Irresistible energy and opulent orchestration

Saturday 18 January 2020 saw a visit to Kendal’s Leisure Centre by the Hallé orchestra with the Japanese guest conductor, Kazuki Yamada, and Ulverston saxophonist, Jess Gillam, as soloist. Born in Ulverston, Jess is a familiar figure in South Lakeland but is now widely-known as a soloist on the international stage. She is also a TV and Radio presenter and, added to that, a passionate advocate for music education.

The programme consisted of two works: John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Adams’ concerto is a relatively new work written in 2013 for the American saxophonist Tim McAllister. The latter described the work as ‘some of the hardest music I’ve ever played’ and the virtuoso techniques required of the soloist were fully demonstrated in Jess’ brilliant performance.

In the pre-concert talk, she acknowledged the huge technical challenge the thirty-minute work posed for the soloist who has few breaks throughout. There are other challenges too: as well as the soloist, conductor and orchestra have to cope with constantly-changing time signatures and syncopated passage work, all of which, of course, conductor, soloist and orchestral players managed superbly. Critics are divided on the merits of this concerto. Some have praised its inventiveness, seeing it as an important addition to the repertoire for the saxophone: others have regarded it as a facile work, brilliantly written for the solo instrument, full of infectious, irresistible energy and seductive sounds but with not much to say.

The energy and jazz-inspired rhythmic drive certainly came across in the Kendal performance and Adams’ skill as an orchestrator revealed some lovely orchestral colouring: the inclusion of piano and celeste alongside strings and wind produced some distinctive sounds, and the delicate interplay between the solo saxophone and clarinet which featured several times was particularly effective.

The work’s performance drew enthusiastic applause from the capacity audience and was followed by an unaccompanied encore in which Jess revealed another side to her playing, her remarkable breath control which enabled her to produce long, slow phrases, sustaining beautiful pianissimo passages in all registers of her instrument – a very different style of playing from that demanded by the Adams concerto. 

After the interval the orchestra gave a fine account of Rachmaninov’s symphony, full of gorgeous melodies, opulent orchestration and great climaxes. Kazuki Yamada’s balletic gestures, painted in the air, indicated to the orchestra precisely the kind of sound he wanted and he drew some beautifully-shaped phrases from his players. One particularly impressive moment was the solo playing of the principal clarinettist in the slow movement; his expressive rendering of one of Rachmaninov’s great melodies was generously acknowledged by the conductor after the performance. 

What a memorable concert to cheer us on our way on a cold winter’s evening!

Clive Walkley 22/1/2020