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August 2014
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Sax and the City

Ashu with an alto saxophone

Impromptu, Thursday at 3:00 pm

Northwestern graduate Ashu is making his rounds as a classical saxophone player. He’s won competitions around the world, edging out violinists and pianists. This season he will travel to South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, New Zealand, Russia, England, and Finland, among other stops. The case he makes for an instrument that’s uncommon to the classical arena is a strong one.

From Charlie Parker to Kenny G, John Coltrane to Clarence Clemons, the sultry sounds of the saxophone have been a mainstay for American music. Many have praised the saxophone’s vocalism, range of color, and expressivity. Nevertheless, it’s been a tough road for classical soloists.

Every classical saxophonist knows all the licks from the big orchestral pieces with sax parts: Lieutenant Kijé, An American in Paris, Boléro, Pictures at an Exhibition. But in some towns, it’s one player who gets all the orchestral jobs; orchestras outsource sax parts rather than keeping a player on the roster – there just aren’t too many pieces that call for one – and it’s a competitive field.

One might ask, why isn’t it part of the orchestra?

First of all, the saxophone wasn’t invented until 1840-42, effectively missing every composer from Schumann and before. But looking at the origins of the instrument, according to, inventor Adolphe Sax was responding to an imbalance between brass, woodwinds, and strings. “…the brasses were overpowering the woodwinds, and the winds were overpowering the strings…The sound that he was seeking would lie between the clarinet’s woodwind sound, and the trumpet’s brass tone. Sax combined the body of a brass instrument and the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument, and the saxophone was born.”

The problems with the saxophone, if one can call them problems, are precisely its volume and rich color. In an orchestral setting, the saxophone tends to cover the sounds of other instruments. Still, Hector Berlioz, who is regarded as one of the great orchestrators, became an early proponent of the instrument, not so much in his own orchestral textures, but in journals and in an 1844 Paris concert in which he featured the saxophone.

About that time, other Frenchmen began writing pieces for the sax, but it wasn’t until the jazz age that the instrument really blossomed, holding its own alongside solo brass instruments and trap sets.

Sometimes in music, an extraordinary player comes along who inspires composers to write for a specific instrument. It happened for the clarinet, when Mozart befriended the clarinet-playing Stadler brothers. Another clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, got works out of Brahms when the old man had quit composing. Rostropovich inspired cello concertos from Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Presently, the young saxophonist Ashu is working his way through the sax repertoire, and even making some of his own transcriptions. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this career.

Ashu will give a recital at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang on Thursday, August 28 at 6:00 pm. He’ll play music by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Villa-Lobos, and more. Ashu will give a WFMT Impromptu in the newly renovated Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio on Thursday, August 21 at 3:00 pm (one week prior to the Ravinia concert).

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