PLG Young Artists Spring Series 2017, St John’s Smith Square, 24 April 2017

Joy Lisney, cello

Laefer Saxophone Quartet


Gyorgy Ligeti – Solo Cello Sonata
Jan Vriend – Symphonic Dances for solo cello (world premiere)
Richard Rodney Bennett – Saxophone Quartet
Charlotte Harding – Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky (world premiere)
Joy Lisney – ScordaturA for solo cello (world premiere)
George Crumb – Sonata for solo cello
Giles Swayne – Leapfrog for saxophone quartet (world premiere)
Mendelssohn – Capriccio Op. 81 No. 3 (for saxophone quartet)

The PLG Young Artists Series 2017 at SJSS has a special focus on young artists who are also composers, and the concerts include a number of world premieres by leading composers, as well as young artists performing their own works. A shame, then, that with so much young talent on display, this concert was so sparsely attended. We should be supporting young artists such as these – and composers too, young and old – for by doing so we future proof classical music for the next generation and beyond. Sadly, I suspect the modern and uber-contemporary repertoire, which featured in this engaging programme, was the deal-breaker for most potential audience members – it’s that recurrent “problem” with new music, the anxiety that it will be too esoteric, inaccessible, atonal, discordant, impenetrable….. In fact, this programme contained nothing to offend nor assail the ears, and much to delight and intrigue. There were melodies and lyricism aplenty in all the works performed, and the combination of performers – a solo cellist and a saxophone quartet – made for a varied and interesting evening of music which complemented and contrasted, and all of it was highly accessible, even to the novice listener.

I first heard Joy Lisney at SJSS in 2011. Back then, in her first year at Cambridge, she impressed with her musical maturity and poised stage presence in music by Lutolawski and Chopin. Six years on, she’s now working on her doctorate while sustaining a busy career, as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor of the newly-formed Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, and a composer. This multi-dimensional approach to music making is refreshingly enterprising, but also harks back to nineteenth-century composer-musicians like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. And there’s something really special about hearing a composer perform their own music – the sense of ownership is very potent and this was certainly the case with Joy’s work. In fact, as Joy explained in her introduction to her piece ‘ScordaturA’, named after the technique of tuning the strings of the cello out of their usual sequence of perfect fifths, and receiving its world premiere at this concert, she found writing for her own instrument particularly difficult, and that spending time writing at the instrument (rather than at her desk) enabled her to find a distinct voice in the music rather than be too heavily influenced by the other repertoire she plays. Having said that, the work pays homage to the Sonatas for Solo Violoncello by Ligeti and Crumb which she also played – it opens with pizzicato figures and strummed strings, motifs which are found in the sonatas. The Scordatura tuning produced striking colours and timbres, while the bariolage string-crossing technique created some very haunting and ethereal sound effects. After a climactic con moto middle section the work subsided back into the harmonic figures of the opening, its ending enigmatic and uncertain. An intriguing and thoughtful work which sat very well with the other music she performed.

The other work for solo cello receiving its premiere at this concert was ‘Symphonic Dances’ by Jan Vriend, a composer with whom Joy has a long-standing creative relationship. This work is dedicated to her and is redolent of Bach’s suites for solo cello (indeed it references the Suite No. 1 in G) in both its motifs and organisation – a sequence of dances of different meters and distinct characters. The work was delightfully varied, virtuosic but never overblown, engaging, witty, and melodically colourful, with much harmonic, textural and rhythmic interest which the composer employs to drive the impression of “symphonic” writing for a single line instrument. The work gave full rein to Joy’s formidable technique while also demonstrating how such technique should always serve the music. This is clearly the type of music she relishes – she’s very alert to rapidly shifting moods, contrasting motifs, expansive writing and technical challenges – and her enjoyment was evident: this was playing suffused with style and energy.

Similarly, her approach to the sonatas by Ligeti and Crumb demonstrated an ease with this type of repertoire. The Ligeti was wonderfully voiced, with a clear sense of dialogue between melancholy phrases and questioning pizzicato chords, and it proved an impressive opener to the concert. Both the Ligeti and Crumb draw inspiration from folk melodies of their native countries, the innate lyricism and expression highlighted by the warm resonant tone of Joy’s instrument and her sensitive shaping of motifs and phrases.

