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European Union Chamber Orchestra: soloist Jess Gillam (saxophone)

The European Union Chamber Orchestra at the Corn Exchange on Brexit day, January 31. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that way.

As featured star saxophonist Jess Gillam put it, ‘at least tonight we’re united’.

The concert, an eclectic mix of works by Marcello, Mozart, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Haydn, combined the exquisitely accomplished musicianship of the EU orchestra with the breath-taking virtuosity of Jess Gillam, finalist of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2016.

Jess has never looked back, more awards, concert tours, youngest ever BBC Radio 3 presenter. People flock to see her, attracted not only by her extraordinary talent but also by her very likeable personality.

Jess Gillam (28223624)
Jess Gillam (28223624)

The Corn Exchange on Friday night provided just such an example of her power to draw audiences. Jess, still in her early 20s, opened the concert with Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Saxophone and Strings in C minor, a work originally set for oboe, but arranged for the ‘newcomer’ saxophone by composer, conductor and musicologist Ber Joosen.

Jess inhabits the music she plays with her whole body. She is fascinating to watch, and in this particular work delivered a most deeply affecting adagio, possibly more familiar to our ears from a keyboard transcription made of the work by no less an admirer of it than JSBach.

Marcello was followed by Mozart, Cassation No 1 in G K63, for which the orchestra was supplemented by a wind section and joined by its prestigious Director since 2003, Dutch violinist Eva Stegeman.

The work, a form of Divertimento in 7 movements, contained some beautiful and melodic slow passages, one of its movements being reprised at the end of the concert by the orchestra as a farewell encore - Eva Stegeman reminding us that Mozart had composed it at the advanced age of 13.

Jess Gillam returned to perform Glazunov’s Concerto For Saxophone Op. 109, but not before she explained that the sax has only been around since the 1840s/50s and therefore has few compositions specially designated for it. ‘This is our work’, she said.

She joins therefore recent Cambridge-visiting musicians such as Alison Balsom and Peter Moore (also BBC Young Musician alumni) who, like Jess with the saxophone, have become ambassadors for their own (comparatively understated) solo instruments, trumpet and trombone respectively.

Jess Gillam (28223619)
Jess Gillam (28223619)

Glazunov last featured at The Corn Exchange in 2018 when artist in Residence, Esther Yoo, performed his violin Concerto. His Concerto for Saxophone is a beautiful piece of music with a soulful, recurring melodic theme, as well as Bach-like fugal passages and Tarantella dance sequences. It clearly requires an instrumentalist of extraordinary abilities to tackle it, and in Jess Gillam it has found one.

Jess rewarded the audience’s acclaim with Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ and showed just what beauty the saxophone can achieve. Her amazing breath control sustained its closing note for what seemed an age. A musician of rare talent, wholly in command of her instrument.

After the interval came two more works, Elegy for Strings by Tchaikovsky, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 in F minor ‘La Passione’.

Tchaikovsky’s Elegy, a short piece composed in commemoration of an actor and stage director (J.W.Samarin) had the melancholy of his larger (Pathétique) sixth symphony. The EU Orchestra evoked all the affecting qualities of this not often heard composition, instantly identifiable as essentially Tchaikovsky’s own.

Haydn’s Symphony on the whole is a likewise melancholy expression, though with two strenuous and pacey movements to offset a pathos associated with the passion and death of Christ; hence its title, ‘La Passione’, but as often happens (compare e.g. Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ piano concerto or ‘Harp’ String Quartet), not Haydn’s own.

Elegy and melancholy together led Eva Stegeman in her concluding remarks to regret the departure of the UK from the European Union, but music, above all, she said was the bond that kept peoples together, a sentiment that obviously gained wholehearted assent in an appreciative audience’s loud applause.


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