Classical music just got a whole lot cooler. Following a rousing Proms appearance, a Classical BRIT Award,
and a moving performance at the BAFTAs, young saxophonist Jess Gillam is hitting all the right notes,
says Jessica Hope

“Classical music is lost on millennials. They don’t know their Bachs from their Stravinskys. They’d probably clap in between movements, the fools.” – These may be speculative phrases, but phrases, nonetheless, that reflect the growing concern among some classical music fans who fear that younger generations are losing interest in this traditional form of music.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti (recently appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to music) and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding last year, are just two of the award’s winners who have recently shot into the limelight. And one finalist who has been trailblazing the music of the saxophone – and who you may recognise from her poignant performance at the 2019 BAFTAs – is Jess Gillam.

However, the future of classical is assuredly in safe hands. For more than 40 years, the BBC Young Musician award has championed young performers. And in recent years, the calibre of musicians has increased and produced a number of youngsters who have been making a big mark on the classical scene.

As well as wowing audiences with her dynamic recitals, Jess recently became BBC Radio 3’s youngest-ever presenter at just 20 years old with the launch of her own show, This Classical Life, in April.

Keen to promote the work of other young musicians, Jess talks to a young performer each week who shares the music that has inspired them. “Hopefully it shows the diverse range of music that classical performers listen to, and shows that musicians take inspiration from lots of different genres,” says Jess. “Perhaps genre isn’t all that important – what’s more important is having a reaction to music regardless of what it is classed as.”

Despite her young age, this isn’t the first presenting gig for Jess. Last year she regularly hosted the BBC Young Musician podcast with bassist Sam Becker and pianist Zeynep Özsuca where they tackled a range of subjects from stage fright to pre-show snacks. “It was great to be able to make it with two of my best friends,” says Jess. “We’re all so passionate about sharing music.”

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Jess. Aged 17 she made a guest appearance with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, shortly before making history by becoming the first saxophonist to reach the final of BBC Young Musician in 2016. The following year she made her Proms debut.

“I’d never been to a Prom before. I’d seen the Proms on TV, but I’d never actually been. So stepping out onto that stage was a very surreal experience,” she says. “There is a real electricity in the room between the performer and the audience. You can actually see the faces
of the audience, and because the Royal Albert Hall is round, it feels very intimate. You feel like you can play to just one person.”

Her performance impressed audiences so much that she was invited back in 2018, this time to perform at the Proms in the Park in Hyde Park before rushing over to the Royal Albert Hall to play two pieces at the Last Night of the Proms, where she became the youngest-ever soloist to perform. Her rendition of Milhaud’s Scaramouche went down a storm with audiences, with one critic hailing it as the “indisputable highlight” of the night.

“We’re at a crisis point in the country at the moment where we have to realise how essential music is to society. Until [music] becomes recognised in the curriculum as a core subject, I think we are failing our children and not giving them the opportunities they deserve…”

Last year also saw Jess feature on the winners list at the Classical BRIT Awards alongside music legends such as Dame Vera Lynn, Michael Ball and Renée Fleming, after receiving the award for the Sound of Classical poll which recognises the best emerging artists under 30.

Last month Jess released her debut album, Rise, after signing with Decca Classics, becoming the first saxophone player to join the prestigious record label. “Recording an album has been an ambition of mine for a very long time,” she says. “It’s an album of music that I love to play and have an emotional affinity to.” It features Jess’ signature piece Pequeña Czarda by Pedro Iturralde, which she performed at the wind category final of BBC Young Musician 2016.

The album also includes a bonus track – Francis Lai’s Theme from Love Story, which Jess performed during the BAFTAs’ obituaries section in front of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and acting royalty. “It was a performance like no other that I have done before,” she says. “In a setting like that, it was a real honour to play.”

Jess, who is from Ulverston in Cumbria, has come a long way since she first picked up a saxophone aged seven with the Barracudas Carnival Band in Barrow. She recalls that day: “There were loads of workshops on – stilts, dance, drums, costume-making, and the saxophone. I came to the saxophone last and completely fell in love with it.

“I never made a conscious decision that that was what I wanted to do with my life. It is something I’ve been really passionate about and love. I’ve been lucky enough for that to develop into a career.”

She is currently studying at the Royal Northern College of Music with an ABRSM Scholarship, and says that despite her parents not having a background in classical, their love of music was instilled in her from a young age. “There’s always been an appreciation for music in our household. I was brought up where it was an important part of life and was something that was really valued and encouraged.”

It was this which influenced some of the more modern tracks on her album. “I used to listen to Kate Bush on repeat growing up. And David Bowie is one of my musical heroes, so to have music by both of them on there alongside music by Marcello and Dowland will hopefully show the diversity and versatility of the saxophone.”

When she’s not touring around the UK or abroad with different orchestras, Jess organises her own series of concerts in her hometown – something which she has done since the age of 12 – bringing international stars such as Snake David, Courtney Pine, John Harle and Tommy Smith to Ulverston.
“Live music is such an amazing thing for any community to have access to. It is something I would like to try and keep alive as much as possible,” she says.

Jess is also a keen activist against arts funding cuts in schools and wrote an open letter to The Guardian earlier this year. “We’re at a crisis point in the country at the moment where we have to realise how essential music is to society. Until [music] becomes recognised in the curriculum as a core subject, I think we are failing our children and not giving them the opportunities they deserve.

“Music can teach children so many life skills such as empathy, co-operation, determination, perseverance, and the ability to fail and for it to be ok.”

In order to help engage more children in music, Jess visits schools when she’s on tour for concerts, and gave pupils from King Edward’s School in Bath a music workshop last year. “One of the best ways for children to engage with music is by seeing it live and being able to speak to the musicians.”

Despite only being 20, Jess has transformed the way the saxophone is perceived among the classical community, and you can expect a number of new commissions to be written just for her over the coming years.

“One of the brilliant things about the saxophone is that it is still relatively young. It doesn’t have a very long history, so to be able to commission new music and help to create the repertoire for it is really exciting.”

The classical world is moving into a new, more modern era, and younger generations are taking notice. With artists like Jess Gillam at the helm, the future of classical music is looking very bright.

Jess Gillam is playing at the Concert For The People of Bath on 23 May, 7.30pm, at The Forum. Tickets £15–£38; thebathfestival.org.uk

Featured image by Robin Clewley Photography