Playing classical saxophone is a musical niche , a niche that is not only small, but not necessarily sought after, says classical saxophonist Michael Whitcombe. “Being a classical saxophonist is a very unusual thing,” he says.“It can make
you feel like an outsider.” Indeed, Whitcombe reports, it was not his mother, but his college mates, who asked, “How are you going to make a living with this thing?” Their skepticism helped propel him into a saxophone career.
Whitcombe plays a recital with pianist David Korevaar at Nicholas Music Center on New Brunswick’s Douglass College campus on Sunday, September 28, at 2 p.m. The program consists of three 20th-century compositions for alto saxophone and piano, a transcription of a Handel violin sonata, and Korevaar’s set of five preludes for solo piano. “When you do this kind of repertoire you don’t want just an accompanist,” says Whitcombe, “you want someone who does his own thing in his own right.” In Korevaar he has found an excellent collaborator. Korevaar is an energetic and sensitive pianist capable both of power and delicacy. I have heard him turn the dumpy upright piano he found in a high school gym into a responsive musical instrument. Whitcombe and Korevaar met in New York’s chamber music milieu. “I invited him because I thought he would want to do this repertoire,” says Whitcombe in a telephone interview from his home in New York.
Whitcombe describes the Rutgers program as weighted towards the French and the American. Even the Handel transcription has a French outlook; it is the work of Marcel Mule, a distinguished saxophone pedagogue associated for a long period with the Paris Conservatory. Andre Desenclos’ "Prelude, Cadence at Finale” was written for the 1956 competition at the Paris Conservatory. Paule Maurice’s 1960 “Tableaux de Provence” aims to evoke the south of France, and culminates with a movement entitled “Le Cabridan,” which Whitcombe translates as “the giant bee.” It’s a “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” for saxophone, he says.
The two American pieces on the program are Korevaar’s “Five Preludes” of 1990, which present dramatically contrasting moods, and William Albright’s four-movement “Sonata” of 1984, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. Albright’s composition goes beyond the musical instruments for which it was composed, Whitcombe says, “Albright brings out the best of the saxophone. Still, a person who hears the sonata for the first time might not be able to identify the instrument.”
“Saxophone and piano repertoire didn’t start until the beginning of the 20th century,” says Whitcombe. “The good pieces began to appear in the 1920s. In the last 20 years there’s been an explosion of good music for saxophone. Let’s face it. The saxophone is only 150 years old. We don’t have a history of 300 years of repertoire.”
Adolphe Sax, a Belgian, invented the instrument in the attempt to improve the tone of the bass clarinet, and patented his new instrument in Paris in 1846. Originally used by the French military infantry, John Philip Sousa brought the instrument to America in the 1890s. In the 1920s it found its way into jazz.
Within the last weeks Princeton heard the legendary 90-year-old jazz saxophonist Benny Carter in the opening concert of the Princeton University concerts Jazz Series. An enthusiastic Richardson Hall audience gave Carter and his trio a standing ovation after Carter displayed remarkable stamina and musicianship. “Carter has complete control over his instrument,” said an observer. “He has a way of bending notes so that the saxophone sounds like a human voice.” In the saxophone landscape, Carter and Whitcombe represent high points in very different terrain.
“Jazz is outside my approach,” says Whitcombe. “I’m a classically-trained saxophonist with a conservatory approach. Benny Carter is a virtuoso saxophone player, but my interests are with hrough-composed sax music. The two don’t really meet.”
“Some people feel that classically-trained saxophone players should strive to do both jazz and classical. When I turn on the radio, I most often listen to jazz, but I study and perform classical music.”
Now 35, Whitcombe was born in Rochester, New York, home of the Eastman School of Music. He started his saxophone study at age 10, in the school music program, encouraged by his older brother, who played trumpet, and his older sister, who played flute. By the time he finished high school, he knew that he wanted to study with Donald Sinta at the University of Michigan.
The University of Michigan was the first in the United States to offer a degree program in saxophone, Whitcombe explains. The pioneer at Michigan was Larry Teal, a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who started the Michigan program in the early ’60s. Sinta, Whitcombe’s mentor, was Teal’s student. The American school of saxophone playing, exemplified at Michigan was strongly influenced by jazz, says Whitcombe. Now virtually every major music school has a saxophone program. The exceptions are New York’s Juilliard School and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, whose missions are to train the players of standard orchestral instruments; the saxophone is not a regular orchestra member.
