You can go a long time in Tacoma without hearing a classical saxophone soloist, then you get two on the same weekend. On Saturday, Symphony Tacoma brings Australian saxophone star Amy Dickson, who’ll play on soprano sax her own transcription of the phenomenally difficult Violin Concerto by Philip Glass. Then Sunday, Tacoma Concert Band features local soloist Erik Steighner on alto sax.
The rest of each concert is wildly different: music by American icons Barber, Copland and Bernstein for the symphony, and a mix of band music from Armenian dances to cartoon tunes for the concert band.
Each soloist has had a very different path. Dickson grew up a musical prodigy on Sydney’s Northern beaches, winning the coveted Young Australian Musician of the Year before moving to London and continuing to win awards, premiere new works and make groundbreaking recordings. Steighner grew up near Hood River, Oregon, studying with Tacoma Concert Band director Robert Musser at the University of Puget Sound before going to graduate school in Texas and finally moving back to become a saxophone lecturer at Pacific Lutheran University.
Though they’re different, both concerts will show that classical sax is an instrument of diversity and beauty.
The News Tribune spoke to Dickson and Steighner about what they’ll play this weekend and why they love the sax.
Q. It’s been nearly 10 years since you first transcribed the Glass Violin Concerto. How has your relationship to the piece developed?
A. The relationship grows stronger. It’s one of those rare pieces that I keep finding new things in. When you play this piece on sax, the solos blend differently with the different instruments in the orchestra, compared to violin.
Q. Tell us about some of the technical challenges you had to overcome to play a violin piece on a sax.
A. I taught myself circular breathing — that is a bit of a challenge anyway, but circular breathing whilst playing this piece and not making any difference in the sound while you’re taking a breath is really hard.
Also stamina-wise — the pressure on your embouchure is more intense than other sax pieces. In a normal woodwind piece, you can stop at the ends of phrases and your lips have a bit of a break. I always have to make sure I’m in good shape to play this. It’s a difficult piece, I feel like I’m pushing myself every time I play it. But that’s healthy; it’s exciting.
Q. Why does it work so well on soprano sax?
A. When I first transcribed it I didn’t know if it would. I was really lucky. I first heard it when a friend played it to me, and I immediately fell in love with it. I asked Philip Glass for permission to make a transcription, but the first time I even heard it with an orchestra was when I was recording it. It’s funny how some pieces really work on soprano or alto, and others don’t. You can’t always predict it.
Classical music can be this thing where people shy away from giving their opinion, as if they don’t know enough to say something. You should just say what you think.
Amy Dickson, saxophonist
One of the things I love about the Glass concerto is that it polarizes opinion. I love that. Classical music can be this thing where people shy away from giving their opinion, as if they don’t know enough to say something. You should just say what you think. My opinion doesn’t matter any more than anyone else’s. I love it when people come up and say things that they ordinarily wouldn’t be brave enough to say. It’s a wonderfully healthy thing for classical music.
Q. So what’s coming up next for you — you’ve just finished a recording session in London?
A. Yes, more Glass music, because he turns 80 in January. So I recorded the violin sonata — it’s an enormous piece, one of those pieces that takes up months and months of my life, like the concerto. I’m also arranging two pieces from the soundtrack to “The Hours.”
Q. Tell us about the pieces you’ll be playing with the Tacoma Concert Band.
A. The first is a Fantasia by Claude Smith, from 1983. It’s a very audience-friendly piece, with a mix of flashy technique and a lyrical part in the middle. Then the Fantasie by Jules Demersseman, originally written in 1863 for sax and piano, is a nice contrast. It’s one of the rare original pieces written for the saxophone just after it was invented. And for encore I have “Saxophobia” by Rudy Wiedoeft, this ragtime-vaudeville piece.
Q. People often think the sax is a jazz instrument.
A. Yes, but it was actually invented by Adolphe Sax as a bridge between the woodwind and brass sections of the orchestra. But it had a hard time finding a foothold in orchestras because Sax was boycotted by all the Belgian manufacturers. It found its place in military bands and, later, jazz.
In fact, there are way more saxophone concertos than there are pieces that use sax in the orchestra, especially by French composers. There’s more 20th-century music for sax than almost any other wind instrument. Players lacked repertoire, so we were fairly aggressive in working with composers and getting music written.
Q. So the fact that Amy Dickson is playing with Symphony Tacoma is a big deal?
A. Having a sax soloist play with an orchestra is a pretty exciting event. It’s awesome. I already bought my tickets.
Having a sax soloist play with an orchestra is a pretty exciting event.
Erik Steighner, saxophonist
Q. What about playing transcriptions, like hers of the Glass concerto, is that pretty accepted now?
A. I love to play transcriptions. There’s nothing better than Bach. It’s not neutral, exactly, but it’s been transcribed so much over the years and the music is so pure that it works for anything. I think Bach would have been open to it if the sax had existed back then. And then there are many things in the classical and romantic periods written for voice that work well for sax — I’m about to play Vaughn Williams’ “Songs of Travel” on baritone sax.
Q. Do you play all four saxes?
A. They’re all over there in the cabinet. Most solo music is for alto, but the fingerings are all the same, the embouchure is the same. But then you have the whole reed thing. … I do most of my practice on the alto, that’s my home base.
Q. At the end of the day, why do you like playing the sax?
A. Ultimately it was the sound that drew me to the saxophone. As a seventh-grader and sax player, I was listening to a record my dad gave me and I loved the sound. It wasn’t the sound I was making, but I loved it. The sax has such versatility — you have the ability to execute technical fireworks and really interesting effects that give you such a wide sonic palette. Because of that, the works written for saxophone are so diverse.
Copland and Glass
Who: Symphony Tacoma with Sarah Ioannides, director, and Amy Dickson, saxophone.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.
Who: Tacoma Concert Band with Robert Musser, director, and Erik Steighner, saxophone
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.