John Plant, composer

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SaxOpera

Posted by John Plant on August 4, 2016 at 6:00 PM

My ever-intensifying love affair with the saxophone is intimately bound up in my mind with the discovery of the amazing expressive resources offered by large wind ensembles. Just a week before the premiere of my first work for saxophone, I was in Wolfville for the 2013 "Shattering the Silence" festival, when I heard Dr. Mark Hopkins conduct Michael Colgrass's Urban Requiem, a thrillingly revelatory experience. Then I traveled to Boston, for the premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life,' for alto sax and piano, magnificently played by Dr Jennifer Bill and Yoshiko Kline. I've written about these life-changing experiences in previous blogs.


 But my great adventure of the past eight months has been the invitation, from 'World Wide Concurrent Premieres Commissioning Fund,' to compose a full-scale concerto for alto saxophone and large wind ensemble. The result was Faustus: a SaxOpera. I've been obsessed with Gertrude Stein's powerfully idiosyncratic revisioning of the Faust myth for years. This commission inspired me to imagine a work in which the versatile and passionate voice of the saxophone could incarnate the characters in Stein's drama, with the instruments of the wind ensemble evoking the haunted, mysterious world in which that drama unfolds.


 WWCPCF is an beautiful initiative of the pioneering American saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky. Among the composers who have received WWCPCF commissions are John Harbison, Michael Colgrass, Frank Ticheli, David Amram, Shih-Hui Chen, Chris Theofanadis and Gunther Schuller - I am humbled and honoured to be in such company.


 The work is co-commissioned by ten saxophonists and/or ensembles, and they have exclusive rights to the work for the 2016-2017 season; each of their performances counts as a premiere. Three of them are already expressive, committed, brilliant advocates of my music, my wise and valiant mentors as I took my first steps into the deep and dazzling world of the sax : Jennifer Bill, Michael Couper, and Tristan da Borba. You can imagine how eagerly I await their performances, as well as those of the distinguished artists who are joining them in the commission!


Jennifer Bill's performance with the Boston University Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Martens, is scheduled for October 6. As soon as I have dates for the other performances, I will post them here and on Facebook. I can't overemphasize my joyful gratitude toward all the commissioners for their interest and support.


Here is what I wrote in the preface to the score: This work is inspired by Gertrude Stein's magnificent libretto on the Faust myth, 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights".  The saxophone personifies and brings life to the principal characters, delineating the individuality of each by stylistic means, while the wind ensemble establishes the atmosphere -both emotional and physical- and participates in the action of the 'plot' - even sometimes taking on the function of chorus. At certain passages, the music articulates the precise rhythm of Stein’s prose.


It is not necessary to know the narrative of the SaxOpera to follow and enjoy the music, any more than it is for Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel . But in each case the story adds an extra imaginative dimension.  Though of course there is a precedent for concertos with narrative content (e.g. Berlioz' Harold in Italy, Strauss's Don Quixote), my intention is to imbue the work with an authentically operatic idiom, together with the theatrical intensity inherent in the form: hence the designation: SaxOpera.

 The short passage which concludes the opera was inspired not only by Stein's ending, in which a boy and a girl appeal to the Man from Over the Seas, (Please Mister Viper, do not forget to be), but also by the moving penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, in which the narrator describes the final moments of the fictional Faustus cantata: 'The work admits of no consolation, no reconciliation.. but if the entire work produces lamentation, perhaps there is a paradox: so that from hopelessness and irremediable despair, hope (in the form of a whispered question) might germinate...’
 
I've been obsessed with Stein’s text for many years; I used it as the basis for a dance piece in 1980, and a chamber opera with piano in 1988. The music (apart from a few motivic germs) is quite new; I see Gertrude Stein's masterpiece with new eyes (and ears) after many decades of marinating!!  

Here is the complete (and very exciting) list of commissioners:

1) Jennifer Bill, soloist/ Boston University Wind Ensemble, David Martins, conductor;  Joshua Thomas; Joseph Murphy, soloist/ Mansfield University Wind Ensemble, Adam F. Brennan, conductor; Michael Couper, soloist/ San Diego State University Wind Symphony, Shannon Kitelinger, conductor; William Chien; Amy McGlothlin, soloist/The Gordon College Wind Ensemble, David W. Rox, conductor; Emily Cox; Tristan de Borba, soloist/ Acadia University Wind Ensemble, Dr. Mark Hopkins, conductor; Adam Pelandini, soloist/Central Washington University Wind Ensemble; The Calgary Wind Symphony.

 

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