Stretching the Saxophone: Tim McAllister & City Noir

June 28, 2022

story by Kyle MacMillan

For much of his career, saxophonist Tim McAllister admits being a little jealous of clarinetists who could draw on a string of major works written for their instrument from composers like Mozart and Brahms to Aaron Copland and John Corigliano in the 20th century.

While the internationally known musician is thrilled to have concertos for his instrument by such notables as Alexander Glazunov and Jacques Ibert, historically there has been little of importance from American composers. But that changed when John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto debuted in 2013 and Corigliano finished his contribution to the form seven years later.

“You could start to make the argument that these two pieces would be in the conversation as the great American concertos for our instrument,” said McAllister. And he ought to know, considering he served as soloist for both premieres.

On July 14, Colorado Music Festival audiences will get a chance to hear him in the work that in many ways set the stage for Adams’ Saxophone Concerto – City Noir, a symphonic creation that the veteran California composer wrote in 2009 prominently featuring the alto saxophone. It will be conducted by Adams, who is serving as the festival’s composer-in-residence and co-curator of its Music of Today series.

“The saxophone’s use is really crucial to the flavor of that piece,” McAllister said, “being this love letter to Los Angeles cinema and the gritty, noir-film culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The saxophone for [John Adams] is emblematic of that. And to put the saxophone front and center also meant he was going to capitalize on all the things that it can do.”

McAllister, who is a professor of saxophone at the University of Michigan, splits his time in part between teaching and performing with the PRISM Quartet. He also travels worldwide as a classical saxophone soloist – a rarity compared to the abundance of such artists on the piano, violin, and cello.

During his 30 years of performing, the saxophonist has premiered more than 250 works, including those by such well-known composers as William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, Gunther Schuller, and Chen Yi.

McAllister served as the soloist when the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, who had just taken over as music director, debuted City Noir in October 2009, as well as for an American tour with the orchestra a year later, including a stop at New York’s Lincoln Center. In all, he has performed the piece more than 50 times, including a concert in January with the Seattle Symphony with Adams on the podium.

“I think he really does believe that the piece has aged well, and I would agree,” McAllister said of the composer. “It’s taking on a second wave of life now all these years later.”

According to Adams’ notes, City Noir was inspired by Kevin Starr’s multi-volume history of California, especially the Black Dahlia chapter of the Embattled Dreams volume that looks back at the 1940s and ‘50s via the era’s hyperbolic journalism and “dark, eerie chiaroscuro” of the noir films of that time.

In many classical works in which the saxophone is featured, such as Boléro or Pictures at an Exhibition, the composers tend to display only its slow and melancholy side, the style of playing that they heard in the 1910s and ‘20s. “They’re lovely,” McAllister said of these older works, “and they are great opportunities to make music with such great ensembles, but they certainly under-utilize the full potential of the instrument.”

While City Noir calls for a soloist with what McAllister calls “jazz leanings,” it also clearly requires a classically trained virtuoso. When he first laid eyes on the score, he quickly realized it contained the most taxing saxophone part he had ever encountered.

“I took it on my shoulders to really nail that part,” the saxophonist said, “but it was pretty overwhelming at the time. This was a full unleashing of what the saxophone can be, and John knocked it out of the park.”


Hear Tim McAllister perform John Adams’ City Noir at the Festival on July 14, with John Adams conducting.

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