An exquisite adventure with Jess Gillam, Tampere Philharmonic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali

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On her first visit to Finland, saxophonist Jess Gillam appeared as soloist with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali at the sold-out Tampere Hall.

There were two fabulous concertante pieces on the programme, beginning with a Heitor Villa-Lobos rarity, Fantasia for soprano saxophone, three horns and orchestra (1948), followed by one of John Williams’ most riveting pieces, Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra, a concert adaptation of the original score for Steven Spielberg’s brilliant 2002 film Catch Me if you Can.

Villa-Lobos’ ten-minute Fantasia is a delightful mini-concerto, one that should be programmed way more often.

”It is quite a strange piece, not uncomfortable, but harmonically very strange. The sounds are are very weird due to harmony and its orchestration for strings and three horns and a soprano saxophone, which is an odd combination, but works very well. A good match, I think. The first movement is kind of grand opening, with a lyrical section to finish the movement. Then we have a slow second movement, with viola solo at the opening. The third movement is my favourite to play. It is more lively and dance inspired, but it’s in 3/4 plus 4/4, so it never feels quite settled”, Jess Gillam described the Fantasia in her interview with Adventures in Music last Thursday.

Gillam and the Tampere Philharmonic, with Rouvali, clad Fantasia in splendid guise.  The orchestra appeared in top shape, with marvellously transparent and colourful sonorities, combined with joyous rhythmic accuracy. Thanks to Rouvali’s delicate balancing, the textures shone ever clear, providing full support for the soloist.

Jess Gillam’s take on the solo part was pure delight, with Villa-Lobos’ harmonies and rhythms wonderfully articulated, with riveting colours. An apt choice for a concert opener!

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Yet, both in terms of programme and performance, John Williams’ Escapades was the veritable highlight of the evening.

”It’s such a brilliant piece. I think it is more inspired by the days of Johnny Williams rather than John Williams, with its fifties be-pop and jazz influences, and the orchestration is really wonderful. This piece almost fuses the two worlds together, but authentically. We have these amazing filmic, epic orchestrations, but the smaller combo with its jazz-inspired style does not feel off-placed, because it’s all glued together so brilliantly.”

Alongside the alto saxophone solo, Williams has scored extensive parts for vibraphone and double bass soloists too.

”In this piece, it’s so essential to get everything right together with the vibes player, because a lot of the writing is in unison. So it’s got to be rhythmically very, very intact. In the end, it is about working out how to fit into the sound of the vibes, especially with the motor on. How the saxophone sound can work together with it. Rather than sounding two separate instruments, the two should be coming together in one sound. It is genius orchestration! The vibes add this sparky sound to the saxophone, making it all come alive one step more. The vibes and bass player here are both brilliant, it’s gonna be exciting”, Gillam reflected her impressions from the first rehearsal with the orchestra.

And ever so exciting it was! The first movement, Closing In opens with a teasing vibraphone introduction, setting the mood for a thrilling adventure. The orchestra joins in, not only instrumentally, but hushing and snapping fingers along the way. Then the alto sax picks up the tune, and the music becomes fully alive. Once set in motion, there is a relentless harmonic tension in the air, taking hold on the listener up to the very last bar.

The middle movement, Reflections opens with a contemplative saxophone solo, brilliantly coloured by the vibraphone, with the double bass gently rocking the music, as if time standing still. The orchestra, with the strings prominent, carry on the melodic material, passing it over to the saxophone again. The movement closes with a cadenza-like passage.

The third movement, Joy Ride, lives up to its name. A whirlwind sonic adventure, with the soloist and the orchestra unleashing their energies, bringing the music to its upbeat conclusion.

With Jess Gillam, Tampere Philharmonic and Rouvali, Escapades resulted in one of the most wonderful performances I’ve ever heard during all these years at Tampere Hall. The energy and exquisite atmosphere of Williams’ score was realized in full. Gillam’s performance of the solo part was absolutely spot on, with the orchestra and Rouvali living and breathing with her vision in perfect harmony.

On the second half of the evening, Arnold Schoenberg’s outrageously brilliant orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ First Piano Quartet (1856-61) was heard. Commissioned and premiered by Otto Klemperer in1937, the orchestral version begins quite well-mannered, yet harmonically adventurous, but somewhere along the third movement Schoenberg pulls out all stops with his unique instrumentation, which includes such anachronisms as a somewhat prominent xylophone part. The Finale is sheer feast of colour, way removed from Brahmsian spheres.

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Yet, with all its (deliberately) inauthentic instrumental and harmonic choices, the Schoenberg orchestration is still a most illuminated take on Brahms the progressive. Within the context of the evening, it was a piece well chosen indeed.

The orchestra and Rouvali had polished the Brahms/Schoenberg hybrid into a fabulous shape and form, providing the audience with a multitude of orchestral virtues, in terms of balance, architecture and rhythmic accuracy. A solid performance.

 

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, conductor

Jess Gillam, saxophone

 

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Fantasia for soprano saxophonille, three horns and strings (1948)

John Williams: Escapades for alto saksophone and orchestra from Catch Me if you Can (2002)

Johannes Brahms / Arnold Schönberg: Piano Quartet No. 1 in g minor, op. 25 (1856-61), version for orchestra (1937)

 

Tampere Hall, Tampere, Finland

Friday 15 March 2019, 7 pm

c Jari Kallio

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