Reviews and quotes
review - Music by
Concerto for Alto
Symphony with soloists
and David Eyler
"If you fancy the timpani or the alto saxophone as a solo instrument,
these two works by the young American Russell Peterson (b1969) will
bring you much delight. In both, the saxophone plays the role of a
dreamy, occasionally wild and sexy, instigator. In both, the timpani is
ready when all hell breaks loose.
Peterson's Timpani Concerto is more, however, than just a lot of
banging on a can. And the Saxophone Concerto is more than mere
caterwauling. Peterson maintains a high level of interest with expert
instrumental writing in an eclectic tonal idiom whose influences
include film music, Ravel (not surprisingly, Boléro),
Shostakovich, Armenian folk melodies, African drumming techniques and
even an academic bar or two.
And yet, the overwhelming impression both concertos leave is the sound
and texture of the two solo instruments. With David Eyler making every
stroke of his instrument a marvel of precision, power and, occasionally
unexpected lyricism, and Peterson playing with great abandon and
dazzling virtuosity, the music has a seductive allure and visceral
excitement that is more than the sum of its purely musical parts.
The effect is heightened by the passionate and occasionally brilliant
playing of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, which has a distinguished
history of more than 70 years' service to music-lovers in eastern North
Dakota and western Minnesota.
The composer's engaging, informative liner notes provide an excellent
road map to the listener's understanding and enjoyment. Add the
full-range, colourful recording and there is no reason to hesitate if
you are open to the considerable pleasure conservative American music
---Laurence Vittes, reviewer; GRAMOPHONE Magazine, May 2003
American Breath -
Music for Saxophone
"While many high-profile composers self-consciously use non-classical
influences to talk a good accessibility game, the three composers on
this new release starring the excellent saxophonist Russell Peterson
speak directly to a wide audience by organically incorporating
conservative jazz idioms without compromising their works' integrity as
substantial, through-composed music.
The 30-minute Sonata of David Maslanka (b1943) opens with a haunting
mood that leads to a series of occasionally violent outbursts before
subsiding into a deconstruction of the initial theme. The slow movement
follows a similar pattern, beginning with an exceptionally beautiful
opening. The finale starts furiously, building to a richly complex aria
at a slower tempo before expending its energy in a series of
intriguing, semaphoric episodes.
Mahler in Blue Light is a 23-minute tribute to the eponymous composer
by Larry Thomas (b1952); it's in the form of a passacaglia based on 27
bars from Das Lied von der Erde (which appear briefly in the third
movement) and betrays none of its academic roots (Bell teaches at the
New England Conservatory of Music). Instead, it flows along with a
lovely, lyrical swing, enhanced by gorgeous playing from cellist
Tremaine, that reflects the composer's description of the music as a
portrait of Mahler "seen through the saxophone's blue light," its
initially neutral stylistic context moving serenely towards faint
echoes of German romanticism.
Peterson's own 16-minute Concerto, featuring Spanish rhythms and a
lovely second-movement duet with vibraphone, is an effective vehicle
for his striking command of color and dynamics. Schneider is a
full-blooded partner in the chamber music, and the Tri-College
Percussion Ensemble is outstanding in the Concerto. The highly-charged
sound is riveting, while the liner notes by the three composers are
---Laurence Vittes, reviewer; GRAMOPHONE Magazine, February 2003
American Breath -
Music for Saxophone
"Saxophonist and composer Russell Peterson teaches at Concordia College
in Moorhead, Minnesota, and plays in the Transcontinental Saxophone
Quartet, whose recording I greatly enjoyed (July/Aug 2001:249). I was
introduced to this flamboyant performer at a recent concert, and this
recording confirms that he is a first-rate saxophonist with a huge
dynamic range, dramatic flair, and heartfelt expressiveness.
The centerpiece of the program is the first selection, David Maslanka's
haunting, 30-minute Alto Saxophone Sonata. In both I and II, emotions
are poured through standard tonal resources and ever-changing textures.
