Jess Gillam (saxophone) and Zeynep Özsuca (piano)
March 31 2022
Review: William Ruff
Saxophonist Jess Gillam’s Lakeside concert on Thursday was not only a sell-out but the average age of the audience must have plummeted too. It’s hardly surprising. Nottingham’s music lovers will never forget the first time they saw her perform. She was one of the three finalists in that extraordinary 2016 BBC Young Musician concert from which Sheku Kanneh-Mason shot to stardom. But he wasn’t the only one. Everyone who saw her then knew that Jess had star quality in barrowloads and she has never looked back. Her albums, concerts, radio programmes and TV appearances – not to mention her all-embracing, adventurous repertoire – have not only put her on the musical map but have won new (and, crucially, younger) audiences for classical music.
Her choice of programme was typical in its mixture of the old and new, of substantial classics and fleeting musical impressions. She started with the Oboe Sonata by French composer Francis Poulenc, making it sound as if written for saxophone. It’s largely an elegiac piece, written for Poulenc’s friend (and bridge partner), the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. In this short three-movement piece she showed just how completely she can inhabit the music, making it her own. The ‘peaceful’ opening and the ‘very animated’ second movement really caught Poulenc’s eloquent idiom – but it was the ending (Déploration) which was so moving, the plangent tone of the saxophone unfolding its sad lament.
Jess clearly has a very fruitful musical relationship with Turkish pianist Zeynep Özsuca who demonstrated in this recital that she’s not only a formidable virtuoso but also a sensitive partner, expert at judging balance and mindful of the high-definition acoustics of the Djanogly Recital Hall. Certainly the fingers of both musicians were kept busy by the other substantial classical work on the menu, the Sonata by baroque composer Telemann. Again its opening Triste movement was very well-suited to the saxophone and the fast movements (especially the closing Vivace) showed impressive accuracy at speed as well as the fine detail of communication between saxophone and piano.
The rest of the programme consisted of shorter, generally contemporary pieces which proved that the saxophone can play just about any role: profound, cheeky, whimsical, extrovert, introvert, sometimes changing from one to another in a mere breath. Three of the pieces were inspired by light: Lumina by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Dappled Light by Luke Howard and early Morning Melody by Meredith Monk, each one allowing subtly different tonal colours to permeate these songs without words.
One of the recital’s many highlights was a piece written for Jess Gillam by John Harle, the king of virtuoso saxophonists. Entitled Rant! drawing on folk music from Jess’s native Cumbria. This piece packs a powerful punch and is a vivid showcase for Jess’s many talents. There’s lots of exhilaratingly bright resonance for the top notes, plenty of growly power at the bottom end – with more than a hint of Northumbrian pipes in the mix.
With all these dance rhythms in people’s ears it’s not surprising that Jess actually invited the audience to stand up and sway to the last piece she played: the Histoire du Tango by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. Disappointingly no one actually took up the challenge, even though it was hard to keep still for a performance of such rhythmic energy and infectious joy. And much the same could be said about the whole of Jess and Zeynep’s programme.
Jess Gillam, saxophone
Zeynep Özsuca, piano