A Saxophonist's Secret Stash: Must-Listen Pieces
Let's explore some modern saxophone staple pieces you haven’t heard of (unless you play saxophone):
Fuzzy Bird Sonata (1991) - Takashi Yoshimatsu
(Nobuya Sugawa - Alto Saxophone, Minako Koyanagi - Piano)
Takashi Yoshimatsu, born in Tokyo, Japan, is renowned as one of Japan's foremost composers in the Western classical tradition. Although he didn't have any formal music training during his early years, Yoshimatsu's passion for music ignited when he became a fan of rock & roll. Around the age of fourteen, he began to take a keen interest in composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The result: a neo-romantic style infused with jazz and rock elements. Yoshimatsu's Fuzzy Bird Sonata, originally written for Nobuya Sugawa, is divided into multiple movements, each offering a different musical character and atmosphere. From running, to singing, to flying, Yoshimatsu uses extended saxophone techniques to add to the piece's captivating nature. This fascinating and technically demanding composition has earned its place as one of the most significant works in the contemporary saxophone repertoire. Saxophonists and audiences alike appreciate its imaginative qualities, making it a favorite choice for programming.
Concerto after Glière (2007) - David DeBoor Canfield
(Kenneth Tse - Alto Saxophone, Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra)
David DeBoor Canfield is an American contemporary composer known for his inventive compositions that often pay homage to and draw inspiration from the works of classical composers who came before him. One of his most notable compositions, dedicated to the great Eugene Rousseau, is his Concerto after Glière, a piece that reflects his deep appreciation for Reinhold Glière, a Russian composer from the late Romantic period. He pays tribute to the Russian composer by reimagining some of Glière's themes and motifs while infusing them with his own unique composition style. The last two movements of this concerto were based on Gliere's Intermezzo and Tarantella, originally for Double Bass solo, composed in 1900. It’s a late Russian romantic concerto… for saxophone!
Garden of Love (2002) - Jacob ter Veldhuis
(Timothy McAllister - Soprano Saxophone)
Jacob ter Velduis's (also known as JacobTV) Garden of Love, composed in 2002, is a remarkable work that has garnered acclaim for its inventive blend of saxophone and electronic elements. Incorporating verses from William Blake's "The Garden of Love," this composition explores the emotions and sensuality of the original poem. This work features a blend of live saxophone performance and pre-recorded electronic sounds, fusing together traditional classical music elements with more contemporary ones. This combination of styles and minimalistic elements creates an immersive and mesmerizing soundscape. JacobTV’s compositions are a testament to the innovative spirit of contemporary saxophone music and its ability to blend tradition with modernity.
Sonata (1984) - William Albright
(Timothy McAllister - Alto Saxophone, Liz Ames - Piano)
William Albright was an American composer renowned for his compositions encompassing a diverse array of instruments. Among his notable works, his Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, finalized in 1984, emerges as one of his best. This composition assumes a pivotal role within the saxophone repertoire, characterized by its demanding virtuosity for the saxophonist and its versatile musical language. Albright himself notes that the heart of the piece lies within the second movement, a dedication to the memory of composer George Cacioppo, whose untimely passing in 1984 profoundly influenced Albright. The movement bears the title “La Follia Nuova,” a nod to its Baroque antecedents, adopting a chaconne-variation structure, albeit at times with intriguing juxtapositions and intersections. A baroque codetta serves as a private and intimate tribute to Cacioppo, solidifying the piece's emotional depth and connection to its inspiration.
Holy Roller (1997) - Libby Larsen
(Landon Chang - Alto Saxophone, Xiao Wang - Piano)
Holy Roller is a captivating and dynamic composition by acclaimed American composer Libby Larsen. Her music is frequently celebrated for its creativity and its unique ability to resonate with a wide range of audiences. This particular work written in 1997, has become a notable addition to the saxophone repertoire due to its powerful and evocative nature. The title, "Holy Roller," is a reference to the enthusiastic revival preaching of Reverend William Seymour in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. The work takes on a distinct and powerful character, allowing the instrument to convey the fervor and intensity often associated with spiritual experiences. Larsen writes, “To me, revival sermons are stunning musical masterpieces of rhythm, tempo, and extraordinary tension and release. The music flows directly from the language, cajoling, incanting and repeating, at the same time magnetizing and mesmerizing the listener with its irresistible invocations.”
You might hear some very familiar gospel tunes…
Mirages (2019) - Vincent David
(Vincent David - Soprano Saxophone, Sébastien Vichard - Piano)
Vincent David is a celebrated French saxophonist known for his exceptional talent and contributions to the world of contemporary saxophone music. With his virtuoso skills and innovative compositional approach, David has played a pivotal role in expanding the instrument's repertoire. In his work Mirages for soprano saxophone and piano, David finds creative inspiration in the unpredictable and changing quality of this phenomenon. The listener is taken on a voyage where reality and illusion coexist, much like the mirages in the desert. The music flows through various moods, textures, and tonal colors, often creating moments of uncertainty and ambiguity that resonate with the elusive nature of mirages. David writes, “From optical to auditory illusion, the defocused impression forces the listener to question assumed or hidden influences.” This composition stands out as one of the most challenging and exhilarating pieces within the saxophone repertoire.
Sonata (1988) - David Maslanka
(Otis Murphy - Alto Saxophone, Haruko Murphy - Piano)
David Maslanka was an accomplished American composer known for his significant contributions to contemporary classical music. His works often explore themes of spirituality, nature, and humanity. Since its composition in 1988, his Sonata for alto saxophone has become one of the most prominent works for saxophone in the last fifty years. This work’s acclaim stems from its expressive depth and the complex, yet ultimately rewarding, challenges it presents to saxophonists. Throughout three movements, this piece explores a wide array of moods and themes with careful attention to dynamics and intricate phrasing. Maslanka’s “Sonata” showcases his innate talent for crafting memorable melodies, often blending lyrical sections with intense, rhythmic passages.
Ciudades (2008) - Guillermo Lago
(Amstel Saxophone Quartet, Addis Ababa)
From Tokyo, Japan, to Cordoba, Spain, Ciudades (cities) is a captivating composition by the Spanish composer Guillermo Lago. Written in 2008, this work has a particularly fascinating concept—a musical journey through various cities, each contributing its own unique perspective. Guillermo Lago masterfully explores and portrays the essence of these urban environments through the language of music. In doing so, he offers a harmonious bridge between the diverse experiences and atmospheres found within cities around the world.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg, offering a glimpse into the world of the modern saxophone. The past half-century has witnessed a multitude of additions to the repertoire, spanning a wide variety of styles, themes, and influences. The saxophone repertoire, far from being static, continues to grow and evolve, offering endless opportunities for exploration in the realm of new classical composition.