My Saxophone Concerto was commissioned by Nobuya Sugawa, one of the leading saxophonists in the world today. The world premiere was given by Nobuya Sugawa and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Clark Rundell, on May 10, 2006, in Manchester.
The work is scored for alto saxophone, doubling soprano saxophone in the second movement, and symphony orchestra, with important parts for piano and kit percussion. The work lasts for some 24 minutes and is cast in three linked movements. Although the movements have no formal titles they do express certain ideas, so that the first movement could be described as of the city, the second movement of love, and the third movement of life.
The work opens in a slightly unusual way which I shall not reveal here. However, the mood of the slow introduction is rather improvisatory – a sort of interplay between the soloist and various sections of the orchestra. The movement proper is fast, rhythmic, sometimes jazzy, sometimes violent, and expresses the diverse landscape of an urban environment. The more relaxed second subject is calmer in mood and more obviously tonal, although each time this settled harmonic world is invaded by subversive elements.
As in the transition from the introduction to the first movement proper, the held pitch of C on the violas links to the reflective slow movement where the solo soprano saxophone gradually develops a lyrical melodic expression. Initially this is set against a background of chromatic harmony, but as the movement progresses, so the harmonic context becomes simpler until the final ‘song’ expresses a heartfelt sadness in modal C minor. Once again, the held pitch of C links directly to the final movement.
This final movement is a buoyant moto perpetuo which exploits the virtuoso side of the alto saxophone, both in technique and character. The movement is structured around a repeated quaver ostinato, which moves through each note of the chromatic scale until, eventually, it returns to C, but this time reaching a harmonic and tonal resolution in C major, pointed by a simple but expansive melody towards which the piece has been heading, and ending in a blaze of joyful colour.
Perhaps the finest work is the Saxophone Concerto, full of exciting tone-colours and catering for Nobuya Sugawa’s amazing skills
Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph (July 2008)
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the Saxophone Concerto, a dazzling cornucopia of ideas and jazzy dance episodes, even reaching pandemonium at times, but again with a lyrical core and another haunting slow movement. It opens with the soloist, sylph-like, magically distanced. But after the gently ‘floating’ slow movement, at the climax of the moto perpetuo finale, the work creates a great, life-enhancing tune, thrusting forward joyously, to close the concerto exultantly. This would surely bring the house down at a Prom!
Ivan March, Gramophone (September 2008)
Gregson’s expressiveness really comes across, the solo writing calculated to haul out every morsel of versatility Sugawa has to offer … while the energetic finale further explores the composer’s adaptability and awareness of the saxophone as a solo voice.
Mark Tanner, Independent Record Review (September 2008)
The Saxophone Concerto begins with a soliloquy for the sax which sounds from afar; such mysticism is maintained with the orchestra’s arrival until pugnacious rhythms begin what might be termed a ‘jam’ session. This is intense and atmospheric music, darkly lyrical in the slow movement, the saxophone’s plangent tones fully exploited.
Colin Anderson, HiFi Critic
The work has a wide variety of shapes and colours, particularly striking being the soloist’s entrance from a distance, then later the jazzy elements complete with breaks and variety of percussion. The slow movement is yet again striking invention with its sort-of-the-night-scene-setting. The sun comes out in bright colours for the finale glitteringly virtuosic in its writing to complete this impressive score.
Peter Joelson, classicalsource.com
3(3=picc),2(2=Cor Ang,) 2+BCl, 2/4330/4 perc/pno(celesta)/strings
First Performance: 10 May 2006
BBC Philharmonic, Nobuya Sugawa (saxophone), Clark Rundell (conductor)