Bolcom / Mackey: Concertos for Saxophone Quartet

Innova 731


Concerto Grosso (2000) William Bolcom

Lively : 5:15

Song without Words : 6:44

Valse : 3:23

Badinerie : 6:03


Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2005) Steven Mackey

Jackass : 7:05

Bagpipe : 10:27

Machine : 13:05


Total playing time : 52:07



PRISM Quartet

Timothy McAllister soprano saxophone

Zachary Shemon alto saxophone

Matthew Levy tenor saxophone

Taimur Sullivan baritone saxophone


Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Gil Rose Artistic Director/Conductor


The Fab Four: Concerto Grosso


The early Beatles, and “their mode of dress and style of movement” in particular, may rarely pass through the mind of a composer writing a work based on the Baroque-era concerto grosso, in which a small ensemble performs in dialogue with an orchestra. Yet when William Bolcom began such a project, he turned, “of all things,” to the Fab Four. The association is perhaps not entirely surprising, since Bolcom’s concerto had been commissioned for the PRISM Quartet, another inveterate musical foursome that has sustained a wry, even boyish spirit since its inception over two decades ago.

At the time of Bolcom’s commission, PRISM included two of the composer’s former students from the University of Michigan. His memories of the Quartet’s tenor player Matthew Levy and former soprano saxophonist Tim Ries no doubt evoked the antics and ambitions of their student days, perhaps on par with the irrepressible energy of A Hard Day’s Night. Ries has since transitioned to a career focused primarily on jazz, world, and popular music, although PRISM’s connection to Michiganand to Bolcomhas continued through to its more recent members, U-M alumni Tim McAllister, who plays soprano, and Zach Shemon, who began playing alto with PRISM in 2007.

Of course, PRISM’s “fourness” called up more for Bolcom than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. His other immediate association was Robert Schumann’s Concerto for Horn Quartet, written in 1849. Both pop and classical influences make themselves felt in Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso, which the composer intends “purely as a piece to be enjoyed by performers and listeners.” He sketches the work as follows:


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.



Power-Tool Persona: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral


Although composer Steven Mackey classifies his concerto Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (AVM) as “pure music…without a text or program,” he accounts for the work’s layers and strands of inspiration with archaeological precision. “Steep and deep” skiing, in which the adventurous sportsman is dropped by helicopter onto un-groomed mountainside, is the first stratum Mackey describes. He explains:


In the first movement [of AVM] the core gesture is the dramatic plunge from high to low. The tone is serious, even portentous, and it is not much of a stretch in musical hieroglyphics to interpret that gesture in terms of being perched on the end of a boulder, peering down a steep, funneled couloir, steeling one’s nerve to take the plunge while at the same time visualizing the scramble for balance and control after the landing.


Mackey adds that this plunge is “relentlessly insistent” throughout the first movement, although passing through “ever changing harmonic terrain.” Each “landing” also differs. He likewise draws a parallel between his styles of skiing and composing generally. As he puts it, “‘Graceful’ never described my skiing or musical styles, but ‘joyous’, ‘athletic’, and ‘intense’ ring true in both.”

Plunging 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 provoked a new association for the composer. It reminded him of the “bellowing hee-haw of a jackass.” Pleasantly surprised by this effect, Mackey began to consider “other ‘voices’ that might be in the saxophone lexicon and…the elemental qualities of saxophone sound.”

Soon, Mackey had teased out two new voices: bagpipes and machines. AVM”s second movement, “a set of variations on a melody derived from the harmonies of movement one,” features grace notes, 6/8 meter, a “somewhat heroic tone,” and drones. All of these, he says, “are references to actual bagpipe music” while at their core retain “the same preoccupation with plunging saxophone lines.” In the last movement, Mackey chose “a more articulated and measured descent” with a “not quite regular rhythm of short-long-long, short-long-long, etc.” While this figure also began as an homage to skiing, it eventually came to evoke “the chatter of an enthusiastic but slightly off-kilter machine.” Mackey continues, “As I pursued this image by doubling the melody at an odd interval and adding more noise in the form of a growl, an undeniable power-tool persona emerged.”

As these elemental voices emerged, and Mackey organized each movement around “its single mode/theme/voice,” he ultimately understood the work as being “more about the sound of ‘stuff’flesh, wood, and metal.” The originating ski metaphor (“It is as if I set out to write a novel set in an alpine ski resort and decided to make the main character a Scot who grew up on a farm and is now on vacation from a factory job”) subsided into the categorical “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.”


