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Tag Archives: Soprano Sax

Composer Michael Markowski (b. 1986) claims that he is “fully qualified to watch movies and cartoons” on the basis of his bachelors degree in film from Arizona State University.  Despite this non-musical training, he is gaining attention as a composer of unique and sophisticated works for wind band.  Elixir (2012) starts with a sparse texture and explodes into something of a Latin feel.  Markowski describes its genesis thusly:

So many of us spend our entire lives working tirelessly at what we love to do, striving to become experts in our field, passionately in search of something to be remembered for, something we can change the world with, something that gives us purpose.

It’s a bold idea—the thought that a small part of us might, in some way, live forever—but it seems that the bold idea, itself, has had an inexhaustible life of its own. Across the span of history, folklore has given mankind a way to find this meaning, be it through a quest for the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, or even the legendary sword Excalibur. The mythology behind Elixir is a brother to these legends, probably most associated withElixir Vitae, or as it’s better known, the Elixir of Life—a special potion with magical properties said to extend a person’s life indefinitely, allowing him or her to become immortal, to be forever young. By drinking the potion, man is enabled to overcome his inherent limitations and achieve the greatness that he has always longed for.

Elixir is dedicated to Scott Coulson, a man who has passionately devoted his life to others through music. Above all, the piece is a musical “toast”—a “cheers” to a continued journey and to a long, healthy life not only to Mr. Coulson, but also to the students at Poteet High School, whose amazing journeys are just beginning.

Michael Markowski
May 13, 2012

Everything you’ll ever need to know about Elixir is on Markowski’s comprehensive website for the piece, which includes a recording, an interactive sample score (here’s the pdf version), a YouTube video, an analysis by Dr. Marc R. Dickey, the program note I quoted above, a link to all of his blog postings on the subject, and more.

Now, in case you didn’t already find it among the links above, here is Elixir on video:

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There are so many reasons that I’m excited to play Slava!  First, the title actually contains that exclamation point.  Second, it’s by Bernstein, a true American character, and he wrote it about Rostropovich, another great character of the 20th century.  Third, it allows me to put on this blog the most jaw-dropping musical performance I’ve ever seen. (More on that later).  Finally, it’s just so much fun to play!  So, about this piece…

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an erudite, passionate musician whose exceptional talents and expressive gifts earned him a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers.  His rose to instant national fame in 1943, at age 25, when he filled in for the suddenly ill Bruno Walter as conductor of a nationally televised New York Philharmonic performance.  He went on to become the Philharmonic’s music director until 1969, and remained a frequent guest conductor there until his death.  With the Philharmonic, he presented a series of 53 educational Young People’s Concerts which were broadcast on CBS, making him a familiar face around the nation.  He also composed music, crossing from academic classical music into Broadway musicals, including West Side StoryOn the Town, and Candide.

Bernstein wrote Slava! in 1977 on a commission from its namesake, the legendary Soviet-born cellist and conductor, Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich.  Rostropovich at that point had just assumed the post of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.  He asked Bernstein to help him present a concert of the composer’s own work early in his first season.  He got three new pieces out of that request: Three Meditations from “Mass”, Songfest, and an untitled “political overture” that was only barely finished in time for the concert.  The latter work turned out to be Slava!, a fun and irreverent tribute and welcome for Rostropovich, who conducted the premiere performance on October 11 of that year.  “Slava” is a common nickname for Russian men whose names contain “-slav”, and Mstislav Rostropovich was known as “Slava” to his closest friends.  “Slava” also means “glory” in Russian.  The program notes at the Kennedy Center, home of the National Symphony, delve deeper and are worth a read.

There is much material about Bernstein on the web.  The survey below only scratches the surface.

Leonardbernstein.com – a true treasure trove of everything Bernstein, including many personal reflections by friends, relatives, and colleagues.

Leonard Bernstein on Wikipedia.

The Leonard Bernstein Collection at the US Library of Congress.

A lengthy and heartfelt essay on Bernstein and his influence at classicalnotes.net.

You’ve been waiting all this time for that jaw-dropping video.  I found this by searching for “best Japanese elementary school band”.  To really make your jaw drop, look what they’ve done with their music stands.  To make it drop even further, listen until the end of Slava! for the famous chant.  Now, without further ado:

Now here’s a look at Slava himself doing what he did best, which was making beautiful music with his cello:

Sarah Quiroz will conduct the 2012 Columbia University Wind Ensemble performance of Slava! at the Columbia Festival of Winds on March 4.