In constrast to the rather more darkly-hued, melancholy works (with the exception of the Vriend) performed by Joy Lisney, Laefer Saxophone Quartet (their name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “reed” and “sheet metal”) presented works more upbeat in character, performed with style and panache. The saxophone is more usually associated with jazz or big band music, but in these works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Charlotte Harding, Giles Swayne and Felix Mendelssohn (arr. Martin Trillaud), Laefer proved the instrument’s importance, and success, in classical repertoire with fine ensemble playing, crisp articulation, contrasting vibrant and warm tones, close interplay between performers, and a sense of wit and playfulness – most evident in Giles Swayne’s ‘Leapfrog’ (2017). In Charlotte Harding’s ‘Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky’ the buzzing, bustling, honking of New York City is atmospherically evoked: from the baritone sax’s low rumblings to suggest the rattle and grind of the subway trains, to the soaring skyline, lyrically portrayed by the soprano sax.

This was an impressive opener for a week of concerts at SJSS by PLG Young Artists, with all performers revealing deep commitment to their music making in a wide-ranging and very imaginative programme. In fact, these young people are not the musicians of the future, poised on the threshold of their professional careers: they are the musicians of here and now, fully fledged and ready to make their mark on the world. Please go and hear them and support them.


Who or what inspired you to take up the saxophone, and pursue a career in music? 

Naomi Sullivan: Heather Sullivan (my mother). My family all play music, although I’m the only person who pursued it as a career. My mother gave us recorder lessons, then I played flute until I got irritated that it felt so quiet compared to the brass band playing we all did. I tried a friend’s tenor saxophone, which seemed more cathartic and I’ve stuck with it. I still uphold that my siblings are far more talented than me, but they are possibly a little wiser, (as to finances).

Neil McGovern: The sound of the saxophone was something that really struck me as a young child. It really drew me in and appealed to me though I hadn’t actually heard it very much. Pursuing a career in music felt like the right decision for a long time. Performing became very normal and pursuing excellence in this was always a great aim for me.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

Naomi: Jim Muirhead taught me at Chetham’s and suggested auditioning at the Royal College of Music. Which is why I ended up studying with Kyle Horch who is still hugely influential in both my teaching and playing. I spent a year at Northwestern University and studied with Fred Hemke. His sense of fun, knowledge and presence is ever so powerful. I can’t imagine a better list of teachers, three very different but all brilliant, kind and inspiring musicians.

Also, all the music I listened to growing up has to be an important factor. I suppose it builds a strong sense of musical connection that becomes a lasting and positive part of your essence or sense of self, if that’s not too whimsical.

And as I get longer in the tooth, my students constantly surprise, challenge, motivate and amuse me. I’ve been very lucky.

Neil: All my teachers – Kyle Horch, Alistair Parnell, and those who gave me so much in the early years too. My parents provided the material and financial means to study music, but primarily they were relentless encouragers and supporters. The interests, and often the intensity of certain fellow students significantly shaped my own musical goals and directions.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Naomi: Other than paying the bills? Not giving up or running away from being so regularly out of one’s comfort zone. The unrealistic expectations you can put on yourself and the self-criticism that can go with that.

Neil: I feel very blessed to have been able to work in music since the day I finished Music College. Not everyone in life will like you or how you play, that’s fairly obvious. Sometimes fatigue or illness can hamper performances, other times it can strangely help them! I think learning to say no to certain things is hard, often musicians idolise the gig, the concert above anything else, no matter how poorly paid or uninspiring it actually is. Trying to maintain some values and purpose in what you’re doing is probably the hardest thing. There’s an awful lot of cynicism and jaded feeling around which is easy to slip into.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Naomi: I am quietly confident that the ultimate Syzygy performance is yet to come… Away from the quartet, I have really enjoyed playing with duo partner, Masahito Sugihara and am proud that we always managed to find energy to play despite always being on a demanding schedule. We’ve had some good adventures. I am grateful for his friendship, musicianship, generosity and patience.

