Timothy McAllister is one of the classical saxophone wizards of our day, busy with his own PRISM saxophone quartet and lately becoming the man of the hour for a couple of big jazz-inspired works by composer John Adams.

Since 2009, he has performed Adams' "City Noir" -- which features an extended and rather acrobatic solo saxophone part -- 36 times with a dozen orchestras. He's now hard at work as soloist for Adams' Saxophone Concerto, which he will perform Aug. 9 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, with Marin Alsop conducting. The work recently was issued on CD by Nonesuch Records, which recorded the St. Louis Symphony's October 2013 performances, conducted by David Robertson with McAllister again as soloist.

It's a dark whirlwind of a piece, inspired by Adams' fascination with jazz saxophonists, including Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy. I spoke with McAllister, 42, about working with Adams; about the composer's jazz influences and aversion to the French classical saxophone style; and about the challenges of getting to the core of the sound that Adams was seeking in the months before and after the concerto's world premiere last year in Sydney, Australia.

Spending an hour with McAllister on the phone was a pleasure, as he broke down concepts of compositional and saxophone language. Clearly a born teacher, he is associate professor of saxophone at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in Ann Arbor.


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Q Let's talk about your history with the Cabrillo Festival and how it has led you to this moment -- your upcoming performance in Santa Cruz of Adams' Saxophone Concerto.

A My first appearance at Cabrillo was in 2007, when I played Jennifer Higdon's Saxophone Concerto, and I also played in the festival orchestra that year. And I've been back two other times. I've done a few of Mark-Anthony Turnage's pieces, the Kitchen Sisters' project in 2012, and I did John's "City Noir" in 2010, which has that big saxophone part.

If Marin needs me, I'm there. I can safely say that I'm Marin's first call, so that's where the relationship comes from. And following the Higdon performance, Marin insisted on using the PRISM Quartet -- my saxophone quartet -- for her recording of John's "Nixon in China" with the Colorado Symphony and Opera Colorado. There was a two-week run in Denver in the summer of 2008, with a recording on Naxos, a double-CD set. John attended one of those performances in Denver. He came back to congratulate Marin, and I shook his hand -- I got a little more on his radar. So little by little, through Cabrillo and Marin, it all led to him selecting me for the premiere of "City Noir" in L.A.

Q I'd hazard that was pretty good preparation for the concerto.

A Yes, it has this tour de force kind of part, and they wanted to look outside of their local pool of saxophonists for this special occasion of Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural concert (in 2009). They wanted someone who was more of a specialist in contemporary classical performances, but who also could do a little more of the crossover and hang with a great orchestra.

If it wasn't for Cabrillo and those early experiences, I think I would've been a little off the radar. John and Marin are part of an elite circle that serves as its own network, and I got plugged into that because of Cabrillo.

Q What happened next? You'd been given this challenging solo role in "City Noir," and you toured all over the place with it.

A Right. He'd written this mega-part for "City Noir," so it only made sense that one of the next steps was to solicit a solo piece. We did "City Noir" in Toronto and with the New World Symphony. Little by little, it led to shop talk -- him being a bit of a dabbler with the saxophone, and his father having played saxophone in swing bands. PRISM was wanting to get a saxophone quartet from him, and at some point I let it drop in his ear that if there was any possible way of getting a piece from him some day for myself, that I was more than game.

And we were having dinners and lunches out at New World Symphony (in Miami Beach, Florida); I believe it was March of 2011. We were walking to dinner one night and he said, "I think I should write you a piece." I worked hard to contain my elation at the mere suggestion.

I let it go, and over a year went by, and -- you know how it is with people, you kind of fall in and out of touch. I just kind of stayed on his radar as I kept doing "City Noir," and then in February of 2012 I received an e-mail out of the blue from him, saying that he'd finished "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," and he was thinking about the next project and he'd like to do a saxophone concerto in Sydney, and asked if I was free.

Am I FREE? I almost dropped my smartphone. I was with my wife; we were eating in a restaurant.

It all happened so fast. It was incredible to see these four orchestras jump on board to commission this piece. A project like that typically is five or ten years out for someone of his stature.

Q How fast did his writing go?

A I remember him asking, "If I wrote a saxophone piece, would I have to use multi-phonics?" I said, "You don't have to do any of that stuff if you don't want to."

He wrote relatively quickly to meet the August (2013) premiere in Sydney, where John conducted. But I was getting pretty nervous by the end of June; it was a little down to the wire. He didn't have all three movements done -- with up-to-date revisions -- until July. And then things changed for the second performance.

I did it this past March in Milwaukee, and John was there for the first evening's post-concert talk. I remember commenting that "a big part of this piece, beyond the notes, was learning to "crack the code" for the sound that John wanted."

How does someone write a piece that's clearly a classical piece, but is to be played without fully acknowledging the instrument's classical history -- yet without playing it in a way that's cliched with a typical jazzy quality, that possibly comes off as disingenuous or hokey? That can be hard, because when a lot of composers try to write "jazz," they will write something that's full of blues scales and scoops, because they think that's cool.

Q Then how would you characterize the concerto's jazz influence? Where does it sit in terms of "jazz versus classical?"

A First of all, we can't dismiss the importance of jazz and the saxophone; they're indivisible.

But in the end, John allows it to be blurred. He allows it to sit right in the center. I think this piece does it better than any other. It needs to be played with the rigor a classical player can achieve. There are a lot of intonation struggles throughout the piece, a lot of complicated structures and delicate textures to be negotiated along with its veiled tonality. And it all has to be really precise, rhythmically.

It's a sound that references jazz but is still a classical piece. The key was turning off these inherent French qualities that are part of the classical tradition. John had kind of an aversion to it, to the point that he wanted me to avoid it altogether: the faster vibrato, the fluffier, more affected and less gritty French sensibility. He didn't want that. John's exposure to classical saxophone was more in the American tradition -- studio players, and then born out of the avant-garde jazz players like Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.

Q Do you play jazz? Are you an improviser?

A I have a bit of a jazz background, particularly from college days, but I've never been a great improviser. I'm OK. I can get through several standards; I can fake my way through it. (He laughs.) Nevertheless, it's important to me, and I stay up on all the great recordings and players.

Q So how does that help with John's concerto?

A I was able to flip these switches. He'd say, "Stop! Stop! Did you hear what you did to that note? Don't do that!" Any time these French influences came in -- like you'd have playing Milhaud's "Creation" or Ravel's "Bolero" -- we'd turn them off.

In a subtle way, John was trying to channel some of these things he'd listened to: Stan Getz's "Focus" and "Charlie Parker with Strings" and some of the herky-jerky motion of Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. But there's nothing so literal that it seems borrowed or a pastiche or something, though you can sense, say, the sound world of Eddie Sauter, who did the string arrangements for Getz.

Q I agree, the concerto doesn't sound anything like "Focus." At the same time -- I was telling this to John the other day -- when I listen to the concerto, I have an emotional response that's kind of similar to what I experience with "Focus." There's a similar something -- a sound world or an emotional field, a similar kind of dark agitation. He joked and said, "Yeah, my concerto's a bit highly caffeinated."

A Right. Because here he is using a couple of iconic albums as an inspiration and yet it's done so effectively that it's just sort of -- it doesn't sound like it at all, but you have that similar sensation. It's straddling the line.

Maybe that's the brilliance of John Adams, or maybe it's something that he's stumbled upon, but doesn't know he's stumbled upon. If something for him is an inspiration or provides a point of reference, he's always able to stop short of making you feel that it's ripped off from the source. And I think that's a very special trait of a composer.

Q Let's get back to your preparations for performing the concerto. Were you feeling a lot of pressure?

A I was pushing pretty hard. There were a lot of places where I was playing louder than the marked dynamics. He would literally sing it to me, and I would play it back. I was trying to get this cinematic sweep that John has, these long kinds of phrases, or a distant sound or this noodly kind of sound. There's not a lot of hyper-minute expression that you might see in a violin concerto. It's more like big arching lines, like you'd see from the great jazz players -- but played with a classical mouthpiece, over a busy orchestration!

So, yeah, there were times when I was a little bit nervous. If he wanted me to shut down natural classical tendencies altogether, I'd say, "Wait a minute, John, do you want me to literally sound like a jazz player?" And he'd say, "No." So over time, we landed somewhere in between.

Q When did that happen? By the Sydney premiere?

A No, when we got to Sydney, I was still playing pretty ballsy. We listened back to a recording of the premiere, and John decided my attempts to really sound jazzy were overblown and strident. So we backed off it. From that point on, I started going for something more rich and sweet, not simply power.

Later, when we did the piece with Marin Alsop in Baltimore, I was still in flux with the sound concept and precision. And John was still submitting revisions; as he heard certain edits, he decided he didn't like them and changed some back to the original. The librarian was freaking out getting parts edited for the players. Marin was getting nervous. And I was starting to despair a bit that I couldn't please him. Still, those were highly successful performances.

But then we got to St. Louis, and I stayed on a classical mouthpiece but went to a little bit of a bolder -- and at the same time sweeter -- setup. And things finally clicked. In St. Louis, I felt I got it!

Q That's where you made the Nonesuch recording, with David Robertson conducting. You're happy with it? Do you feel the jazz-classical balances and references are worked out?

A Yes, though in the end, I don't know what it references! By the recording -- it's just me, but it's filtered through a lot of just working with John on it and just stripping away what it shouldn't be. Part of simply splitting all these differences John and I were looking for was simply making sure it wasn't a caricature of something it wasn't; it needed to be a treated like any other beautiful piece of music. I started to channel John's Violin Concerto more than trying to find a fusion. The voice of the saxophone would take care of the rest. He mentioned to me in St. Louis that I sounded like a giant cello -- something he really liked. For me, there was no better compliment.

Q Talk a little more about John's saxophone language.

A The piece doesn't have a lot of altissimo in it, only a couple of G's. There's no multiple tonguing or extended technique. It's composed for the normal range of the saxophone. It has these intervallic leaping effects, and there are endurance issues. But at the core, it's a testament to John's love for the natural range of the instrument, the natural identity of the instrument -- as opposed to an extended virtuosity that we see in high modernism in writing for woodwind instruments. Some circular breathing is necessary, however. Playing these long, loud passages -- you can easily run out of steam without it.

It really comes down to these acoustic demands: How do you play something in a certain register and do it completely in tune with other instruments, and how do you deal with those endurance issues? The piece doesn't have to have all this other stuff that we associate with the so-called "hardest" pieces for the instrument in order for it to be a very hard piece. For me it's about how to get deeper into the sound of the piece, finding all the little nuggets that he wants. And that, for me, almost creates all these layers and layers of decision-making. If you were a sax player who just couldn't get what he's going for, you would not be able to play this piece.

I was talking about the piece with Branford Marsalis. He has been doing a lot of classical stuff, but he has been very safe in the pieces he plays; he only does about five of the major works, and he's been playing them better and better for over 20 years. But with regard to the Adams concerto, he hears that piece and thinks he's not going to be able to play it. I told him, "You will be able to do it; you'll have to put a lot of time into it." But maybe he's someone who'll be able to bring even more authenticity to it.

Q Tell me more about the concerto's rhythmic challenges.

A The rhythm has to be perfect; that's the trademark of any John Adams piece. He expects the gesture to have this musical intent behind it, and it's got to be super-precise. And when you're playing a lot of mixed meter stuff and offbeat syncopation and everything is really angular, things can get away from you. You think you're at the center of the pulse, but it turns out you're really rushing it. So there's this underlying difficulty with the music. It's got to be super-clean. In his music, if something's not clean, it's really obvious.

I often wonder if that is what orchestras and conductors really love about his music. Because his music is "new" music, but the demands it makes are demands that represent everything they cherish at the highest levels, as in music by Mozart or Beethoven. The clarity it demands, in and of itself, is a level of virtuosity.

So as difficult as it is, you can't make mistakes. If you make mistakes, they will be really obvious. It's something that I obsessed over. I've worked so hard at it, to the point that I know I've never really missed any notes, but I have flubbed rhythms, or I have flubbed an attack or an entrance, which is just as detrimental as missing a note. I get increasingly fastidious; that's what generates the stress. That's what generates the fear of failure.

One works very hard to achieve a standard with a piece. All eyes are on you. You're in a little bit of a foreign environment with an orchestra. You're being placed within an environment where the standard is so high. I feel like I'm having to represent the instrument. The way I feel about the piece (is that) it's a vehicle, not just for me, but for my profession. And going forward, for composers who haven't yet done anything for the instrument, I like to think this is a turning point, where other composers will be able to take that chance.

Q How would you describe the Cabrillo Festival? What do you think of the audience? Maybe you can just riff for a minute or two on Cabrillo.

A It's pretty rare that a community gets behind something like that. It's special. They truly understand that, for those two weeks, all the eyes of the world are on Cabrillo and the new music that's being performed there. And they revere Marin Alsop; she's such a rock star in Santa Cruz.

So it is a perfect pairing. The musicians want to be there playing for Marin in that orchestra, playing that music -- and then the Bay Area is so stunning. And there are all these exceptional chamber musicians who come each year, for whom Cabrillo is their major orchestral experience. Some of the members of eighth blackbird are in that orchestra.

All the pieces fit. When I go back there, I just feel somehow that I'm going home or something. Because as a kid, living in Sun City (in Southern California), I would go with my family in the summertime to the Carmel Bach Festival, and I have all these memories of Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur.

For me, it felt so right when I went to Cabrillo to perform for the first time. And I think, at some level, all the musicians have a feeling like that. They're willing to go there at pretty low pay -- but you can't put a price tag on interacting with all those composers. It's a massive hub for networking, I think rivaled only by the contemporary component of the Tanglewood festival (in Massachuetts). I think Cabrillo can be compared to that.

Q When you play at Cabrillo, are you aware of the festival's history?

A I am. The festival has this storied history that's tied to contemporary music. It's seen as a haven. It's seen as a destination, especially for West Coast music -- figures like Lou Harrison, John Adams. From its humble beginnings with major figures and poets and artists, it has a great historical vibe. And then the fact that people like John and Dennis Russell Davies have come through as its director, prior to Marin -- it all feeds that vibe.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

John Adams' Saxophone Concerto, West Coast premiere, with soloist Timothy McAllister.
Marin Alsop conducts
When: 8 p.m., Aug. 9
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium
Tickets: $32-$55; 831-420-5260, www.cabrillomusic.org
Also: The festival concludes with a separate program (works by Assad, Daugherty, others) Aug. 10 at Mission San Juan Bautista, 4 and 7:30 p.m.