John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 5 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.

Mackey wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2006-2007 on commission from a consortium in schools in Japan.  Says Mackey:

A kingfisher is a bird with stunning, brilliantly colored feathers that appear in sunlight as if they are on fire.  Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.

The first movement, “Following falls and falls of rain,” is suspended in tone, but with hope, depicting the kingfisher slowly emerging from its nest in the early morning stillness, just after a heavy rain storm.  The second movement, “Kingfishers catch fire,” imagines the bird flying out into the sunlight.  The work ends with a reference to (and a bit of a pun on) Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Mackey himself provides even more program notes on this piece, both on his website and in more colorful detail on his blog. You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece (first movement, then second movement) there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Kingfishers Catch Fire, or at least the 2nd movement, via YouTube here:

In case you were wondering what bit of Firebird Mackey is referencing, you can find out on my post about that piece.  For the link-challenged among you, here’s the video clip.  It’s one of the greatest conducting videos ever made, so it deserves reposting.  Listen to the very end of both pieces and you’ll hear the reference for sure.

And now a bonus image: a Kingfisher!

Kingfisher!

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.”  Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age.  He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918.  He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers.  His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune from County Derry, Children’s March and Molly on the Shore.

Lincolnshire Posy is considered to be Grainger’s masterwork for wind band.  It is based on folk songs that he and Lucy Broadwood collected in Lincolnshire in 1905-06.  He intended it as a collection of “musical wildflowers” reflective not only of the songs but of the singers who sang them to Grainger and their personalities.  Thus style plays a big role in each movement.  Grainger uses every compositional device at his disposal to great effect: harmonies move unpredictably, meter is unstable or absent, countermelodies creep in and out of prominence, melodies go willfully in and out of phase, all in service of the singer’s implied interpretation of each folk tune.  Grainger recorded each singer on wax cylinders, using those recordings as reference to faithfully recreate each tune.  He began the process of assembling the various tunes into Lincolnshire Posy in 1937.  It was premiered by the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer factory worker’s band in Milwaukee that same year on March 7.  This premier was incomplete: as is often the case today, the PBR band was not up to the challenge of the harder movements.

Lincolnshire Posy has its own wikipedia entry, which mentions quite a few fun facts about it.  This page used to host the lyrics to each of the original folk songs, but they have sadly disappeared.  Instead, you’ll have to turn to individual sites for each movement:

I. “Lisbon” and “Duke of Marlborough” (actually another version of “Lord Melbourne”)

II. “Horkstow Grange

III. “Rufford Park Poachers

IV. “The Brisk Young Sailor” (also known as “A Fair Maid Walking”)

V. “Lord Melbourne

VI. “Lost Lady Found

The score of the Frederick Fennell edition of Lincolnshire Posy features an extensive program note that is a true treasure-trove of Grainger-isms.  It can be found in its entirety, along with extensive bonus material, here.

There are an incredible number of performances of Lincolnshire Posy on YouTube.  Most of them are no good, but thankfully Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble and their classic recording of the piece have made their way onto YouTube:

Percygrainger.com – much general information on the composer with a focus on his wind band works.

International Percy Grainger Society – Based in White Plains, NY, they take care of the Grainger house there as well as the archives that remain there.  They also like to support concerts in our area that feature Grainger’s music.

Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.

Grainger’s works and performances available at Naxos.com

Finally, I know this is already up on the other Grainger pages, but it’s just so good:

One more look at Grainger on YouTube, this time performing on the piano:

John Mackey once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 5 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new band music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.

Xerxes is his first concert march.  He gives a detailed account of its genesis on his blog. Essentially, he tasked himself with writing a march with an unconventional sound, and out came Xerxes.  The name of the piece came later. Xerxes the man was the king of the Persians from 485-465BC.  He is famous for being a brutal tyrant, and for having fought (and beaten) a force of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in Greece. This scenario was most recently fictionalized in the film 300.

Mackey himself provides the best program notes on this piece, both on his website and in more colorful detail on his blog. You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Xerxes via YouTube here:

You also MUST check out this metal version of Xerxes created by a fan:

And now a bonus image: Xerxes as depicted in 300 (and with the attitude of the march):

Dutch composer Johan de Meij (b. 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague.  He now resides in suburban New Jersey. He rose to international fame as a composer with his Symphony no. 1 “The Lord of the Rings”.  Written between 1984 and 1987, it was premiered in Brussels, Belgium in 1988.  It went on to win first prize in the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition in 1989, and a Dutch Composers Fund award in 1990, and has since become a cornerstone of the repertoire for high-level bands worldwide.

The Symphony is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of fantasy novels by the same name, which has recently also been immortalized in director Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.  Each of the symphony’s five movements illustrates an important character or event from the Lord of the Rings story: “Gandalf”, the wizard; “Lothlorien”, home of the Elves; “Gollum”, the pitiful former keeper of the ring; “Journey in the Dark”, a chronicle of an expedition through abandoned Dwarf mines; and “Hobbits”.  Says De Meij of each movement:

I) GANDALF (The Wizard)

The first movement is a musical portrait of the wizard Gandalf, one of the principal characters of the trilogy. His wise and noble personality is expressed by a stately motif which is used in different forms in movements IV and V. The sudden opening of the Allegro vivace is indicative of the unpredictability of the grey wizard, followed by a wild ride on his beautiful horse “Shadowfax”.

II) LOTHLORIEN (The Elvenwood)

The second movement is an impression of Lothlorien, the elvenwood with its beautiful trees, plants, exotic birds, expressed through woodwind solos. The meeting of the Hobbit Frodo with the Lady Galadriel is embodied in a charming Allegretto; in the Mirror of Galadriel, a silver basin in the wood, Frodo glimpses three visions, the last of which, a large ominous Eye, greatly upsets him.

III) GOLLUM (Smeagol)

The third movement describes the monstrous creature Gollum, a slimy, shy being represented by the soprano saxophone. It mumbles and talks to itself, hisses and lisps, whines and snickers, is alternately pitiful and malicious, is continually fleeing and looking for his cherished treasure, the Ring.

IV) JOURNEY IN THE DARK

The fourth movement describes the laborious journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, headed by the wizard Gandalf, through the dark tunnels of the Mines of Moria. The slow walking cadenza and the fear are clearly audible in the monotonous rhythm of the low brass, piano and percussion. After a wild pursuit by hostile creatures, the Orks, Gandalf is engaged in a battle with a horrible monster, the Balrog, and crashes from the subterranean bridge of Khazad-Dum in a fathomless abyss.

V) HOBBITS
The fifth movement expresses the carefree and optimistic character of the Hobbits in a happy folk dance; the hymn that follows emanates the determination and noblesse of the hobbit folk.  The symphony does not end on an exuberant note, but is concluded peacefully and resigned, in keeping with the symbolic mood of the last chapter “The Grey Havens” in which Frodo and Gandalf sail away in a white ship and disappear slowly beyond the horizon.
The symphony in its entirety is quite substantial, so the movements are often performed individually.  “Gandalf” and “Hobbits” are the most frequently performed movements.

Website for Johan de Meij and his publishing company. Includes an extensive bio and works list, as well as a link to program notes of the symphony.

Review of a CD containing the symphony and de Meij’s trombone concerto.

One more program note on Symphony no. 1, from everything2.com.

Now some videos.  Notice, it’s largely different bands for each movement.  They’re not easy!

Gandalf, by the Amsterdam Winds.  I’m pretty sure they used cellos to beef up the low brass/bassoon solos that pepper the movement.

Lothlorien, by the TMK Bad Wimsbach Neydharting:

Gollum LIVE.  Watch this monstrous soprano sax player!

Journey in the Dark by a nameless ensemble (orchestra version).

Finally, Hobbits by an accomplished Dutch band.

Now some Lord of the Rings background for the uninitiated.  The various internet sources below can tell its story much more succinctly and completely than I can.  Suffice it to say that The Lord of the Rings laid the foundation for modern fantasy writing and has inspired countless tributes and adaptations to other media, including notably Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.

Lord of the Rings on wikipedia.

The official movie trilogy site.

Lord of the Rings Fanatics site, for true fans only.

National Geographic’s Beyond the Movie feature on Lord of the Rings.

J. R. R. Tolkien on wikipedia.

Video of the opening scenes of the movie (complete with Chinese subtitles).  Pretty much gives the context for the whole story.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Please go forth and find more on your own!