Neil: I’ve come away from the majority of performances happy with the overall impact. Unusual performances stand out, such as Syzygy’s concert in a National Portrait Gallery room playing music specifically related to the artwork there. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was a wonderful surprise because we were on so early in the day and were expecting a couple of enthusiasts only in the audience, but the place was packed and the atmosphere buzzing. Recordings can be very difficult, with the tyrannical expectation of perfection looming over every session, but Syzygy’s Maslanka recording has been a really great experience for me personally, because of the exceptional talent of my friends in the quartet and the mastery of the producer, Simon Hall who made everything come together so well.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Naomi: Speaking for Syzygy, I think we all like playing extrovert, intense pieces and when we’re all on the same wavelength in regard to energy and enjoyment, I do think it makes for better chamber music.  But the saxophone is a remarkable instrument in it’s potential to create such an extreme range of sounds, colours and voices, it’s quite difficult to pick one genre or particular work.

Neil: Syzygy really is at its best with involved and cutting edge repertoire. The group really got its teeth into the Xenakis quartet (Xas) early on and this sort of set the precedent for playing difficult and substantial music. The concentration and connection involved when playing together is quite remarkable – I remember this feeling especially during intensive rehearsals of the Andriessen quartet ‘Facing Death’, but also with the Maslanka’s ‘Songs…’.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

Naomi: It normally comes from either a new commission, or finding a theme we feel works. And can vary, depending on who has asked us to play. I like concerts or projects that have a theme or offer the chance to draw on and learn from other art forms – literature, art, architecture. This is particularly useful when playing so much contemporary music.

Neil: I think we’re always looking for something new and unusual, trying to contribute something of note to the canon. Hopefully over time there will be more and more great works for saxophone quartet. We make decisions based on the music we really feel is worthwhile.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Naomi: Performing in informal or unusual venues currently seems popular way of engaging with wider audiences. I definitely feel more at home in informal environments (especially those with a flattering acoustic), where people are free to listen or not. Such as the National Gallery or Royal Academy of Arts. Syzygy played at Proud in Camden once, that was an interesting night.

Neil: I think the soon to be demolished Adrian Boult Hall will always be a special place to me, it’s where Syzygy first performed live and where we recorded the Maslanka.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Naomi: I’m not sure I have a favourite as it depends on so many factors, i.e. what one is doing or if one needs to have a mood brightener or a good wallow. I suppose one of my favourite aspects of music (listening/performing) is its ability to trigger extremely powerful memories, emotions and connections through abstract sounds. Or performing when you feel fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. It makes things better. If you’re cooking, you cook better with Dr. John to listen to.

Neil: To perform: probably Joe Cutler’s ‘Screaming 229a’. To listen to I would say Alex Buess’ ‘ata-9’.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Naomi: Again, it’s very hard to be specific but the first musician’s that spring to mind include: Flaming Oh, John Cage, Robert Wyatt, Margaret Price, Nick Drake, Frans Brüggen, Archie Shepp, Horovitz and all my chamber music friends.

Neil: I love a German avant-garde jazz group called ‘Der Rote Bereich’, and also harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka, but really there are too many to name.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Naomi: With regard to Syzygy, a few years ago we played on the Southbank as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artist’s Series. The programme was challenging (Xennakis:Xas and DavidBedford’sFridiof Kennings) and called for us to use 13 saxophones and a tambourine. There was a full audience, which is always a refreshing surprise at saxophone concert. I remember feeling the best sort of nervous – when you feel as prepared as you can be and excited about the music you’re playing.

Neil: Having finished a soundcheck for a gig, walking out of the venue’s front door only to be greeted by Animal Rights protestors chanting “Blood, blood, blood on your hands,” at us. Quite bewildering.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Naomi: Find your own way and try to work out what part of the music industry suits you and how you can contribute something. However, try not to say ‘no’ to any opportunity as I suppose we find our own voice from our experiences. Be proactive, communicative, curious, don’t loose energy and don’t always take things too seriously. You really can’t please everyone; you can only do your best. But try to be honest with yourself as to what your ‘best’ is.