With moods ranging from melancholy to anguished, the movements remind
me of what Maslanka wrote about his saxophone quartet "Mountain Roads,"
that awareness of death's inevitability "Makes experience of all things
both deeply sweet and deeply sad." Peterson does creative things with
long notes, subtly changing from vibrato to straight tone when the
piano has something of harmonic interest. A furious III, where the
harmonic language is free, has Peterson fairly screaming and the
pianist pounding away.
When listening to contemporary saxophone music, I dread the altissimo
register, where loud, extremely high notes have shrill tone and
unpredictable intonation. Peterson has as much control there as anyone
I've heard, but in a climactic moment in I of the Maslanka, it's
distorted and excruciating. To their credit, he and Larry Thomas Bell
use altissimo sparingly, but the very first note of Bell's 1996 "Mahler
In Blue Light" had me lunging for the volume control. Based on a
passage from "Der Abschied" in Das Lied von der Erde, the set of
variations is scored for alto saxophone, cello, and piano. If saxophone
and cello sounds like an odd mix, it works well, probably because each
has some grit in its tone. Balance is sometimes an issue, though, as
cellist Diane Tremaine tends to disappear when either the saxophonist
or pianist Douglas Schneider plays intensely.
Russell Peterson's two saxophone concertos--one I heard recently with
orchestra and now this one with percussion ensemble--suggest that he is
fond of ethnic flavors, virtuoso displays, and simple harmonic
structures. Both works make use of a dramatic sound effect created by a
key slap followed by a high-pitched, falling wail. The best thing about
this piece is the rich sound of multiple marimbas, ably supplied by the
Tri-College Percussion Ensemble (students of Concordia College,
Minnesota State University Moorhead, and North Dakota State University
---Barry Kilpatrick, reviewer; AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, March/April 2003
American Breath -
Music for Saxophone
"The classical saxophone has always been an explorer with the spirit of
the dedicated pioneers in history. Occasionally they get the
recognition they deserve, but much of the time they don't, yet they
keep forging ahead. Driven by inner goals and passions, they continue
searching for their dreams through uncharted musical horizons, or at
least down the lesser travelled path.
The proponents of the saxophone are pushing the limits all the time.
What limits? All of the limits: physical limitation of the instrument,
literature, performance venues, performers, time, and the limits of
human creativity and imagination. As this creative struggle continues
national alliances have formed and helped to develop a spirit of energy.
This CD celebrates one of these clutches of saxophone and brings it to
the front for all of us to enjoy. American Breath - Music for Saxophone
is all of the above. In the words of Russell Peterson, 'The music on
this CD represents a distinctively American aesthetic in contemporary
music; at once sophisticated and bold, drawing on classical tradition
yet embracing modern mainstream culture. It is my pleasure and my
passion to give this singularly vital music voice and breath...' The CD
features three North American composers and saxophone soloist Russell
Peterson. The three composers are Larry Thomas Bell of Boston, David
Maslanka of Missoula MT, and of course Russell Peterson of Concordia
College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Russell Peterson is an outstanding soloist who pushes and exceeds the
limits of the saxophone. His tone is supple, clear, and resonant. His
use of vibrato is extremely musical and judicious. His interpretive
skills are a delight to the ear and weave musical stories that easily
invite the listener's imagination. His articulation is sharp, clear,
precise and rapid. Included with this is the soul of the artist. This
soloist has the magic to turn the notes into a wonderful sound fantasy.
His abilities are such that when he is pushing the limits of anything
it sounds quite normal and is performed with deceptive ease.
This CD opens with an intense Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by
David Maslanka. The piece opens with beautifully simple lines for the
alto with light delicate interplay with the piano. It segues to a
ferocious line for the alto. Russell Peterson shows extreme and
admirable control over the instrument and the music. The wide dynamic
contrasts are brought out with ease and artistry. The second movement
displays a beautiful line for the alto that seems to float to the ear
effortlessly. The third movement opens with startling contrast with its
speed and intensity. The Sonata is an artistic tour de force for the
saxophone yet in this recording it sounds effortless.