Saxophonist Richard Radice, founder of Saxplus, a saxophone quartet, grew up in the 1940s, too early to be able to major in saxophone in college. “I had to major in clarinet,” he told U.S. 1 (January 18, 1995). “One day I took my saxophone in to try to prove to my clarinet teacher that you could be a serious musician on the saxophone. But I couldn’t convince him.”
By the late 1970s, when Whitcombe reached college, the initial exposure to a university saxophone program could be a sobering experience. “I thought I was good when I left high school,” Whitcombe remembers. “But I found at Michigan that there were a lot of extremely talented saxophone players. The first thing I had to do was re-learn the instrument. It was `Mary Had a Little Lamb’ for three months.” Whitcombe came to enjoy the intimacy among the saxophonists at Michigan. “There were only 12 students, and we became very close,” he says.
Whitcombe’s solo performances lean towards 20th-century music. In 1993 he won the ASCAP award for adventurous programming of contemporary music. In addition, Whitcombe appears with Prism, a saxophone quartet, of which he is a founding member. Musical America named the group the “Outstanding Young Artists of 1989.” In 1994 Prism began a multi-year residency at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. Although seven sizes of saxophones exist, Prism consists of four mainstream saxophones: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. Whitcombe knows how to play all four, but spends most of his time with the alto instrument. “It’s frustrating enough, with the reeds, to play only one instrument. I’m not eager to play more than one,” he says. Most of the solo saxophone repertoire is for soprano or alto saxophone, Whitcombe points out. There are a few pieces for tenor sax, he says, and still fewer for baritone. The pieces are instrument-specific; if a baritone saxophone were to play a piece written for soprano saxophone, the piece would have to be transcribed.
Half of Prism’s programs are jazz, Whitcombe says. The ensemble has from time to time used electronic wind instruments where a synthesizer is controlled by the breath. With such instruments it is possible to alter pitch, timbre, and volume by the manner of blowing. “They’re frustrating,” says Whitcombe. “You could spend hours adjusting the set-up. Our interest in them is waning. Prism’s recital programs now are acoustic.”
“We’re interested in working with new composers, and seeing what they can write,” Whitcombe says. “Transcriptions of classical music can be valuable, but they don’t do anything to propel the instrument forward.”
Whitcombe admits that playing saxophone has a certain missionary component. “We’re used to being missionaries,” he says. “It’s a big part of what we do. In 1995 the U.S. State Department sent the quartet to South America, and we played only music written in the 10 years before the tour.”
In January Prism will record the complete works of William Albright, one of the composers included in the Rutgers program. For a piece called “Valley of Fire” Whitcombe will set aside his alto saxophone to play bass saxophone. “It has an immense sound,” he says. “It’s huge. You could fit a five-year old kid in the bell. You have to sit on a stool to play it.” The recording will be released by Composers Recordings, Inc.
For all saxophones, Whitcombe considers playing in tune the touchiest matter. “Saxophone is one of the easiest instruments to pick up and learn, but getting the pitch right is difficult. You can’t just pick up the instrument, and blow and press your fingers if you want good intonation. It’s very easy to play sharp. That’s what gives the saxophone a bad name.”
Whitcombe advocates careful listening as the main path to correct intonation. Players can correct bad intonation, he says, either by pulling the mouthpiece in or out, or by changing the orientation of their throat and jaw; if you raise your jaw, the pitch goes up.
Saxophonists are sensitive to heating systems, Whitcombe says. He prefers the evenness of a steam heated room and the relative absence of air movement. He is wary of forced air heating systems and air conditioning, both of which blow air about. With them the reed dries out. “When you put it in your mouth, you get a spitty sound,” says Whitcombe. “It can be a big problem.”
The saxophone niche calls for a high level of fitness, Whitcombe says. He finds that yoga practice helps him stay in trim physically and mentally. “Yoga changed my life,” he says. In addition, he trains on a stationary bicycle to keep his range of breath up to par.
“When I practice,” says Whitcombe, “I consider it training. You have this 15-pound thing hanging on your neck. You have to stay in shape.”
Michael Whitcombe, Rutgers Arts Center, Nicholas
Music Center, George Street at Route 18, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511.
The saxophonist, with David Korevaar, piano. $14.Sunday, September
28, at 2 p.m.