It is an understatement when I say I adore this piece. It has so much in it that I rings with my beliefs in music, so I really wanted to make this one of the weekly listenings since it seems to be falling further and further away from the lime light it once had in the late 2000s.
Mackey is kind enough to provide a full recording of the piece along with a score on his website.
A Brief Overview of Mackey
If you have played in a wind ensemble or symphonic band—especially at the collegiate level—any time from about 2005 to the present day, you have likely performed or at least heard one of Mackey's works. He is insanely prolific in the wind band world, and rightfully so! He is one of those few who has figured out how to music for wind ensemble, which is in stark contrast to those who write "band music" (image your teacher saying this with a sneer and an implied level of sheer disdain for everything it represents).
John Mackey holds degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Juilliard, and has such teachers in his pedigree as the late Donald Erb and John Corigliano. He has two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards under his belt, some recognitions and support from the NEA and the American Music Center, as well as two ABA/Ostwald Awards (he is actually the youngest composer ever to win such an award). You can read his formal bio here.
His claim to fame is the Redline Tango, which seems to be permitting academia for his inventive use of an ostinato (several of my professors have mentioned it in a formal discussion setting at more than one institution), but has a number of gems in his catalogue, including an incredibly popular Harvest: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra-without-strings, and Wine Dark SeaL Symphony for Band. From my personal experiences with him, he is a lovely and receptive human being who does not shy away from storytelling or offering an ear to an eager developing composer.
A bit about the piece
Mackey's Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Wind Ensemble is his second of such pieces in his catalogue, proceeded by Drum Music: Concerto for Percussion and Wind Ensemble, and followed by Harvest and Antique Violences: Concerto for Trumpet. Since the trumpet concerto is getting most of the press now given its most recent creation, the soprano saxophone concerto has fallen by the wayside. It was heavily dwarfed by the trombone concerto as well, which still appears to have a great deal of steam left in it and, as expected, does not receive even remotely the same air time as many of his other straight wind ensemble works.
Admittedly, I have not kept up on Mackey's catalogue as much as I used to, but from what I can glean, my thought is that this piece is still his best work produced to date. My claim for this might be purely based on aesthetics, but given that I have written a paper or two concerning this piece's construction (maybe I should dust those off at some point...), I feel confident in that claim for now.
Here's why: this work embodies so much of what theorists have been arguing constitutes a great piece of music. It is so incredibly simple in how it is pieced together once you find the bricks and mortar that you realize that every note is essential and every gesture is rooted in three basic motivic elements structured within one of the most accessible forms available. Ultimately, Mackey relies on three motives: an additive rhythmic motive, something I call a slide motive, and then the melodic motive—arguably just an extension of the slide motive, which makes the piece that much cooler!
The beauty of this piece is that all of this comes at you in the Prelude, a 2-minute introduction to the piece that tells you everything the piece will consist of in no uncertain terms. The inner movements each draw from these motives with a little more focus, and then the Finale is literally a doubled up presentation of the Prelude, where everything that occurred in the first movement is presented twice in the last movement through the refined eyes of the inner movements. It really is genius, and the simplicity is astonishing! Who knows if Mackey would actually agree with any of this, but I would be curious if he had any input into this piece's construction since his website is mostly void of it.
On a personal note, I gained further love for this piece when I stumbled into a recording session of it while studying at Arizona State University, where I attended simply to meet him and ended up instead taking track notes and providing input to Mackey directly between takes. This recording is the one present on his website ☺️