True to the spirit of Halloween, the soloist in the next Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert was painstakingly assembled from its constituent parts in the dark, saliva-spattered laboratory of MSU saxophone professor Joe Lulloff. Gross!
Or, rather, “grosso,” as in “Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra,” an unusual piece by Ann Arbor composer William Bolcom and the centerpiece of Saturday’s all-American concert.
Some say mankind wasn’t meant to meddle in established concerto traditions, but LSO Maestro Timothy Muffitt needed a jolt of electricity to kick Saturday’s audience from the sobriety of Samuel Barber (the famous Adagio for Strings and the rarely heard First Symphony) to the exuberance of Leonard Bernstein (music from the musical “On the Town”).
The maestro looked to Ann Arbor, where Bolcom sits like a spider among his many awards— including several Grammys and a Pulitzer — and stitches together poly-stylistic music that draws on classical, jazz, folk and other American music.
“It’s exactly what one might expect from a concerto for four saxophones,” Muffitt said. “It’s got a city vibe, it’s got humor, energy. It will be like nothing anyone’s heard before.”
Two heads of a four-headed “soloist” — those of Lulloff and MSU’s Jim Forger, a former saxophone professor and dean of the College of Music — were already close at hand. Last Friday, the head of Griffin Campbell, who studied with Forger at MSU in the 1980s and teaches saxophone at Louisiana State University, arrived in East Lansing. The cranium of Chris Creviston, who studied with Lulloff in the 1990s and teaches at Arizona State, rolled into town Monday.
Lulloff said a solid week of woodshedding will be necessary to meld the quartet into one voice.
“Even though we four come from the same pedigree of classical traditions, and we are all familiar with jazz traditions, this is a pretty virtuosic piece,” Lulloff said. “We need to get that blend, that strong, unified voice and timbre.”
The nub of a concerto grosso is the oscillating conversation between the “concertino,” the smaller group, and the “repieno,” the larger one. The concerto grosso form goes back to Bach and Vivaldi. Bolcom freshened it up with a phalanx of saxophones, which he called an “upstart instrument” in the symphonic world.
A century ago, Bolcom said, saxophones were frowned upon by classical orchestras as “sleazy” instruments. (They got their revenge. See: jazz.) His concerto grosso exploits the broad range of moods and timbres they can produce, alone or en masse.
For Lulloff and his three colleagues, the format offers a rare blend of intimate chamber music-making with the full force of a symphony orchestra.
“As a quartet, we have make sure we’re totally on our game ourselves, and then connect with the orchestra, because there is a lot of interplay,” Lulloff said.
Bolcom wrote the concerto a decade ago for Prism, U-M’s crack student saxophone quartet. Since then, Prism and other quartets have performed the work many times, especially in a popular “bandscription” for wind band. Lulloff, Creviston, and former Lulloff student Taimur Sullivan did it with the MSU wind band last year.
“It’s a very interesting and eclectic mix of jazz, popular, song style and classical music,” Lulloff said. “(Bolcom) is well known for his mixture of styles and he really brings out an excellent balance.”
The quartet deploys Lulloff on tenor sax, Campbell on baritone, Creviston on soprano and Forger on alto.
Muffitt called Bolcom “a sponge of American musical culture,” but the concerto also reaches beyond American styles. In the second movement, Bolcom tried to capture what he called the “almost caramel, gooey” sound he heard from French romantic saxophonists in the 1950s and 60s when he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Other parts of the concerto, Bolcom said, are “straight-out bebop and rhythm and blues” — except that the lines are written out and not improvised.
“He reaches back for a little bit of Duke Ellington, Tin Pan Alley songs, Gershwintype piano and a traditional folk song style,” Lulloff said.
The light texture and nimble mood shifts contrast with some of Bolcom’s more ambitious works, including the threehour, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” based on poems by William Blake.
“Sometimes I like to write a piece just for fun,” Bolcom said.
“It’s always special when you get a chance to play with an orchestra,” Lulloff said. “Tim Muffitt is a terrific conductor to collaborate with. He programs some very interesting music for our community to be exposed to.”
Lulloff last worked with Muffitt and the LSO in 2008, when they turned out an absorbing performance of David Maslanka’s epic, 42-minute saxophone concerto.
“That was a really tough piece,” Lulloff said. “[Muffitt] just grabbed onto it and brought it to life. When you’re soloing, you want a conductor that intuitively knows where you want to go, a few steps ahead.”
Masterworks: American Festival
Lansing Symphony Orchestra Griffin Campbell, Joe Lulloff, Jim Forger, Chris Creviston, saxophone quartet 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 7 Tickets starting at $20 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org