Neil: Work really hard and keep going. Develop good taste and play music that has some substance to it.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Naomi: Finding my house keys when I believe they are lost. Especially if I think I’ve left the oven on.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Neil: As a group, I’d like Syzygy to have made a number of recordings and had some great new music written for saxophone quartet. I think we’ve scratched the surface of what the group is capable of, but there’s potentially so much more.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Naomi: Playing chamber music.

Naomi Sullivan is Soprano Saxophone in Syzygy Quartet.

Neil McGovern is Baritone Saxophone in Syzygy Quartet.

Syzygy Quartet’s album Songs for the Coming Day by David Maslanka is available to buy from Amazon now. Read a review here

Syzygy saxophone quartet were formed after playing together at the 2009 World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok with the London Saxophone Ensemble. The quartet was established with the aim to promote and perform established contemporary works, alongside new music written especially for the ensemble.
Syzygy’s debut performance was in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, as part of the Frontiers & Andriessen Festival, where they performed Louis Andriessen’s Facing Death. Since then the quartet have gone on to perform at major chamber concert venues across the UK, including performances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and at the Purcell Room as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series. They made their debut at St Martin-in-the-Fields in July 2012 and have performed at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of Art. They have also conducted workshops and performed at Chetham’s School of Music, Trinity College of Music, and Birmingham Conservatoire.

They recently recorded their debut CD, being the only ensemble in Europe to be awarded the performing and recording rights for David Maslanka’s ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, a captivating work which will be released in the near future. They were supported by the Help Musicians UK (formerly MBF) from whom they received an Emerging Excellence award.

Syzygy Saxophone Quartet formed in 2009 after playing together at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok. The quartet aims to promote and perform established contemporary classical works for saxophone, alongside new music written especially for the ensemble. 

At the beginning of 2013 Syzygy Saxophone Quartet were the only ensemble in Europe to be awarded the performance and recording rights to the new 45 minute work by the American composer David Maslanka. Entitled ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, the work  considers ethical and moral issues facing the world today such as the environment and war. Despite such problems, the piece is imbued with hope, reflecting the composer’s belief that “that under the chaotic surface of our world there is a rising creative energy through which is growing a new idea of living in harmony with ourselves and the Earth” (David Maslanka) and that there is still optimism regarding the future of the planet.

Lasting around 45 minutes, the work comprises nine movements, relatively brief “songs without words”, with titles such as Breathing, Awakening, Letting Go of the Past, and The Soul is Here for its Own Joy. The movements have hymlike qualities both in the SATB harmonies and ensemble playing, but also because some are actually based on hymns or songs,  adapted and reset for saxophone. Eight of the nine movements have varying degrees of slow tempi and a generally quiet or restrained dynamic palette.

The opening movement, ‘At This Time’, utilises a three-note motif redolent of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and just as in the Elgar, this rising figure sounds a note of hope. All the movements, except for the penultimate one, are reflective and meditative, and Syzygy’s precise and concentrated ensemble playing and exceptionally well-blended, warm tones enhance the sense of contemplataion and stasis. The music itself is melodic and accessible. At times it has a choral quality reminiscent of Renaissance sacred music in it harmonies and simple lines underpinned by ostinato figures or pedal points.

In contrast to the other movements, the eighth, ‘The Soul is Here for its Own Joy’, bursts forth with exuberance and rhythmic excitement, while the closing movement, the poignant and introspective ‘Song for the Coming Day’ returns to the pensive mood of the earlier movements.

The saxophone is often the poor-relation instrument in classical repertoire, rarely utilised in the orchestra and not generally taken up by “famous” composers. In ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, the combination of elegance, restraint and melody and Syzygy’s technical assuredness and musical understanding, we are given the opportunity to appreciate the saxophone as a classical instrument.

Highly recommended

‘Songs for the Coming Day’ is available now 

Syzgy Quartet will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview