Sunday, November 04, 2007

Saxophonist Lois Hicks-Wozniak Dazzles in Concerto Premiere

John Mackey's latest composition, the CONCERTO FOR SOPRANO SAX AND WIND ENSEMBLE, lives up to his reputation for rhythmically challenging, jazz/dance influenced, audience-pleasing pieces for wind ensemble, and then some. Local saxophonist Lois Hicks-Wozniak rose to the challenge, playing the premiere performance of this powerful work with passion, fire and virtuosity.

Lois Hicks-Wozniak is a member of the excellent Ridgewood Concert Band, which joined with consortium of 27 bands ranging from the U.S. Navy Band to the Dallas Wind Symphony, as well as a whole slew of universities, to commission the work. Dallas had the World Premiere with the composer in attendance several weeks ago, but each commissioning ensemble gets its own "premiere," as well. On Friday night Lois did the honors for Ridgewood, with a performance so electrifying that she may well have recorded the definitive performance of this memorable new work.

Lois and I have been friends for a number of years (and in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that on occasion I sing with her in a vocal trio ensemble). One of the things I love about her as a saxophonist is the range of tone and styles that she handles with ease, ranging from classical to jazz and beyond. The Mackey piece enabled her to exhibit the full extent of her formidable technique.

The Concerto is in five movements, and between the Prelude and the Finale are three movements whose elemental titles suggest that we might be in a Zen monastery rather than an acoustically-optimized church sanctuary in Ridgewood, New Jersey: (II) Felt, (III) Metal, and (IV) Wood. To my ear, the Prelude was the least successful of all the movements, with Mackey writing a dense wall of sound for the wind ensemble that obscured the sound of the soprano sax. It was evident, looking at Lois, that she was playing a series of complex, powerful runs on the saxophone, but it was impossible to hear. She told me later that she said ruefully to the composer, “John, you can’t write quadruple Forte for a wind band — that’s like throwing meat to the lions.”

Fortunately, the Prelude was brief, and then we were into “Felt,” a jazzy movement that allowed Hicks-Wozniak to showcase the smoky, sultry edge that she can bring to her tone. This movement was also striking in its technical demands, as she appeared to be grabbing big handfuls of notes that covered the full range of the instrument in a single run. It ended with an abrupt, ascending run by the sax and the wind section that was almost a throwaway — seemingly casual, perfectly executed…and then silence. If there is an award for sheer numbers of notes on the page, Mackey may have garnered it for this movement, and the quality of the playing by this ensemble was flawless throughout this very difficult piece.

I suppose “Metal” received its title because it opens in classic Mackey fashion with percussion in the dominant position, in this case metallic instruments such as chimes and xylophone. However, “Metal” is an odd name for a movement that opens up into a hauntingly beautiful, heartbreakingly lyrical series of musical “conversations” between the sax and several soloists in the orchestra. The thematic statements were powerfully emotional, but never sentimental. Particularly moving were the exchanges between First Clarinetist Richard Summers and Hicks-Wozniak’s plaintive soprano sax.

As I listened to “Metal,” I began to feel that we were experiencing a breakthrough for composer John Mackey. He is still quite young — just 34 — and when music historians look back, I suspect this Concerto for Soprano Sax may be a turning point. I heard significant differences from his previous, signature work (award-winning, popular pieces such as Redline Tango and Turbine). Mackey’s earlier work is characterized by intricately difficult rhythms and huge, percussion-driven walls of sound, but to me, they are somewhat lacking in lyricism….bereft of memorable themes or melodies. That is no longer an issue. Listening to these memorable, affecting themes, I felt as though we were hearing a maturing Mackey.

“Wood” opens with a hushed, sultry exchange between the soprano sax and marimba, and it is simply an extraordinary tango. Listening, it was easy to imagine that Mackey was born and raised in Buenos Aires, rather than in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Hicks-Wozniak played the sensual melodies with relish, seeming at times to dance with her instrument. She laughed later, telling me that “For a minute, I considered bringing a rose with me onstage, to hold between my teeth.” The illusion was there, rose or no rose. And again, rather than typical Mackey fireworks, this movement ends quietly, with the marimba and double bass restating the theme a final time. Hicks-Wozniak would like to see this movement published as a reduction for piano and soprano sax. “It will get played, over and over.” She’s right.

Like the second movement, the Finale was an exercise in virtuosity, with huge cascades of notes for the entire ensemble. It appeared that balance would again be an issue, but conductor Dr. Christian Wilhjelm did a masterful job, his sensitive conducting enabling the soprano sax to be heard over the signature Mackey wall of sound. It was at times humorous to watch him — with one hand urging the ensemble into a crescendo, while the other hand, palm outstretched, gingerly pushed them back. It was an exercise in “come here/go away” that was ultimately quite successful in fine-tuning the sound.

The cadenza was brilliantly played, and in a surprising moment, ended quietly, on a half-tone dissonance held by the sax & a single, E-Flat Clarinet — a dissonance so exquisite that I felt as though I had bees buzzing in my ears as the sound gradually died away. The concerto ended with a huge, saucy blast of sound from the entire ensemble.

As the audience erupted in applause, Hicks-Wozniak turned to the band, her arms thrust above her head in triumph, acknowledging each section by pumping her fists in the air. Her instinct to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishment of her bandmates before accepting her own accolades from the audience was spontaneous and touching.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your well-written and descriptive review! As a retired keyboard musician (and doting mother of the soloist!) I appreciate such in-depth analysis. She has promised me a CD. Your review is unexpected and I am very grateful!
    Thanks again. Shirley Hicks