Flagello: Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet

NICOLAS FLAGELLOConcerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet (1985) (NY Premiere)

  • Allegro non troppo
  • Lento movendo (quasi all barcanola)
  • Allegro giusto

Manhattan School of Music Philharmonia, Lawrence Leighton Smith, conductor. The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet.

Nicolas Flagello, one of the last of America’s neoromantic traditionalist composers, was associated with the Manhattan School of Music for most of his professional life. Born in New York City in 1928, he began composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a child, he was introduced to Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), a distinguished composer and member of the MSM composition faculty. Giannini took on young Nicolas as a private student, fostering a long and intensive apprenticeship, as the maestro imbued his talented young student with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. When he was 17, Flagello enrolled at MSM, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1949 and 1950, respectively, then joining the faculty upon graduation. He continued to teach composition, theory and conducting at MSM until 1977.

Flagello composed prolifically throughout most of his life. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the 20th century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994 at the age of 66.

Flagello’s body of work includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber and vocal works, all of which embody his view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable position, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years, yet he held to his views with unswerving conviction, forging a unique creative voice shaped by his own temperament and perspective on life. Today, Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing frequency.

The Concerto Sinfonica for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra was the last work that Flagello completed. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in 1985 with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, who has championed a number of Flagello’s works.

Although the character of Flagello’s music is often dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the works as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the voice of a hypothetical protagonist.

The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme — a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme — is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and love, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, bringing the movement to a defiant conclusion.

The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This barcarolle gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central section that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to “the voice of God”. The central section ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.

The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section. Then the scherzo material is subjected to a thorough development, which eventually builds to another stark proclamation from “the voice of God,” followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.