Mahler in Blue Light, by Larry Thomas Bell, is the second selection on
the venue. It is moody, intense, extremely moving, and in its own way
quite beautiful. It is also a tour de force for the saxophone with the
inclusion of a cello as well as the piano. In fact, this is the only
chance that saxophonists get to perform Mahler anywhere. The piece
opens with a high concert F in the altissimo register. The trio creates
a beautiful ensemble and establishes how extremely well the also and
the cello create music together.
Hopefully this piece will get a lot of performances as it deserves to
be heard often. This is a superb performance by an equally superb
ensemble and composer.
The final piece is Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Percussion Orchestra
by saxophone soloist Russell Peterson. This is a fascinating piece, and
it is amazing how much music a percussion orchestra can create. It is
truly a piece that should become standard repertoire for the alto
Russell Peterson has shown himself to be a master of the instrument and
a superb performing artist, plus a fine composer. He has the spirit of
the saxophone pioneers from the past and extends this spirit to the
future as well."
---Paul Wagner, reviewer; SAXOPHONE JOURNAL, May/June 2003
American Breath -
Music for Saxophone
"Three exciting American works which employ the alto sax and other
instruments to convey a bold and sophisticated feeling that doesn't try
to ignore the instrument's connection to a musical world well outside
that of classical. In the third movement of the Maslanka Sonata the
composer was influenced by the madrigals of Gesualdo. All four
movements of the Bell work are a passacaglia based on a fragment from
Mahler's Song of the Earth. He saw the piece as his own Mahler portrait
seen through the blue sound of the saxophone. Performer Peterson's own
concerto was for me the hit of the CD in its successful mix of
classical and pop. The first movement shows an influence of minimalism
Steve Reich and in the third movement it is both Spanish modes and
heavy metal rock. This work is a winner, and the entire CD is worthy of
---John Sunier, editor/publisher; AUDIOPHILE AUDITION e-zine, March 2003
"You are one of the greatest players I ever heard...The world should
take notice of your remarkable saxophone playing and highly
communicative artistry. "
----Donald Sinta, world-renowned saxophonist & teacher;
University of Michigan
"Russ, I think that you are an amazing player, and your performance of
my Sonata for Alto Saxophone is fantastic-over the top! The thing I
like best about it is that nothing is held back. The high technical
challenges are met head-on, giving you the opportunity for a particular
personal expression. Many players are happy just to be able to get the
notes; you have found a personal reason for all that struggle and pain.
Your pianist, Doug Schneider, is also amazing--a matched pair for this
---David Maslanka, composer
"From all of these miracle instrumentalists...to rate the talent was
impossible. Out of the group of prize winners, there were four
especially outstanding performers. First, the rhythmic and outstanding
saxophonist Russell Peterson as prize winner from the Geneva
International Saxophone Competition; he was a man who possessed
outstanding musicality and flair. His technical gifts were outstanding
and they reflect the fact that he is such a worthy prizewinner from
this competition. He performed the Villa-Lobos' Fantasia which was a
musical gem, unfortunately much too short of a work--I wish it would
have not ended. Peterson was faced with rhythmically difficult music
that was performed flawlessly. His musicality and communication didn't
last long enough, it left me wanting to hear more from him!"
(translated from German)
---Peter Cossé, adjudicator-St. Petersburg "Musical Olympus"
Summit of the Prizewinners, 1996
"Saxophonist delivers virtuoso performance...Russell Peterson not only
is an extraordinary alto sax player, he also is an accomplished
composer. He demonstrated both talents Saturday night by playing his
Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, which was completed in 1999.
It was a virtuoso performance...Peterson coaxed a remarkable range of
sound from his instrument, working with energetic joy to communicate
the emotions of his compositions to the audience."
---Jack Zaleski, reviewer-THE FORUM daily regional newspaper, Fargo ND
- Moorhead MN