Sydney Symphony Orchestra accompany Saxophonist Tim McAllister with conducting by John Adams at the Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, August 23
Mahler did it. Boulez did it. Beethoven did it, albeit disastrously. But it is still not common to see a composer on the conductor's podium, and rare to see them do it well. To have John Adams, one of America's most revered voices in music, conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his new saxophone concerto was, therefore, a very special moment indeed.
Adams' saxophone concerto is written for classical saxophonist Timothy McAllister. He gave an astonishing performance. Adams has thrown down the gauntlet with a solo line which demands speed, flexibility, musicality and, above all, stamina to keep going with barely a bar's rest. McAllister delivered, punching out the "nervous bebop" sound (Adams' description) with manic intensity, like a Charlie Parker or Stan Getz solo sustained across 30 minutes. Like those jazz greats, Adams nodded to others along the way – the Sharks and the Jets morphed into a restless riff, while muted trumpets and piccolos summoned the ghost of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But the most beautiful moments were all Adams, from the brain-addling cross-rhythms of the final movement to the delicate interplay between solo saxophone and clarinet.
The saxophone concerto is a joint commission by the St Louis, Baltimore and Sydney Symphony Orchestras and Fundacao Orquestra Sinfonica do estado de Sao Paulo, so it is guaranteed at least four performances. Assuming the availability of a game saxophonist, it should get many more.
Alongside this new work, the orchestra presented the Australian premiere of Adams' violin concerto, written in 1994. Soloist Leila Josefowicz's performance was utterly compelling, one minute floating unearthly songlines across the atmospheric accompaniment, and then next battering her way through a busy orchestral stomp with tough charisma.
It felt almost unnecessary to add to these two works, but Beethoven's overture to Fidelio and Respighi's The Pines of Rome made well-turned book ends. Indeed, the smudgy textures of the overture and the glittering orchestration of the Respighi highlighted the extraordinary range of tonal inventiveness of all four works.