Sounds Heard: John Adams—City Noir / Saxophone Concerto

John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
(Nonesuch 541356-2)

Performers:
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, conductor
Timothy McAllister, saxophone

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John Adams’s most recent album, released by Nonesuch, contains the 2007 work City Noir (freshly revised in 2013) as well as the Saxophone Concerto, with Timothy McAllister as featured soloist. The album could essentially be seen as an exercise in nostalgia; City Noir, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is an homage to the city of Los Angeles and its movie-making style of the 1940s and ’50s, while the Saxophone Concerto gives a hat tip to Adams’s own jazz-steeped upbringing.

Both of these works sport all of the characteristic Adams-isms that we know and love—the frenetic, scurrying, tightly interwined lines, mountainous pile-ups of contrapuntal activity that are suddenly snatched away to reveal shimmering, gentler material, made even more dramatic for the contrast, and huge, yet still clear as a bell-sounding brass chords that bound across the musical terrain. The heavy-duty music geeks out there will find plenty of those “How did he DO that?! Must see score now.” moments.

Both compositions are rife with references to jazz, without “just coming out and saying it” directly in the music. Alto sax is featured in City Noir, with a “fiendishly difficult part” writes Adams in his liner notes, and according to legend, it was hearing McAllister perform the part that inspired the composer to write an entire concerto for McAllister. Well, that and McAllister’s past life as a champion stunt bicycle rider (!), which for Adams spoke to the musician’s fearlessness. Also in the liner notes, Adams states that for the Saxophone Concerto he wanted a sax sound associated with jazz performance, rather than the vibrato-laden French style that is often employed in classical saxophone music. Timothy McAllister’s powerful performance does have a more “American” sound, while the St. Louis Symphony’s performance (led by conductor David Robertson) achieves the intended infusion of bebop into its veins while maintaining a sense of clarity and conciseness throughout. One of my favorite parts is the very opening of the piece, which sounds as if McAllister is pulling an entire orchestra out of the ground with his instrument alone. But the jazz element isn’t just about the saxes—both works contain jazz-oriented harmonic and gestural material molded specifically for orchestra performance. These are vital, engaging performances by all involved.

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