In concert – Jess Gillam, CBSO / Jaume Santoja Espinós: Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip


Gershwin Cuban Overture (1932)
Fantasia for Saxophone W490 (1948)
Danzón cubano (1942)
Scaramouche Op.165c (1937/9)
Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944/5)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1935-6, rev, 1942-3)

Jess Gillam (saxophones, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santoja Espinós (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a break from ‘standard’ repertoire to focus on music by composers either American or with an American focus, in a programme which rung the changes to often vibrant and always appealing effect.

A familiar radio presence, Jess Gillam has already encouraged renewed interest in the music for classical saxophone, as her contributions amply demonstrated. Little heard in his lifetime, the Fantasia by Villa-Lobos is among those more modest creations of a composer known for his (over-reaching) ambition – its three short movements drawing animated and ruminative responses from the soloist enhanced by a restrained orchestration. Swapping soprano for the alto instrument, Gillam returned for Milhaud’s Scaramouche which was no less engaging in this arrangement than the original for two pianos; whether in its incisive opening movement, soulful central interlude or its final Brazileira which could hardly fail to provoke a response from orchestra and audience – the latter evidently appreciative of such an infectious display.

The CBSO captured the spirit of both pieces, thanks not least to former assistant conductor Jaume Santoja Espinós, who had opened the concert with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the percussion-clad exuberance of its outer sections a telling foil to the haunting pathos of those canonic textures at its centre. Copland’s Danzón Cubano can seem irritating in its rhythmic over-insistence, but Espinós brought an unsuspected wit and subtlety to this amalgam of coy nonchalance with an orchestration recalling Stravinsky’s forays into ‘crossover’ at this time.

Latin-American traits made way for those of a Europeanized East Coast after the interval, Espinós directing the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring with a cohesion as brought out expressive contrasts between the various sections without these becoming too episodic. The idealization inherent in this ‘Ballet for Martha’ can hardly be gainsaid, yet the chaste eloquence of its musical content came through no less affectingly – not least as the familiar ‘Variations on a Shaker Hymn’ subsided into the serene inevitability of the final evocation.

The highlight was a welcome revival for Barber’s First Symphony, whose continuous design marries Sibelian formal precision with that unabashed emotionalism closer to Russian music from this period, with a cumulative impact to its four-in-one trajectory which was palpably in evidence. From the stark foreboding with which it begins, through the relentless impetus of its ‘scherzo’ and consoling poise of its ‘slow movement’ (felicitous oboe playing by Emmet Byrne), to the inexorable force of its closing passacaglia, this was a performance to savour.

An eventful evening, then, and was more to come with a post-concert informal performance from the quintet El Ultimo Tango, familiar from its several recordings and here providing a 30-minute overview of Astor Piazzolla for what was a – necessarily – belated tribute in the year of his centenary. Those wanting a longer selection can hear this group at CBSO Centre next February, while the CBSO returns next week for a programme of mainly French music from conductor Kevin John Edusei with Kirill Gerstein in both of Ravel’s piano concertos.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Jess Gillam, click here – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website

Talking Heads: Jess Gillam

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Jess Gillam’s bright tones will be familiar to many a BBC Radio 3 listener, both as a saxophonist and a regular broadcaster with her program This Classical Life. Often (rightly!) referred to as a breath of fresh air, the Cumbrian-born musician has recently moved to London and is on to the second chapter of her album-making career with Decca. When we talk Kentish Town, where she lives, has just emerged from lockdown. As she confesses, “It’s all a bit weird!”

Gillam’s progression from the wide open, wild spaces of Cumbria to the cramped streets of North London is a striking one. “I lived in Manchester for three years, and then moved to London,” she says. “It was a big shock, a completely different atmosphere. London never stops and that is quite difficult to adapt to sometimes. Culturally the difference is unbelievable. Cumbria has incredible landscapes and scenery, really lovely people, and a really strong sense of community, but there is nowhere near as much culture and things going on as London.”

She had to be careful not to over commit her diary. “I found as soon as I was in London that I was really busy, but also that I wasn’t in London so much as I thought as I was touring and playing in different places. I remember moving on the Monday, I had a rehearsal in the afternoon and a concert the next day. It was a mixture as before I couldn’t commit to too much, but now I love the different challenges. I would love to go to more theatres and watch more concerts though – that’s something I plan to do much more of when they reopen.”

