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NIKOLAI KAPUSTIN (1937-2020)

Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Op.50 (1987)

Ukrainian composer Nikolai Girshevitch Kapustin was born in the town of Horlivka in the Donetsk Oblast province of Eastern Ukraine on November 22, 1937, and died on July 2, 2020, in Moscow at the age of 82. From the composer's obituary prepared by his publisher, Kapustin's journey as a composer began at a very young age and developed with a resolve to compose through self-learning:

 

"His mother introduced him to the piano while he was still a child, and he created his first compositions at the age of 13, ultimately producing his first piano sonata. In 1956, he passed the entrance examination for the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano with Alexander Goldenweiser. Kapustin never studied composition as a specific subject, instead preferring to develop his abilities through self-intuition. After his final examinations, he joined the big band conducted by Oleg Lundstrem, a pupil of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He composed works for this ensemble, including his First Piano Concerto Op. 2." (Schott)

 

Infusing elements of jazz and improvisation is at the heart of Kapustin's work. His philosophy of incorporating them into his music offers insight into a paradox, as he describes, "I was never a jazz musician. I have never attempted to be a genuine jazz pianist, but have to slip into this role for the benefit of my compositions. I am not interested in improvisation – and what would a jazz musician be without improvisation? Any improvisation on my part has naturally been notated and has improved during the process which has allowed it to mature."

 

Like George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Kapustin's Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Op. 50 (1987) abandons the standard multi-movement concerto scheme and embraces the freer rhapsodic form. The instrumentation mirrors a jazz band more than a conventional orchestra. The score calls for solo alto saxophone, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, three horns, four trumpets, four trombones, timpani, drum set, bongos, guitar, bass guitar, harp, piano, and strings.

 

The Concerto unfolds in a single 16-minute movement. Marked Lento, the music begins at a languid tempo with the low instruments of the orchestra sustaining a C-pedal. The saxophone enters with curvy melodic phrases, sensuous in contour; these opening bars are the main ingredients for the Concerto's improvisatory-like design. For the first four minutes, Kapustin showcases the sultry, melodious voice of the saxophone with the beauty of sustained strings. Glimmers of slick virtuosity embroider the solo line with zigzagging lyricism. Hints of winds and percussion appear, but the strings are second only to the solo in this prelude, providing deliciously flavored harmonies with an undeniable Gershwinesque seasoning.

 

The meat of the work is contained in the arch-like midsection, an electrifying study in groove escalation. Drum set, piano, and double bass kick into nightclub mode with a cocktail of swinging syncopated rhythms. The bluesy groove sets up the entrance for a wicked electric bass guitar line and a glucose-induced escapade. Kapustin fires on all cylinders, as does the saxophone; the next nine minutes of music is a delectable display of music at its most irresistible, a rocket engine of platinum-coated big-band ecstasy that easily solidifies Kapustin as a master composer of his generation.

 

A return to the slow noir music of the beginning offers a few minutes of lovesick reprieve with Hollywood flavored string writing. Finally, the last two minutes is a racket of boisterous raving, bringing the Concerto full circle. With the pumping electric bass back in action, the glitz and glamour of the big band propel the work's final C-minor 9 power chord through the symphonic roof.

 

The Concerto was first performed in its orchestral version on June 20, 2017, with Blaž Starc and the Orchestra of the Maribor Conservatory of Music and Ballet conducted by Janez Vouk. The performance on this program is the orchestral version's U.S. premiere.

© Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

ABOUT THIS PERFORMANCE (MASTERWORKS 8):

Enter the animated, pastoral, and psychedelic world of birds, angels, and toys in the music of prolific Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. Maestro Keitaro Harada returns to lead your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in the final indoor Masterworks concert of the season, including Yoshimatsu’s homage to rock, Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, the celestial Symphony No. 6 “Birds and Angels,” and the U.S. premiere of Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin’s jazz-fueled Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra with Todd Yukumoto.