Rising Stars: Jess Gillam

From Renaissance to jazz: the young British artist shows what the saxophone is capable of in a varied and exciting programme. Video available until 30 Jan 2021.

Concert stream available until 30 January 2021.


She performs Bach and Bowie, Shostakovich and Kate Bush, and presents her own weekly classical music show on BBC Radio 3: Jess Gilliam not only plays the saxophone with amazing virtuosity, she is also a true ambassador for her instrument. She was only 17 when she became the first saxophonist to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, and just two years later she was creating a stir at the prestigious Last Night of the Proms as the »undisputed highlight« (BBC) of the evening.

Jess Gilliam was originally scheduled to appear live at the »Rising Stars« festival in the Elbphilharmonie. But owing to the current corona regulations, she appears in front of the microphone and camera at home in London to play a selection of her favourite pieces. Among these are what is probably John Dowland's best-known (and most touching) work, »Flow my tears«, and »Pequeña Czarda«, which is coloured by Hungarian folk music.


»Jess Gillam spreads joy!«

The Times

Rising Stars Festival 2021

Hear tomorrow's stars perform today. Five concert-streams available on demand.

Jess Gillam mit ihrem Saxofon vor einer bunten Wand, zur Seite blickend.
Jess Gillam © Robin Clewley

The Artist

»She’s great, fantastically virtuosic when required but always with the music at heart – deeply affecting.«

The Classical Source

  • British saxophonist (b. 1998)
  • repertoire ranges from Renaissance to avantgarde pop and jazz
  • famous performance: Last Night of the Proms 2018
  • debut album »Rise« shot to No.1 in the official UK classical charts
  • youngest ever presenter for BBC Radio 3: hosts own weekly show called »This Classical Life«
  • nominated as a »Rising Star« by Sage Gateshead
  • Jess Gillam (complete biography)

    Die Saxofonistin Jess Gillam belebt die Musikwelt mit ihrem Talent und ihrer ansteckenden Persönlichkeit und bringt klassische Musik durch ihre Live-Auftritte als Moderatorin im Fernsehen und Radio einem neuen Publikum nahe.

    Ein Highlight ihrer bisherigen Karriere war der umjubelte Auftritt bei der Last Night of the Proms 2018. In der Saison 2019/20 stand sie außerdem mit dem BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra und dem Minnesota Orchestra auf der Bühne.

    »Gillam is the real thing, deserving serious attention.«


    Jess Gillam ist die erste Saxofonistin, die bei Decca Classics unter Vertrag genommen wurde, ihr Debütalbum »Rise« schoss auf Platz 1 der britischen Klassik-Charts. Sie wurde mit einem Classic BRIT Award ausgezeichnet, erreichte als erste Saxofonistin das Finale der BBC Young Musician und trat 2019 bei den British Academy of Film and Television Awards live vor Millionen von Zuschauern auf. Mit Musikerfreunden gründete sie das Jess Gillam Ensemble, mit dem sie bereits Tourneen plant.

    Jess Gillam moderiert außerdem Sendungen im Fernsehen und Radio. Als bisher jüngste Moderatorin für BBC Radio 3 erhielt sie ihre eigene wöchentliche Sendung »This Classical Life«, in der sie mit Kollegen über Musik spricht, die sie inspiriert.

    Ihre Konzerte verbindet sie oft mit sozialen und Bildungsprojekten. Sie ist Schirmherrin der Awards for Young Musicians und Treuhänderin der neu gegründeten HarrisonParrott-Stiftung, die sich für den gleichberechtigtem Zugang aller Menschen zu den Künsten einsetzt. Mit einer eigenen Konzertreihe bringt sie zudem internationale Talente in ihre Heimatstadt Ulverston.

  • Zeynep Özsuca (piano)
    Die Pianistin Zeynep Özsuca lehnt an einer Mauer.
    © Zeynep Özsuca

    Die türkischstämmige Pianistin Zeynep Özsuca trat bereits weltweit als Solistin, Kammermusikerin und Liedbegleiterin auf. Den Klavierunterricht begann sie im Alter von vier Jahren in Ankara, wo sie ihr Studium am Konservatorium der Hacettepe Universität absolvierte. Nachdem sie die Istanbul Symphony’s Young Soloists Competition im Jahr 2001 gewann, zog sie in die USA, um ein Bachelor-Studium in Piano Performance am Oberlin Conservatory zu beginnen. Anschließend führte sie ihr Masterstudium in Liedbegleitung und Korrepetition an der Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin fort.

    Als Kammermusikern trat sie auf renommierten Konzertpodien und Festivals wie der Berliner Philharmonie, dem Palau de la Musica Valencia, dem Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival und der Queen Elizabeth Hall auf und war in Live-Radiosendungen im Deutschlandradio, RBB Kulturradio sowie BBC 3 und 4 (Großbritannien) zu hören. Zeynep Özsuca lebt derzeit in London.

