet display the virtuosic command of tonal colour that brings out the breadth and depth of shapes and shadings in the material on this CD. Further out than "Concerto Grosso," Steven Mackey's "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" uses multi-phonics and antiphonal cross-rhythms to sculpt solid, muscular forms. In part inspired by downhill skiing, the three-movement piece uses descending motifs that move with sinewy physicality. While not pure program music, Mackey's work does elicit Sendak-ian echoes of Where the Wild Things Are, as the saxophones honk and bleat with animalistic abandon. This is enchanting music lovingly realized.

- Glen Hall, Exclaim!

Two recent concertos for saxophone quartet and orchestra. William Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso (2000) is said to be inspired by the Beatles and Schumann’s Four-Horn Concert Piece, but I mainly hear the daintily clotted French neoclassicism of Ibert and other mostly forgotten quasi-Les Six type entertainers of the of last century, transported to Bolcom’s nostalgic American Midwest. The music is immaculately wrought, but its potency is a little faded. Conservative audiences will like it well enough, and I guess that will do (“the composer intends [it] ‘purely as a piece to be enjoyed by performers and listeners’ ”, and with that in mind it serves its purpose nicely).

Steven Mackey’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2005) is considerably more snarky. In three unusual movements, the piece takes us through studies on dangerous descents (inspired by Mackey’s taste in “extreme” skiing adventures, with the composer playfully portraying himself as a jazzy donkey), an extended fantasy on a bagpipe melody, and an intense dance final on an insistent short-long rhythm. The basically tonal piece is humorous, unpredictable, and not always easy to follow, but I suppose that’s part of its charm. Saxophonists looking for quality quartet repertoire should consider this an automatic purchase, but this exceptionally well played and produced release should be of interest to all.

- Gimbel, American Record Guide