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Concerto for Alto Saxophone

May 1, 2014 ComposingConcertMusicUncategorized

I wrote a concerto for Alto Sax and Wind Ensemble.

(open now if you want to listen while you read)

It was inevitable – this was my instrument all through high school and undergrad., though now I only play very occasionally, usually in Austria with a community band there, and then only when there’s beer involved (note: there’s always beer involved in Austria). Needless to say, I can’t play the solo part for this concerto, but the soloist for whom it’s written, the legendary and extraordinary Joseph Lulloff, has devoured it like candy. The concerto was commissioned by Michigan State University and funded by a single donor as a gift for Prof. Lulloff and the Wind Symphony – a close friend of the MSU Bands, Howard J. Gourwitz (our eternal gratitude, Howard!).

The world premiere was last Tuesday, April 22nd. Joe and I spent the Sunday afternoon before going over his part in detail, making last-minute adjustments, and working out the cadenza (which is in the middle of Mvt II, because why not?). The piece contains a little bit of improvisation on Joe’s part. He visited me in North Carolina last January, and while we were going over the third movement (which already has a bop-ish tinge to it), he started improvising, and it was so good, I just deleted about 12 bars of his part and let him go for it. What I found extraordinary was in a matter of seconds, Joe had grokked the motivic core of the movement (and the whole piece), and had somehow woven that into part of his improvisation. Fortunately, I recorded several takes of this, and after he left, I experimented with the recorded material out of context, and wove melancholic harmonies around his playing to form part of movement II. Movement I is an homage to John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto – I have long wanted to create music that was extremely fast, yet relentlessly quiet, and this was the perfect opportunity to create such music.

Most of my composing over the past many years takes a single-minded symphonic approach to developing a small amount of initial material for the entire work. This impulse was strongly advocated by my first composition teacher, W. Francis McBeth, and is now for me an instinctual approach to organizing sound. It’s simply what I want music to do. For the Concerto for Alto Saxophone, I chose a motive that bears some resemblance to the opening notes of Paul Creston’s Sonata for Eb Alto Saxophone – a staple of the repertoire for saxophonists, but altered and extended:

Pitches: D C A Bb Db D A

The main motive for my Concerto for Alto Saxophone

The other harmonic building block permeating the work are the set of chords I used in my recent work with electronics, Solace. The middle (around 7′ in) and ending (around 14′) of the work contain quiet moments of repose, where the piano softly intones this progression:

The chord progression from Solace, reused in the Concerto for Alto Saxophone

The chord progression from Solace, reused in the Concerto for Alto Saxophone

Many people commented after hearing this work that I should reuse this progression, the first being my friend and fellow composer, Eric Whitacre… so I did.

You can hear the entire world premiere performance, as well as check out the PDF score, at

NEW (17 May) – video of the world premiere:

PS A piano reduction is in the works, as well as a version for symphony orchestra…

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