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Saxophonist Debuts


“Jess Gillam’s Boston debut program will show off her range and versatility” Celebrity Series touted before presenting the English saxophonist Tuesday evening at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, with American pianist Thomas Weaver. While selections going back to the Renaissance all the way to some of the most up-to-date is what Celebrity meant, Gillam’s eclectic show bathed in a carefully regulated timbre and effect.

For but only one of 12 of a mixed bag of solos and duos Gillam took up the alto saxophone, the others all on soprano, including John Dowland’s Flow, My Tears. With accompanist Weaver, the Renaissance lute song tuned to keyboard and wind instrument, as Gillam breathed a highly moderated tone over steadily quieted harmonies–a notable contrast in the second half of the concert–that elicited a moment of comfort. Before intermission, jazz inflections on the alto in the first movement of Sonata by Phil Woods alluding to the American genre caught an ear; Curtis Institute of Music’s Thomas Weaver leaned blues moves and swing over to a more classical vernacular.

The grip of Minimalism appeared: on this side of the pond, Philip Glass, his Melody for saxophone No. 10, Gillam’s soprano almost a flute-like sinewave; and on the other side, Graham Fitkin, his motorized duo entitled Gate. Trills, tremolos, and the like on the piano kept Weaver in driving mode, sometimes focused, sometimes dangerous. As if looking out the window of some alternately slowing and speeding machine, Gillam’s soprano swooned over passing scenes and thrilled over the rush of near-Hollywood momentum.

John Harle composed RANT! for his student. The inside story from Jess Gillam: he meant to challenge her. Originally for sax and orchestra, she asked for a piano version to take on tour; he kept all its notes, also challenging the pianist. Hailing from Cumbria, England, both student-and-saxophonist and mentor-and-composer in wildly and impassioned ways, danced and shouted out folkish melodies of the region, short stabbing staccatos fully in play.   

A good amount of the repertoire for saxophone consists of transcriptions, Meredith Monk’s Early Morning Melody, Francis Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, and George Telemann Sonata in F Minor, TWV 41f1 among them. Why not more alto? The flute’s extensive repertoire and its range fits best with soprano, the young saxophonist explained. Compositions and arrangements from contemporaries have come about with Gillam’s rise in popularity, especially with both her Decca Classics albums reaching No. 1 in the UK Classical Music Charts; her debut album was listed in The Times Top 100 of 2019. Barbara Thompson reset pop-ish “Of the Unseen Way” from Paraphernalia for the saxophonist. Singer-songwriter Ayanna Witter Johnson’s Lumina, written for Gillam, tinkered with lower to higher note play in softness and loudness. Here, Gillam’s wide-ranging program also reflected the treble slightly squeezed, the bass faintly velvety.

Meatier, a paired entry of Poulenc and Benjamin Britten. Surprisingly, Poulenc’s Montmartre-styled and classical biting melancholies were passed over by the duo for the prettier, the melo-less-dramatic. Britten’s Temporal Variations (nine of them) did sound militaristic, with drum imitations and semi-tone cries, just as Gillam had said it would. Volleys of piano and soprano sax may have created an estranged duo even with the repetitive two-note motive wail coming as it did through an instrument rather than the human behind it.

Dressed in a blue suit with wide lapels and wearing silvery, sparkly boots, Jess Gillam still made Longy’s Pickman Hall seem like her living room by exuding a natural warmth and friendliness, “and infectious personality.” Yet, the concert—or show—drew an unusually low turnout for a Celebrity Series debut. Was it the instrument?

The encore came beautifully, as if out of the air; Gillam’s delicate When I Fall in Love was truly a highlight.

By the time Adolph Sax had patented his namesake instrument (1846), it had already been taken up by no less than Hector Berlioz. Since then, it has mostly shared the spotlight in band music, jazz, new age, and pop. One sax enthusiast averred: “It’s healing. I can breathe with it.” Breathing and virtuosity stood out in this debut.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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