Nominated by Sage Gateshead

Sage Gateshead
Sage Gateshead © Mark Savage


Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Oboe and Piano FP 185 / arranged for saxophone and piano (1962)

Graham Fitkin
Gate (2001)

John Dowland
Flow, My Tears F II/6 (1600)

Pedro Iturralde
Pequeña Czarda (1949)

The All-Rounder :An unusual history of the saxophone

»The saxophone was invented to fill the gap between the clarinet and the oboe.«

The saxophone doesn't have an easy time of it, that's for sure. It is a woodwind instrument by definition, but it has always been an odd man out in the orchestra. It was originally used in military bands, then it got reduced to its role in jazz, and was later even misused for pop music (George Michael's »Careless Whisper« is a well-known example). But it can still be seen as a success story. Just look at everything the saxophone has given us: the bebop pioneered by Charlie Parker, the velvety timbre of John Coltrane, not to mention numerous beautiful orchestral passages from Ravel's »Boléro« through Kurt Weill's »Dreigroschenoper« to Gershwin's »Rhapsody in Blue«. No small achievement for such a young instrument.

Jess Gillam, lachend, mit Saxofon.
Jess Gillam © Robin Clewley

The saxophone was invented and first presented to the world in 1841 by a Belgian, Adolphe Sax, with the aim of filling the gap between the clarinet and the oboe. Sax had his creation patented in France in 1846 as one of more than 30 inventions he made in the course of his life – among them such curiosities as a railway signal system and an appliance for lung gymnastics. But it was the saxophone that brought him recognition, and found a prominent supporter in Hector Berlioz: »Agile and just as well suited to fast passages as to graceful vocal ones, for harmonic effects both religious and dreamy, the saxophones can be used to great effect in every kind of music« – thus the composer in his magum opus »Treatise on Instrumentation«. A true all-rounder, in other words – so it comes as no surprise that it didn't take long before the instrument with the conspicuous pipe form became successful.

But as much as the saxophone was praised for its sound, it didn't really manage to gain a foothold outside the realm of jazz. Classical compositions for the instrument are few and far between: Alexander Glasunov's Concerto in E flat makes an occasional appearance on concert programmes, but beyond that music for the saxophone is thin on the ground. All the better, then, that all manner of works can be arranged – and that's where tonight's artist comes into play: Jess Gillam performs a colourful mixture of compositions written specially for her instrument as well as arrangements of other works.

»Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.«

Charlie Parker

About the music

Nice and clear :Francis Poulenc: Oboe Sonata (1962)

The first work in this concert is a sonata that was originally written for oboe by a French composer, Francis Poulenc, who was born in Paris in 1899 and belonged to the group »Les Six« from the age of 19. This was a loosely-knit group of six composers whose mutual goal was to redefine French music, moving away from the shimmering impressionism of Debussy and Ravel and replacing it with a clearer language. Poulenc, whose great model was Mozart, managed this particularly well. His clear style and tonal beauty are also evident in his Oboe Sonata, which he wrote in 1962 as one of his last works. He dedicated the sonata to the Russian composer Prokofiev, whose influence is visible and audible above all in the second movement. Poulenc himself wrote a brief summary of the sonata's structure: »I have found the elements of an oboe sonata: the first movement is an elegy, the second scherzando and the last movement is a kind of liturgical hymn.«

Francis Poulenc (Postkarte, 1923)
Francis Poulenc (1923) © Library of Congress

Music for the audience :Graham Fitkin: Gate (2001)

As early as 1998, British newspaper The Independent counted Graham Fitkin (b. 1963) as one of »today's most important young composers«. Today, aged 50 and not quite as young any more, Fitkin is still one of Britain's most successful contemporary composers. His style is generally described as Post-Minimalist, and the music he writes is extremely lively with a strong audience appeal. Both these attributes are found in his piece »Gate«, where the saxophone develops an elegiac melody, sometimes with a hint of jazz about it, over repetitive percussive patterns in the piano part. Sophisticated and highly impressive!

Melancholy par excellence :John Dowland: Flow my Tears (1600)

From this contemporary work we head back into early British music history, to the lutenist John Dowland. Today, Dowland is seen as the leading representative of »Elizabethan melancholy«, the very special melancholy of the era named after Queen Elizabeth I, which is evident in the art of that time. Like several of his contemporaries, Dowland gave full rein to the theme in his emotional songs. A descending tune, for example, became his trademark as a symbol of a tear coursing down a person's cheek. It goes without saying that the proverbial tear is present in a song like »Flow, my tears«. Sob!

Dance in the tavern :Pedro Iturralde: Pequeña Czarda (1949)

The Spanish saxophonist and composer Pedro Iturralde was virtually a colleague of Jess Gillam's. He died in November 2020 at the ripe old age of 91, and was one of the great saxophone virtuosi, with a command of his instrument's entire repertoire, as long as he lived. He is also regarded as the inventor of »flamenco jazz«, where he merged these two very different styles of music. His piece »Pequeña Czarda« for saxophone and piano dates from 1949. The title refers to the traditional Hungarian dance csárdás, which translates as tavern. One cannot really dance to Iturralde's virtuoso piece, it's true, but it nonetheless exudes plenty of local colour. Likewise typical of the genre are the often abrupt switches between slow and fast sections and the sweeping melodies, permeated by a certain melancholy. In stylised form, the csárdás has found frequent use in classical music.

Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 25 Jan 2021

Pedro Iturralde spielt Saxofon.
Pedro Iturralde © Rai Fernandes Foto

The concert was recorded on 22 Jan 2021 in London.


Promoter: HamburgMusik

In cooperation with ECHO - European Concert Hall Organisation

With support by M.M.Warburg & CO.

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