The original version of this work, for alto saxophone and large wind ensemble, was commissioned by World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, and received its first performance in Boston on October 6, 2016, with Jennifer Bill as soloist and the Boston University Wind Ensemble conducted by David J. Martins. This chamber version was commissioned by Tristan de Borba, who gave the Canadian premiere of the full version on February 10, 2017, followed by the world premiere of the present version at a conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance on February 18.
The work is inspired by Gertrude Stein’s magnificent libretto on the Faust myth, ‘Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights”. The saxophone personifies and brings life to the principal characters, delineating the individuality of each by stylistic means, while the harp and piano establish the emotional and physical atmosphere of the Steinian world. At certain passages, the music articulates the precise rhythm of Stein’s prose.
It is not necessary to know the narrative of the SaxOpera to follow and enjoy the music, any more than it is for Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, or Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel . But in each case the story adds an extra imaginative dimension. Though of course there is a precedent for concertos with narrative content (e.g. Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, Strauss’s Don Quixote), my intention is to imbue the work with an authentically operatic idiom, together with the theatrical intensity inherent in the form: hence the designation: SaxOpera.
The short passage which concludes the opera was inspired not only by Stein’s ending, in which a boy and a girl appeal to the Man from Over the Seas, (Please Mister Viper, do not forget to be), but also by the moving penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in which the narrator describes the final moments of the fictional Faustus cantata: ‘The work admits of no consolation, no reconciliation.. but if the entire work produces lamentation, perhaps there is a paradox: so that from hopelessness and irremediable despair, hope (in the form of a whispered question) might germinate…’
I’ve been obsessed with Stein’s text for many years; I used it as the basis for a dance piece in 1980, and a chamber opera with piano in 1988. The music (apart from a few motivic germs) is quite new; I see Gertrude Stein’s masterpiece with new eyes (and ears) after many decades of marinating!!