By Heidi Radtke
Christopher Creviston, soprano and alto saxophones
Hannah Creviston, piano
Arizona State University Wind Orchestra
Gary W. Hill, conductor (tracks 1-3)
Joseph Lulloff, alto saxophone (track 11)
Blue Griffin Recording BGR519, 2019
Reviewed by Heidi Radtke
Christopher Creviston’s latest release, Phoenix Rising, plays like a love letter to the soprano saxophone. The album is comprised of seven works that were either explicitly written for Creviston, or in which he was directly part of the commissioning process. Boldly placing the soprano saxophone front and center as the dominant solo voice, Creviston’s exemplary performance may very well redefine how the instrument is viewed, approached, and programmed.
The album features and eclectic mix of recent works by composers William Bolcom, Stacy Garrop, John Anthony Lennon, Evan Hause, Eric Mandat, Mischa Zupko, and Carter Pann. The strength of these compositions is equally met by the outstanding performances by Creviston and his colleagues. Joined by pianist Hannah Creviston, the Arizona State University Wind Orchestra under the direction of Gary W. Hill, and fellow Capitol Quartet member Joseph Lulloff, the familiarity both the composers and musicians share with one another is evident. Intimacy plays a strong role in these performances, making the album truly feel like a family affair.
The album opens with William Bolcom’s Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Band. Composed in 2016 as part of a consortium, the concerto is comprised of three movements that each explore aspects of jazz and blues stylings within the framework of a band piece. In the program notes, Bolcom touches on the tendency for the soprano saxophone to be viewed somewhat as an outlier in the classical music world. Bolcom explains that he deliberately chose to feature the soprano saxophone as a solo instrument with band, as opposed to the orchestra, commenting:
In the band the soprano saxophone is totally at home and can converse with colleagues like the friendly discourse between piano and orchestra as in a Mozart concerto, and this pushes the dialogue into a more collegial direction and a very different mood.
Bolcom’s work is a tremendous addition to the saxophone repertoire. It is performed here with brilliance. Creviston’s opening entrance is executed with the precision of a surgeon and the musical display that follows is jaw-dropping. The Arizona State University Wind Orchestra led by Gary W. Hill delivers a beautifully nuanced and balanced performance. The efforts put forth by all musicians involved should be commended.
The title of this album is taken from the 2016 composition by Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop. When discussing her work Phoenix Rising, Garrop suggests that the title came about as a result of a play on words. Garrop notes: “When Christopher commissioned it, I asked him for some topics. He said Phoenix. He probably meant the city, but I immediately thought of the bird…” Garrop’s appreciation of Creviston’s work ethic and commitment to excellence is on obvious display. This piece is raw, exposed, vulnerable, and demanding on every scale. As described in the program notes, the piece consists of two movements that depict the lifecycle of the mythical bird. I. Dying in members represents an old phoenix who is settling on top of a pile of embers and breathing its last breath; II. Reborn in frames depicts the newly born phoenix getting its first taste of flight. Creviston approaches this work with unparalleled control. The demand of pitch bends, air sounds, timbre trills, florid passages, and dynamic finesse place the soprano saxophone into an entirely new sonic scape. Versions for both flute and clarinet have also been arranged by the composer and will soon be made available through the Theodore Presser Company.
John Anthony Lennon’s 2017 composition, ThePhantom Dancer, is also dedicated to Christopher and Hannah Creviston. Marked “light, smooth, intense,” Lennon explains that “this music is about the image of a dancing spirit who dances for us but who we can’t see and only imagine.” Those familiar with Lennon’s compositional language will recognize the soaring motives and lyrical nature found within the work. It weaves seamlessly and relentlessly between simple and complex meters, leaving no time for rest, yet the Creviston Duo’s performance comes across as effortless and is done with the perfect amount of tension and release.
The core of the album includes Evan Hause’s Windy Day Poem. This ten-minute composition for soprano saxophone and piano showcases Creviston’s breadth in style, genre, and technique. Taking a brief pause from the soprano voice, but not its register, Creviston soars in his performance of Eric Mandat’s celestially inspired Two Reflections on the Crab Nebula for solo alto saxophone. The explosive work features frequent ventures into the altissimo range and generously explores extended techniques, including microtonality and multiphonics. Mischa Zupko describes his aptly titled 2014 composition Tailgateas “a short ride for Soprano Saxophone and Piano exploring danger, high speed, and road rage.” Although the composition is less than three minutes in length, it truly captures the Creviston Duo’s ability to perform seamlessly and react to one another with dynamic interplay.
The album concludes with a brilliant collaborative performance by Christopher Creviston, Hannah Creviston, and fellow saxophonist Joseph Lulloff. When discussing his 2013 composition Vultures, composer and pianist Carter Pann noted:
I wrote Vulturesafter having a few experiences with some marvelous saxophone players. Since I don’t play the instrument myself, it was a challenge and a…. “trust.” The work is diabolically virtuosic for all three players. The work is like a “study in leaps” for everyone involved. Neal Postma led the charge with the commission, but the two sax players whose artistry I know most intimately are Joe Lulloff and Chris Creviston. I was present for the recording, sat next to Hannah Creviston at the piano, and simply thrilled at the prowess all three of them brought to the project. What a trip for a composer!!
This is a review where I found myself listening and relistening, returning to each track again and again, and each time finding something new and exciting. Simply put, this album is stunning. The compositions are excellent. The performances are first rate. Christopher Creviston demonstrates the diverse range of the soprano saxophone voice through an album that is captivating from beginning to end. Phoenix Rising is highly recommended for all and should be required listening within every saxophone studio.