New music - which people actually like


A LONG line of melody paints a misty picture of a Scottish landscape; a haunted, anguished echo, recreates the pain of Mary Magdalene when she discovers the body of Christ has gone from the tomb; bubbly staccato semiquavers frolic among the percussion for a feel good concerto finale. And this is mainstream classical music?

Well, not exactly. It's the debut album, Meeting Point, from a young Derry saxophonist called Gerard McChrystal. It contains concertos for soprano saxophone by Michael Nyman, Michael Torke and D.C. Heath together with solo works for alto sax by the Irish composers Ian Wilson and Michael McGlynn; and it sets out, quite deliberately, to give the lie to the prevailing notion that contemporary classical music is stuff you wouldn't want to listen to in a million years.

According to Gerard McChrystal, a soft spoken Northerner who took up the saxophone after hearing the instrument's solo on Gerry Rafferty's single Baker Street, the sax is well placed to break down listening barriers.

"Classical saxophonists are sort of outcasts in all respects," he says. The jazz people think we're not real musicians because we don't swing, and the orchestra views the saxophone with suspicion due to its background as a rock and jazz instrument. As for rock bands, I don't know what they think of us, really - although Q magazine has chosen Meeting Point as its album of the month this month (March), so I'm thrilled about that.

"There isn't a school of saxophone playing as such - I only know one other sax player in the whole of Ireland who plays classical music, and he's off doing Riverdance (the versatile Kenneth Edge). Because we have no tradition, I really feel like we're inventing it as we go along - and it's a real adventure, at the minute."

INVENTING as you go along means keeping your ear to the ground and an eye out for new repertoire. Because the saxophone dates only from 1840, the pool of available works for solo performance needs constant replenishing by means of new commissions. Commissioning a new piece can, however, be a risky and expensive business, as Gerard McChrystal knows only too well.

"I've had a couple of bad experiences. It's at least a thousand pounds when you commission a piece now - and that's only for, like, six minutes' worth of music, because you're looking at someone spending four months of their life on that work.

"On one occasion I wanted something Celtic, so I asked a Scottish composer to do a piece; and I ended up getting a march in 3/4 time. That was a disaster - and it was my mistake, because I gave him the commission on the basis of music that he had arranged, rather than something he had written himself. So now I'm very careful who I ask. With Ian Wilson and Michael McGlynn (of Anuna) I was very specific; I said: `Look, I need something very soulful which shows the atmospherics of the alto. I want you to explore the sounds and I don't want any squeaky gate'."

"I hate that pretentious plinkety plonk stuff that all the critics love - I think everyone hates it, but no musician has the guts to start saying `look, this is crap'. It's Emperor with no clothes syndrome. I think modern - classical composers can still write - music that people can relate to those composers came up trumps for me, anyway."

All the composers featured on Meeting Point have come up trumps for Gerard McChrystal in one way or another. While the album's title yields all sorts of happy resonances - the meeting of different musical styles, traditions, etc, etc - it also has a more specific reference point, being the title of a ballet by Christopher Bruce set to Michael Nyman's saxophone concerto, Where The Bee Dances, and premiered in San Francisco by the Rambert Dance Company on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter. McChrystal has performed the solo sax part during performances of the ballet both in the US and on an extensive tour of the UK, to general acclaim, so when the time came to choose tracks for an album, the Nyman piece was an obvious starting point.

"People who know Nyman's music well," says Gerard McChrystal, "reckon that the sax concerto is his best ever piece; certainly the way he explores the sounds of the soprano sax is quite unique. He doesn't have a lot of critical acclaim as a composer, but I hope - well, he doesn't need me to sell records, The Piano has already sold a million copies - but I hope this piece will change his fortunes on a critical level."

ANOTHER American composer whose work is featured on the album, Michael Torke, is headed - or so Gerard McChrystal believes - for Nyman-esque cult status. "He's a minimal composer in the style of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, famous for writing pieces based on colours - he has one piece called Green and one called Orange. Unfortunately he just called this piece, rather blandly, Saxophone Concerto." Red would be McChrystal's choice for the vibrant concerto, a piece of virtuoso brilliance which he says posed a real technical challenge. "It was the most difficult piece for me to learn - the second movement, particularly - but it's so well constructed, it's all built out of a tiny little germ, a musical germ. It keeps coming back, but changed slightly - the whole thing just makes sense."

The third concerto on the album, D.C. Heath's The Celtic, has a much folksier feel, being based on Scottish folk tunes. McChrystal says its second movement, Lament for Collessie, is his favourite piece on Meeting Point. "Dave Heath lived in a place called Collessie near Fife and when his contract was up he was so sad at having to move his family away from there that he wrote this piece. The final movement, The Cooper of Clapham, has been compared to Riverdance - it has the same sort of drive and energy.

Words, come to think of it, which could be applied with equal accuracy to McChrystal himself. In between the final performances of the Meeting Point ballet tour, which includes two dates at the Coliseum in London, he is preparing for a major concert at the Wigmore Hall in London in May, designed to promote a series of original saxophone and piano pieces published under his name. Come the summer he'll be crisscrossing the Mediterranean on the cruise ship Canberra, giving classical saxophone recitals to tanned tourists. And then there are the "normal" engagements with orchestra, one of which he hopes to play at the concert hall in Dublin in the autumn.

Meanwhile, if you see him in a record shop surreptitiously moving copies of Meeting Point from one section to another, don't he surprised. "Records shops are funny, they don't know where to rack it and they keep asking, `Is it film music? Is it traditional?"' For Gerard McChrystal, the album is easier to classify. "I just play music that I like to listen to because at the end of the day, I have to live with my own album more than anyone else."