Jess Gillam and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

A review of Jess Gillam and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra playing the UK premiere of Anna Clyne's 'Grasslands' Concerto at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall.

Jess Gillam and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Emerging onto the stage in one of her trademark vibrant outfits, this time a bright pink jacket and sparkly boots, the effect of Jess Gillam’s presence on stage is beaten only by the effect of her outstanding playing. For this particular concert, at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, she played the UK premiere of Anna Clyne’s ‘Grasslands’, a concerto for soprano saxophone and orchestra. The orchestra playing with her was the BBC Philharmonic. The concerto is inspired by the banshee from Irish folklore, a female spirit who heralds the death of a family member by wailing or shrieking. This concerto was written for Jess Gillam, and in addition to describing her experience of the pandemic in a down-to-earth pre-concert talk, Gillam humorously recalled one of her first meetings with Anna Clyne; Gillam played her saxophone to Clyne, and was not offended when, based on her playing, Clyne revealed that she was going to compose a piece about this shrieking spirit. 

In agreement with this folkloric inspiration, the opening movement of ‘Grasslands’ saw Gillam play a series of soaring notes, some of which were in the soprano’s altissimo range. The soprano is one of the saxophones with the highest pitch, and altissimo notes are the notes that extend higher than the saxophones regular range. The effect of this, with Gillam’s perfect control of tuning, was that of the desperate wailing of the banshee. Gillam then flew down from these wailing tones in a flurry of notes right down to the bottom of the soprano’s range, in an impressive display of her virtuosity. These rapid scales were a feature throughout all three movements, with Jess Gillam never running out of breath, and seemingly possessing unlimited energy as she moved enthusiastically to the music. Haunting segments of folk-inspired melodies were often introduced by Gillam on the soprano before being passed on to the other members of the orchestra, sometimes in the darker tones of the saxophone’s lower range, and sometimes with abandon right at the top. 

The second movement opened as a duet between the saxophone and the cello, with the main melody played mournfully in the cello whilst Gillam played whisper-like subtones over the top. Gillam’s gentle and heartfelt playing echoed the more tender and melancholy aspects of the banshee’s grief. Gillam soon took the lead on a breathy, ethereal melody which floated high above the low rippling rhythms of the orchestra below. A sudden burst of energy threw Gillam back into the fast scalic patterns and wailing altissimo of the first movement, before a return to the original tender melody, Gillam’s masterful control of emotion creating a beautiful contrast between the sections. 

The atmosphere changed from melancholy to fiery for the final movement. A magical vibraphone flourish led into a sudden, long-held note by Jess Gillam, over which she used the ‘false fingerings’ of the saxophone to change the timbre of the note and create different sounds, portraying the concerto’s other-worldly landscape. The music launched into a bouncier section, characterised by playful, descending phrases, and Gillam’s off-beat stabs, of which some notes stretched into the stratosphere, high in the altissimo range. Her control of the saxophone to produce these incredibly high notes was breath-taking, and I, as a saxophonist, was left in awe of the energy she must have to maintain these notes throughout the entire concerto. The concerto ended explosively and suddenly, with a return to the opening ‘wailing’ motif before a final flourish covering the saxophone’s entire range. 

My Jess Gillam-fan-girling aside, the BBC Philharmonic orchestra also played Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne Overture’, Ravel’s ‘Ma Mere l’Oye’, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The orchestra moved effortlessly through the different atmospheres of these pieces, from the jauntiness of Cockaigne to the iconic, thunderous opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It was noted that, in particular during the fifth symphony, the principal cellist, Peter Dixon, played which such passion that the hairs on his bow began to snap. A particular highlight for me was the deep rumbling of the contrabassoon during Ravel’s ‘Conversations between Beauty and the Beast’ which interrupted the beauty and fragility of the waltz. The conductor was the lively Ben Gernon, who directed effortlessly from the podium the tricky chordal stabs in ‘Grasslands’, keeping the orchestra co-ordinated. I was also delighted to have the chance to meet the humble superstar Jess Gillam during a CD signing at the interval, where she was only too happy to take the time to talk to each of her fans. I am pleased to say that I did in fact get my fill of selfies with my hero. 

Header Image Credit: The Barbican

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Lucy Masterson

Lucy Masterson

A-level student who loves everything literature and music.

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