Jazz drummer and composer brings alternative concerto to ASO

Tyshawn Sorey will also play the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Credit: Patrick Hürlimann

Credit: Patrick Hürlimann

Sorey leads the "Adagio (for Wadada Leo Smith)" at the Lucerne Festival in August 2022. Courtesy of Patrick Huerlimann

Composer and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey isn’t anti-concerto, but when he started to write a new work for saxophonist Timothy McAllister, he shied away from traditional thinking. That means there are no virtuosic solo passages, no show-stopping cadenzas in his “Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith).”

Former ASO associate conductor Stephen Mulligan will lead the orchestra in Sorey’s “Adagio,” paired with Weber’s overture to “Der Freischutz” and the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 on March 16 and 18. The ASO co-commissioned the piece with the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, where it premiered last summer. The ASO performances are the U.S. premiere of the work, which is part of New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program.

Saxophonist Timothy McAllister will perform the "Adagio" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. 
Courtesy of r.r. jones

Credit: r.r. jones

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Credit: r.r. jones

Sorey first wrote for McAllister in 2018, producing “Nebulae,” a composition full of shifting meters and intricate rhythms, for his PRISM saxophone quartet. So the saxophonist expected Sorey’s latest work to be feel at least a little percussive. The composition instead deliberately, quietly develops over 20 minutes.

“He’s really found a voice in his music that is reminiscent of Morton Feldman — slowly unfolding textures, requiring a lot of patience, but, I hope, pay off for the audience,” McAllister said. “That’s a challenge for modern audiences right now. We’re used to shorter things and soundbites and quick, splashy overtures.”

McAllister characterizes the “Adagio” orchestration as “dark and rich” — a feeling that went over quite well in Lucerne, where the piece was performed on a darkly lit stage in a late-night concert. Adding to the vibe? A tremendous low end: The highest voice in the wind section is the clarinet, and two bass clarinets bottom things out.

“You’ve got to get everyone on the same page about portraying this mood and holding that character,” he said of the musicians on stage.

Tyshawn Sorey. September 16 2022. Upenn Green Philadelphia PA


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Describing the piece in anticipation of its debut at the Lucerne Festival, Sorey explained that music, and composition, is about more than just sound; the absence of sound can be just as important. When writing music, silence and “the nearly inaudible” are valuable tools, he said. The result? A wholly original concerto.

“I wanted to create something that dealt with the opposite ideal of what [a concerto] is, where the soloist is rather embedded in the sound of the orchestra or where the orchestra and soloist are in conversation with each other but through a more subtle means,” Sorey said in a video interview.

It’s a busy month for the composer and jazz drummer. Sorey is currently in Amsterdam for the premiere of “Perle Noire: Meditations for Josephine,” an opera he composed for the Dutch National Opera. After the final performance on March 13, he journeys to Atlanta to work with the ASO musicians before the opening-night concert. Later in the month, Sorey will head to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, to perform in jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio and as the leader of a trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Sorey is a relatively new composer to Atlanta. The Atlanta orchestra had originally programmed a Sorey composition for December 2020. Cellist Seth Parker Woods traveled to Atlanta the next January to perform “For Roscoe Mitchell” to an empty hall for distribution through the orchestra’s digital concert hall. Sorey wrote this new composition for another titan of avant garde concert music and jazz, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. (Smith will also perform at this year’s Big Ears Festival, bringing his suite “Appassionata” to Knoxville.)

The Mississippi-born trumpeter, who just turned 81, has strong connections to Atlanta musicians. Emory professor Dwight Andrews played saxophone, clarinet and flute on a number of Smith’s recordings, including the ECM classic “Divine Love,” and he has toured extensively with the trumpeter. The two last performed in a concert featuring the surviving members of the “Divine Love” band at the 2019 Big Ears Festival.

Smith also had a long-lasting partnership with the avant garde saxophonist Marion Brown, who grew up in Atlanta and graduated from what is now Clark-Atlanta University in the 1950s. Brown is arguably most well-known for his series of 1970s recordings inspired by his upbringing in Georgia and his family’s history with the Geechee Gullah people — “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun,” “Geechee Recollections” and “Sweet Earth Flying.” Smith appeared on the middle record in the trio.

Smith’s music, like Sorey’s compositions, defies categorization simply because the instrumentalists draw from their experiences in order to create. Experiences don’t come in a box, so why should the music? Music, in Smith’s telling, should always be focused on communicating an idea to an audience.

“We make art with intent,” he said. “We intend to communicate, and one of the highest levels of communication along with prayer is art.”


Timothy McAllister plays Tyshawn Sorey

8 p.m. March 16 and 18. $25-119. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.

Tyshawn Sorey at the Big Ears Festival

10:30 p.m. March 30. With the Vijay Iyer Trio. 6:15 p.m. March 31. Tyshawn Sorey Trio. $350-$400. Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. bigearsfestival.org.