We move on to talk about TIME, that second album for Decca, due for release at the end of September. It was recorded with the Jess Gillam Ensemble, a chamber-sized group of accomplished session musicians and percussionists. Several teasers for the album have appeared, in the exciting form of new and specially commissioned pieces by Luke Howard (Dappled Light) and Will Gregory (Orbit). The tracklisting is pleasingly adventurous, with new interpretations of tracks by James Blake, RadioheadPhilip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Gillam was already aware of Gregory’s pop music. “I’ve been a fan of Goldfrapp since I was quite young”, she explains, “and have listened to their albums. I knew that Will was a sax player and have played various pieces by him – so I just approached him and asked if he could write a piece. Goldfrapp have blossomed as they have gone on, and that’s one of the things I find really inspiring about Will, is that he can write in a classical style, with a score for orchestra, but he can write in so many areas and have a distinctive voice still. For me it makes his music more authentic, and it’s one of the reasons I love it.”

On Dappled Light, I comment that the colours of the cover and match up to Luke Howard’s music rather nicely. “I think he wrote beautifully for the forces that we had”, says Gillam, “and the way he used the percussion was really interesting with the piano. It really paints a picture and a scene I think. The cover art wasn’t planned but we ended up with it because of lockdown. I think it went together really well!”

Jess has a number of new commissions under her belt already. Does she feel it is important for a new composer to capture her personality as well as writing well for the saxophone itself? “I think for me music is all about people, about telling people stories and communication”, she says. “It is a deep level of communication and conveying a story, an emotion or a feeling. I think with whatever piece it is – a Mahler symphony or a Shostakovich string quartet for instance – each one has a history that is linked to a particular person. I find the interpersonal relationships interesting, to find out that music a lot of the time is about people, for people or with somebody in mind. It is really nice to have that human interaction and quality to a new piece, but it’s not essential. I think it’s really nice when a composer listens to your sound and captures that, but I think it’s nice and not essential.”

While listening through the album, the big surprise for this particular listener was Gillam’s cover of James Blake’s Retrograde, in an arrangement by Benjamin Rimmer. The surprise in this case was the vocal qualities of the instrument. “I think it’s an underrated element of the saxophone, it’s almost insane the vocal quality that it has! The way a sound is produced is quite akin to how you would sing, and quite similar to how you would produce the sound if you were a singer, and the things you would think about where the sound is being made are similar through your vocal chords. Whatever you put through the saxophone is a direct representation of how sound comes out. If you’re shouting or whispering, it would be totally different. You get that to some extent on a piano, but it is so connected to our bodies and the physicality of it is just like singing. When I was recording Retrograde it was about looking at how James Blake had got that sound, and replicating some of it on the saxophone.”

Jess has shown through her concerts how adaptable the saxophone can be, showing in an hour-long recital at Wigmore Hall how composers from the last 400 years can find their music in a new dimension. “It is unbelievably versatile, and I have been saying for a while how it’s like a chameleon of instruments. I was reading the famous David Bowie quote where he says people describe him as a chameleon but he’s not a chameleon of styles, because a chameleon puts a lot of effort into changing its colour! It’s the same with the saxophone, you don’t really have to change that much. Of course there is a whole different set of equipment and techniques to play jazz and classical, and you can learn to do it very well, but on a very basic level you don’t need to change anything to be able to play baroque music or Motown or classical, whatever it might be. It has the versatility of sitting right in that hole.”

She may be two albums in, but Jess is still at a very early point in her career – which is something of a double-edged sword. “It’s amazing but also terrifying!” she exclaims. “There is so much to explore with the instruments. The way we consume music now means that people have such eclectic tastes, because you can listen to whatever you like whenever you like on a streaming platform, and you don’t have to sit down and listen to a whole album before getting up and changing the gramophone. It’s a lot easier listening to music now, so the styles we like and are listening to I find are much more based on mood and what we feed our emotions, to inspire or to concentrate. I think people are using music in quite a different way now. The saxophone feels like an instrument that has the potential to sit in so many different places and to explore so many new possibilities. There is so much music still to be made for it I think, because it’s such a young instrument and has so many places to go.”

These new ways of experiencing music, primarily through digital platforms, are at the heart of This Classical Life, her successful weekly show on BBC Radio 3. It appeals to a wide range of listeners, and not just the new technology recruits – from experience, much older gramophone lovers are enjoying her open and diverse approach to music, casting off the genre stereotypes. “There has been a big range in the response I have had, with all age groups from primary school children to 90-year-olds. I think the most magical thing about music is the sense of discovery, and knowing that you can never listen to all the music in the world. There is always something to discover. Regardless of what age you are, that never leaves you, the idea of hearing new sounds, stories and different people!”

These principles are at the heart of her approach, both as a performer and a presenter. “I think listening to new music and finding new artists that they love brings people so much joy. When you find somebody new you can listen to all their music and find out who they are, and what they’re like. It’s one of the greatest things to discover.”

Has the lockdown period given her a greater appreciation of music? “It’s been such a strange time, but it has made me realise even more that I don’t go a single day without putting on some kind of music. It can completely change the surroundings, it can transform your mood, it can make you think a different way, and it can really transform a day. You can be locked down like we have been inside our houses, but listen to music and suddenly you’re in a completely different country, thinking completely different thoughts, and you’re with someone else. It’s an amazing thing.”

Gillam has done a good deal of work over Zoom in the last few months, setting up the hugely successful Virtual Scratch Orchestra during lockdown. It brought musicians of all abilities together for the closest experience to live performance they could achieve in isolated conditions – and in total 900 people were assembled online for a distanced account of Let It Be.

Although Zoom has to an extent saved live music during the Coronavirus pandemic, there are still keen limitations, as Gillam freely admits. “Technology is amazing, and it’s incredible that we can still be a part of something bigger and still connect via the internet in the way we can, but nothing will be able to replicate the feeling of playing with other people in a room, or playing to other people. I’ve been taking part in the Royal Albert At Home concert, and practising playing to a screen is the most bizarre feeling. There is no clapping, no communication with the audience, no way of judging how it’s going! It’s the most inhuman experience in a way but at the same time you know people will watch it and you hope they will enjoy it. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Her set for the Royal Albert Hall was typically varied, including music from Marcello to David Bowie – which puts me in mind of how important the saxophone was through his music. Gillam emphatically agrees. “He played the saxophone himself, and often in his music it acts as a catalyst for the next section, or the next drop, or the next rise in emotion and intensity. The way he would use it, he deployed it as an instrument to take things to the next level.”

She has also used Zoom for lessons with her teacher, renowned British saxophonist John Harle. “I’m just finishing my Masters year at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and I submitted my recital only yesterday. We’ve been having video lessons leading up to that. It’s great to be able to keep studying, but again it isn’t quite the same, it’s quite a strange method over the internet!”

Now the recital is submitted, TIME is of the essence. We’re getting everything together for the September release – the cover and booklet notes, the track order. The whole album was mixed in lockdown, which was quite a technological feat! The producer Jonathan Allen was incredible, he was giving a live feed over to me and we could comment in real time, using WhatsApp. It’s amazing to see what’s actually possible when you need it to be!”

Jess Gillam‘s album TIME will be released by Decca on 25 September. It will include the singles Dappled Light, Suspirium, Orbit, Truman Sleeps and Joby Talbot‘s Transit of Venus. You can read more about the album on her website, and keep up with new audio releases via her Spotify and YouTube pages

Wigmore Mondays – Jess Gillam & Zeynep Özsuca

Jess Gillam (soprano and alto saxophones, above), Zeynep Özsuca (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 7 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Saxophonist Jess Gillam is proving to be a breath of fresh air for BBC Radio 3 and for classical music in general. Her combination of passionate artistry, technical flair and down to earth presentation is ideal, and brought colour to a dull Monday in October. Her spoken introductions between the pieces in this concert had a nicely judged patter, showing someone at ease with an audience and enthusiastic about the music she plays. The refreshing lack of pretence fed into the inspiring performances too. Gillam was helped by a very well chosen programme of music showing off the versatility of her instrument, in doing so covering a rich variety from the last 300 years.

The Pequeña Czarda of Pedro Iturralde was an ebullient first piece and a sign of things to come, placing the first earworm as well as showing off Gillam’s technique and Zeynep Özsuca’s colourful accompaniment. It draws the odd parallel to Midnight In Moscow in its slow passages, and both performers caught the contrast between these and the helter-skelter faster music.

The Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor, transposed down a tone into C, illustrated how well works for oboe can transcribe for the saxophone, especially when played with as much control as there was from Gillam and Özusca here. The saxophone is a much louder instrument but Gillam really enjoyed the subtle colours available, and this worked especially well in the famous Adagio (11:08 on the broadcast link). In the outer movements Özusca found great clarity to bring the part writing to life.

Anna Clyne’s new piece Snake and Ladder introduced electronics to the equation, reminding us how the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments between classical and rock music. Written for saxophone and distortion pedal, it was an effective and enjoyable piece, though sat at the back of the hall we had what sounded like wow and flutter from the breathing.

This led through a bit of a stylistic jolt to Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, which appeared to be presented in original form without an arrangement – certainly none was credited. Gillam clearly loves this piece and played it beautifully, though the more plaintive oboe tone from which the third movement especially benefits was understandably more difficult to find (from 30:06). This movement, an elegy to Poulenc’s great friend Prokofiev, is effectively the last music he wrote and as such is very profound. Gillam did however do a brilliant job with the fast central movement (25:56 on the broadcast), with spiky counter thrust from Özsuca, while the first movement had established the mood.

We then heard from composer Rudy Wiedoeft, an American composer who raised the profile of the saxophone worldwide. His Valse Vanite, an original piece, drew on his love of transcribing other composers, and it was as though Chopin had taken a vacation in Harlem. Both musicians clearly have a lot of affection for this piece, and Gillam’s ornamentation was exquisitely done.

A reduced version for saxophone and piano of John Harle’s RANT! followed, this enjoyable and tuneful piece drawing on folk tunes from Gillam’s native Ullswater. That the composer, also Gillam’s teacher, was in the audience said much for the bond and mutual respect the two enjoy.

A soulful Pièce en forme de habanera followed, Ravel leading nicely into Gillam’s party piece. Milhaud‘s Scaramouche is the work she played in orchestral form at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2018, though it is arguably more effective in partnership with piano. Özsuca was a little far back in the mix to begin with but the fast movement was still hugely enjoyable, followed by a thoughtful slow movement and perky Brazileira (58:48), Gillam breaking into a grin once more as she played the catchy tune.

The audience would have been happy with this as the final earworm with which to leave, but a bonus was in store in the form of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood (not on the broadcast), the encore showing off Gillam’s remarkable breath control in slower music.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and it was so refreshing to see another younger artist throwing off any shackles that classical music might present, and offering it out as music, pure and simple. Proof if it were ever needed that music should be there for everyone to enjoy!


Jess Gillam and Zeynep Özsuca played the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets)::

Iturralde Pequeña Czarda (2:03)
Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor (7:34)
Clyne (Snake and Ladder) for saxophone and electronics (19:27)
Poulenc Sonata for oboe and piano (21:05)
Wiedoeft Valse Vanité (35:00)
Harle RANT! (40:27)
Ravel Pièce en forme de habanera (47:53)
Milhaud Scaramouche Op. 165b (51:13)

Further listening

Some of the music played in this concert can be heard on Gillam’s debut album Rise. This includes the orchestral version of John Harle’s RANT!, and the works by Iturralde, Marcello and Wiedoeft – and of course the finale of the Milhaud:

Gillam’s teacher John Harle has a very impressive recorded legacy, raising the profile of the classical saxophone in contemporary classical music. The Sax Drive album (one in a series of PR own goals when it comes to saxophone album titles!) is well worth exploring for the three concertos it holds from Stanley Myers, Richard Rodney Bennett (his Concerto for Stan Getz) and Michael Torke:

Meanwhile if you liked the music of Milhaud you will find this hugely attractive collection from EMI to be very much your thing:

Get behind the Classic BRITs

On Wednesday night the Classic BRITs returned for the first time in five years, back in the Royal Albert Hall.

While they have been away, several things have changed in classical music – and the most striking of those, on this evidence, is an increased diversity. The award winners were led by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a remarkable talent – and also a remarkable young man. His debut album Inspiration meets the expectations of a major label without compromising his own ideas, such as arranging Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry for solo cello. It works much better than you’d expect!

The inclusion of Marley, just a couple of tracks after Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no.1, shows the influence playlists on streaming services have had on album planning, but also demonstrates a refreshing approach to bringing music of all forms together.

Tokio Myers also blends different styles, giving an intense live performance at the ceremony that included a barrage of drums, a soft Debussy reverie and some powerful electronically based music with its roots towards grime. Myers used to play in Mr Hudson & The Library among other groups, and he uses his experiences to bring a really satisfying urban grit to go with the purity of the piano.

Elsewhere it was gratifying to see winners young and old credit their teachers and musical education, and stress the importance of music in schools. Jess Gillam, deserved recipient of the Sound Of Classical award, did this – and so did Nile Rodgers. The guest presenter who was originally a classical guitarist playing the works of Fernando Sor – but who felt out of place in that sphere and went on to be a great guitarist elsewhere.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber went further, taking the government to task, but both Sheku and Myers were more subtle, thanking their teachers by name. Amanda Holden, who presented Myers with his award, recounted a visit he made to her daughter’s school, which has doubtless stayed with them.

Musical education is so important. I would not have been able to afford cello lessons at the age of eleven if the school hadn’t paid for them, and even towards the end of my grades my funding was dwindling and my parents were really having to dig deep to support me. I will be forever grateful for that, as I would not have been put on a musical path without it! It goes to show how it is not just the frontline performers who benefit from a musical education, but those much further down behind the scenes too.

Back to the BRITs, which also featured a wonderful performance of the theme and first of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations from Beatrice Rana – a shame we couldn’t hear more than we did! My only big criticism would be directed at the album of the year shortlist. While it is fine to include musicals, shows, film and middle of the road albums none of the shortlist had an obvious classical music connection. It is a thought for the future, where it might also work to have a ‘Best electronic’ category, recognising the likes of Nils Frahm, Bonobo and other classically influenced music that 6Music serve so well.

These are minor gripes though. We should get behind the Classic BRITs and support it, because it gives people a way in to classical music, pointing them forward towards the joys of the genre should they wish to look around further. There really should be room for everyone, and at the very least when I watch on Sunday night I shall be grateful for my musical education!