Upward Stream

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            The tenor saxophone makes only rare appearances on the concert stage. Generally speaking, the alto saxophone has been the classical solo instrument of choice, and there is a fairly large repertoire for that instrument.   Appearances of the tenor saxophone with a symphony orchestra are even more rare; you may remember it from Ravel’s Bolero or Prokofiev's suite from Lieutenant Kije.   Even in jazz the tenor often stood in the shade of the alto saxophone until great soloists like Coleman Hawkins in the 1930s and Stan Getz in the 1960s demonstrated its musical possibilities as a soloist.  It has a lower, warmer sound than an alto, coupling great lyrical resources with equally impressive virtuosity. 

           The Upward Stream is a rare opportunity to hear the tenor saxophone display all of these characteristics, showcased in front of a symphony orchestra.  It is dedicated to the well-known American saxophonist, James Houlik, who is a rare, classical specialist on the tenor; he gave the world première with the Winston-Salem Symphony in 1986.  After its first performance the concerto received high praise from critics all over the world.

            Russell Peck was born in Detroit in 1945, and attended the University of Michigan, where he received all degrees through a doctorate in composition.   He was a student of well-known composers Leslie Bassett, Ross Lee Finney, Gunther Schuller, and George Rochberg.   He later taught at the Eastman School of Music and the North Carolina School of the Arts.  The composer died in March of 2009 after having gone for a walk in a snowstorm; his body was found a week later.

            The Upward Stream is cast in three movements, but much of the same melodic and harmonic ideas recur and develop in all three; the last two movements are played without pause and are both in fast tempos. The listener will hear a cadenza at the end of second movement followed by a short slow section that alludes to the first before charging off into the quite rapid last movement.  The composer believed that among his acclaimed compositions, this was one of his best.  He felt the tenor saxophone to be “one of the greatest of orchestral concerto instruments” for its strength of volume, its ability to blend with each of the instrumental families, and its great technical capabilities.   His faith was justified, for this concerto is a most agreeable introduction to the felicitous combination of tenor saxophone and concert orchestra.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan