Saxophonist Timothy McAllister on how he won the heart of John Adams.
How did John Adams come to write you a saxophone concerto?
Even though I had been a huge fan for many years and we had the chance to meet once or twice, a friendship began after I seized the opportunity to be part of the premiere of City Noir with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From the first rehearsal, I know John would say that he was taken with the care and commitment I immediately brought to the now iconic saxophone part in that work. From then on, John requested I be hired to perform the work in various places, especially when he was conducting. This relationship allowed him to learn more about my life and work, and I’d like to think I inspired him as much as he inspired me. I made some overtures about a new solo work along the way, and once a window opened for a new project for him, he suggested a concerto. It was one of those dream moments.
What are the particular challenges of the work?
Stamina is definitely an issue, but on a more musical level, it requires from the soloist a broad understanding of the styles and colors possible on the saxophone. Further, the intricacies of rhythm and texture throughout highlight all the trademarks of a John Adams score. Displaying a command and awareness of all of these concepts becomes its own form of virtuosity.
You premiered the concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Adams conducting – was that a memorable occasion?
Absolutely. It was the highlight of my career. The occasion marked the farthest I have ever traveled, and to perform this premiere in the famous Opera House under the baton of one of our profession’s greatest composers with a world-class orchestra was quite overwhelming.
McAllister with John Adams and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson conducts the work on the CD. What do you like about working with him?
David reaches deeper into a score more than anyone I know, and he knows how to bring out the best in an orchestra. His attitude and charisma have a way of turning any work in his hands, no matter its significance, into a masterpiece of sorts. He simply treats all music he endorses with the exact same care and attention – no matter if it is Mahler or a pops concert.
What do you think it is about Adams’ work that makes it appeal to so many people?
Above all else, Adams is genuinely a master of orchestration. The color he elicits from an orchestra seems to resonate with listeners of all persuasions. I remember when hearing The Chairman Dances for the first time live, it simply felt the music was floating. I think his music has ways of lifting up a listener—its transformative.
Some interesting composers are writing for the classical sax nowadays. Which do you especially enjoy?
It is an exciting time for our instrument in the classical arena, and the list of incredible composers who believe in its classical identity is too big to include here. I think John’s piece will be a new cornerstone in our repertoire, but other pieces that speak to me include recent quartet, chamber and solo works by figures like Andrew Norman, William Bolcom, Martin Bresnick, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Georg Friedrich Haas, Bright Sheng, Steven Mackey, Augusta Read Thomas, Gavin Bryars, Bruno Mantovani, Brett Dean, Kalevi Aho and Jennifer Higdon.
And who would you most like to see a new saxophone concerto written by?
Well, when I was once asked this question many years ago, I responded by saying the attempt to identify one composer was pretty impossible. However, I did say John Adams topped my list, and I got my wish! If I think about who we need a piece from going forward, I would definitely say John Corigliano or any from an esteemed list that includes names like Stephen Hartke, Kevin Puts, Mason Bates, James MacMillan, Thomas Ades, among countless others.
City Noir was our Recording of the Month for August and is out now on Nonesuch. To win a copy, check out our competition page here.