BSO opens season with U.S. premiere of John Adams' Saxophone Concerto

Tim McAllister, saxophonist, performing premiere of John Adams concerto
(Courtesy BSO)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 2013-2014 season Friday night with a burst of sax and violence.

Of particular note was the U.S. premiere of the Saxophone Concerto by eminent American composer John Adams, who has given the small repertoire of concertos for that instrument a huge boost with this half-hour work.


Co-commissioned by the BSO, the Saint Louis Symphony, Sao Paulo Symphony and Sydney Symphony (which gave the world premiere last month with the composer conducting), the score deftly fuses classical and jazz elements to create a cohesive, arresting experience.

It was written to match the talents of Tim McAllister, a sterling saxophonist who can handle those elements effortlessly, as he did Friday at Meyerhoff Hall in a performance that enjoyed supple support from the BSO and music director Marin Alsop.


Adams, whose style has evolved over the decades from pristine minimalism to a kind of post-Mahler richness of thematic ideas and orchestral textures, has created here a kinetic, ecstatic ride that achieves giddy heights along the way. Having grown up in a jazz-filled home, the composer has a keen knack for using its idioms in a way that is as natural as it is expressive.

The first of the concerto's two movements takes off with a snap — McAllister has likened it to coming into a movie in the middle of a chase scene.

The sax stays out in front of the action, as pointillistic bursts from the brass and slashing string chords erupt along the way. A lot of the melodic ideas, for soloist and orchestra, have an upward motion, as if a giant magnet were hovering over the stage, pulling on the harmonies.

When the pulsating rhythms eventually slow, the mood shifts to a cool combination of hazy, late-night blues club and elegant, neoclassical salon.

That repose is shattered by the caffeinated finale. The soloist is put through almost perpetual motion, tossing themes right and left. One two-note idea darts through the brilliant orchestral fabric like a call and answer. (Surprisingly, Adams dispenses with percussion in the score, but he still gets a kind of percussive underlining from the rest of the instrumentation.)

McAllister's splendid playing drew a hearty ovation from the audience and orchestra. The composer was on hand to savor the favorable response as well.

The rest of the program — this is where the violence came in — was dominated by Russian war horses.
Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," inspired by the legend of the sultan who executed his wives after the wedding night (one bride finally outsmarted him by spinning out tantalizing tales), found the BSO sounding a bit in back-from-summer-vacation, not-thoroughly-settled mode. But there still was plenty of admirable playing, and the big, explosive moments of the vivid score packed a good wallop.

Alsop did not add quite enough nuance; too many phrases passed by at the same dynamic and expressive level. In the end, though, she provided a taut sweep that made the performance quite involving. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney hit a fresh peak in the demanding solos threaded through the score, producing a gleaming tone and sculpting phrases with masterful rhythmic elasticity.

Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," with its vivid evocation of battles between Russian and French forces, was presented in an arrangement using a chorus — the excellent U.S. Navy Sea Chanters — to sing the hymns and folk music Tchaikovsky quoted in the score.

Alsop shaped the opening of the piece and other lyrical passages very sensitively, but could have brought more intensity and spontaneity to the rest. Still, with the BSO charging sturdily into the fray, the music hit home.

The conductor asked for a moment of silence to remember victims of the Navy Yard shootings before launching into the "1812," a gesture that, considering the evocation of gunfire in the piece, might have been better placed before the traditional season-opening playing of the national anthem.

That anthem was presented in a new arrangement the BSO commissioned from Baltimore composer James Lee III. This non-sing-along version puts the familiar tune through the harmonic ringer and adds lots of Hollywood film score-like flourishes. Not for purists, perhaps, but rather refreshing.


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