Alyssa Timin


National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winner William Bolcom (b. 1938) is an American composer of chamber, operatic, vocal, choral, cabaret, ragtime and symphonic music. As a pianist, he has performed widely in collaboration with his wife and musical partner, Joan Morris. Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for 12 New Etudes for Piano, and four 2005 Grammy Awards for his setting of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience on the Naxos label. In Spring 2007, the composer was feted with “Illuminating Bolcom,” a two and a half-week festival in the Twin Cities honoring his creative genius.



Photo by Katryn Conlin


Steven Mackey (b. 1956) has composed for orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance, and opera. Also an electric guitarist, he frequently performs his own works. Mackey’s recordings consistently appear on year-end top ten lists, including the New York Times’, and USA Today crowned his monodrama Ravenshead Best New Opera of 1998. His distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two awards from the Kennedy Center, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Stoeger Prize. In June 2008, the BBC Philharmonic presented a three-day festival of his music. Mackey has served on the faculty of Princeton University since 1985.



Photo by Jane Richey


The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) holds an outstanding reputation among the nation’s most innovative performing arts organizations. Dedicated exclusively to repertoire of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, BMOP illuminates connections between contemporary music and society by reuniting composers and audiences in a shared concert experience. BMOP has presented world premiere performances of dozens of new symphonic works and most recently launched its signature recording label, BMOP/sound. New CDs are released on a monthly basis starting with the 2008 release of John Harbison: Ulysses. Since its founding in 1996, BMOP has received nine ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming of Orchestral Music, including the 2006 American Symphony Orchestra League’s John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.


Gil Rose belongs to a new generation of American conductors shaping the future of classical music. His extensive discography includes the world premiere recording of the complete orchestral music of Arthur Berger, chosen by the New York Times as one of the “Best CDs of 2003.” In 2007, he was awarded Columbia University’s prestigious Ditson Award. Founder of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Rose also serves as Music Director of Opera Boston and has appeared as a guest conductor at Tanglewood, with the Netherlands Radio Symphony, and with the American Composers Orchestra, among many others.

Timothy McAllister soprano saxophone

Zachary Shemon alto saxophone

Matthew Levy tenor saxophone

Taimur Sullivan baritone saxophone


Intriguing programs of great beauty and breadth have distinguished the PRISM Quartet as one of America’s foremost chamber ensembles. Winner of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, PRISM has commissioned over 100 works from leading composers worldwide, among them William Albright, Tim Berne, Martin Bresnick, Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Lee Hyla, Libby Larsen, Greg Osby, Bernard Rands, Tim Ries, and Zhou Long. PRISM has been presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, toured throughout Latin America under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, and appeared as soloists with orchestras nationwide, including the Detroit Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. PRISM may be heard in the theme music of the PBS series “Now” and on the soundtrack of the feature film “Two Plus One” in an original score by Quartet member Matthew Levy. The PRISM Quartet has recorded for innova, Koch International, Naxos, and New Dynamic Records.




Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann


Concerto Grosso was commissioned by the PRISM Quartet
with support from:

The National Endowment for the Arts

The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts

The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs

The George C. & Rena G. Castagnola Family Foundation


Animal, Vegetable, Mineral was commissioned by the PRISM Quartet with support from:

The National Endowment for the Arts

The Rockefeller Foundation

The Presser Foundation

And as part of the national series of works from Meet The Composer/Arts Endowment Commissioning Music/USA, which is made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, The Catherine Filene Shouse Foundation, and the Dayton Hudson Foundation


This recording was made with generous support from:

The Presser Foundation

The Aaron Copland Fund for Music

The Argosy Foundation

The Castagnola Family Fund

Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour, a program developed and funded by The Heinz Endowments; the William Penn Foundation; the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency; and The Pew Charitable Trusts; and administered by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation

The music department and the Committee for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Princeton University

The Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia

Individual Donors:
Maureen Abrams
Dallas W. Anderson
Seth Andrew Brenzel
Robert Capanna
Lee Casper
Mary Etezady
Jeff Keith
Sylvia Munzer
Rebecca Bien & David Poll, M.D.
Walter and Nesta Spink

innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation
Director: Philip Blackburn; Operations Manager: Chris Campbell;