The Joy of Sax
Essex High School senior Dan Rome fronts the Burlington Chamber Orchestra … with a saxophone?
A wash of sublime sound reverberates through the concert hall as horsehair strikes strings. Attacking runs played at breakneck speed are followed by long, harmonious sustains. Tension and release. Bows rise and fall in near unison, as if part of a mysterious but oddly formal dance. A finely tuned chamber orchestra is almost as much fun to watch as it is to hear. Still, it’s nice to close your eyes and let yourself be transported by the sonorous strains swirling about the room. Just lean back and drift slowly and blissfully away…
But wait. What in the name of all things Handel was that? A saxophone?
Yanked back to reality by a jarring confliction of sounds, you open your eyes and reevaluate the scene before you. There in the center of the stage stands, well, a kid. And glistening in his hands as the late-day sun slants through floor-to-ceiling windows is, indeed, a sax.
On a recent Thursday evening, the Burlington Chamber Orchestra is preparing for the final concerts of their 2008-2009 season. Their dress is casual — no penguin suits for rehearsal, apparently — but their focus is intense. Violinists and cellists bob and sway with the movement of the music, but at all times their gaze rests upon conductor Michael Hopkins. Except when it’s trained on the kid in the orange high-tops, who’s unleashing graceful, fierce alto-sax lines.
The player in question is Dan Rome, winner of the 2009 BCO Young Artist Solo Competition. The Essex High School senior is the first wind player to earn the honor. He’ll perform Russian composer Alexander Glazunov’s 1934 Concerto for Alto Saxophone in E-flat Major with the BCO this Friday at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater and Saturday at the UVM Recital Hall.
If it seems odd that a wind — in particular, sax — player would be tabbed to perform solo with a professional-caliber string orchestra, it is. The instrument is far more widely associated with jazz, funk and even rock. According to Rome, the saxophone has the least designated compositions in the canon of classical music. Why? It’s a relative infant compared to its other orchestral cousins. Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax invented the woodwind in 1841, long after much of the, well, “classic” music performed by today’s ensembles was written. Hence, there just aren’t many parts for the saxophone, nor professional demand for classical sax players.
That inconvenient truth doesn’t deter Rome, who has played in his school’s jazz band for four years but much prefers classical, and will continue in the discipline this fall at Brown University.
“I’m told that currently there is more classical music being written for saxophone than any other instrument,” he says, speaking to his future prospects. Grinning, he then cautions, “But I have no idea if that’s true.” And if it is not? Rome plans to double major in music and another yet-to-be-determined — and presumably more lucrative — academic focus. Smart kid.
Regardless of how many sax compositions appear in the future, Rome seems to be doing just fine with what’s available now, as evidenced by his performance of the Glazunov piece. Hopkins says that Rome “exhibited great technical skill and expressiveness” during his audition in front of the BCO panel. He praises both the young musician’s command of the instrument as well as his “deep knowledge of the music.”
Watching Rome rehearse with the BCO, it’s hard to disagree with Hopkins’ assessment. He’s actually been playing the piece — which Rome describes as “probably the most recognizable piece in saxophone literature” — for three years. Accordingly, his familiarity with it is nuanced and striking, well beyond the technical precision the concerto requires.
“Most people don’t associate [saxophone] with a classical tone,” Rome says. “But it’s got great dynamic range. It’s got a great tone. You can use vibrato. And it sounds different than most classical instruments.” He pauses before adding, “But you can do anything on it.”
Rome enthuses about the various, and varied, aspects of Glazunov’s masterpiece that make it the ultimate showcase for classical sax. He points to its overall cohesiveness, its challenging arpeggiated 16th-note runs, its rapturous cadenza. He likes that, even though the composer was specific in his written intentions, there’s still room for personal expression.
But for all the work’s virtues, the real reason Rome chose it is simple: He loves it.
“It’s my favorite piece to play,” he says with a shrug. And it shows.