Saxophonist in spotlight

By Cathalena E. Burch


Tucson , Arizona

Arizona Friends of Chamber Music is forging into unexplored territory today when it hosts a concert by the young saxophonist Ashu.

It's the first time in the group's 58-year history that it has invited a saxophone player to headline a Piano and Friends concert.

"I think our audience is ready for something different," Friends Executive Director Jean-Paul Bierny said. "If it's good quality, I think our audience is very open-minded and will love it."

Ashu - he goes by his first name only - admits that most people don't associate the saxophone with classical music. 

The saxophone is a relatively new instrument, dating to the 1840s. It didn't really find its groove in the music world for several decades. The piano, for example, has been around since at least the early 1700s.

"It takes some convincing to go out there and try to show people that the saxophone can do classical music," said Ashu, who opens the Piano and Friends concert series with pianist Winston Choi this afternoon. 

"One of the reasons why the average audiences don't hear much about (saxophones in classical music) is because most of the music they play is from this century. There's not any Brahms, Beethoven, Bach for saxophone, so they get typecast that way," Choi said last week in a phone interview from Chicago .

Bierny said he discovered Ashu through a solicitation sent to him. It was one of many he receives, but he was struck by the concept of classical sax.

"I've noticed over the last several years there is a bit of an increase in interest in saxophone in classical music," Bierny said. "Most of it is in the shape of saxophone playing transcribed versions of baroque pieces. But there are several contemporary composers who have composed for saxophone."

When it was first introduced, saxophone found a home with military band music. In the 20th century, it became synonymous with jazz. It has caught on with classical music only in the past century, when composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Paul Hindemith, Claude Debussy and Pierre Jalbert began composing works that highlighted the sax.

"There are so many great saxophone pieces," Ashu said in a phone interview last week from his Chicago home. "The thing is, most people haven't heard them. Most people don't even have any idea they exist. It's always fun to surprise people a little bit."

Ashu, the son of a banker mother and an engineer father, began playing saxophone when he was 10. Early on, he played jazz and classical. It wasn't until he attended Northwestern University outside Chicago that he decided to pursue classical saxophone exclusively.

"It has so much classical potential. It's more than a jazz instrument. It can play so sweetly and so powerfully and with such emotional intensity," Ashu said. "It's capable of all these things that most people don't associate it with. That's what I really enjoy doing."

Ashu has dipped deep into classical music's vaults and arranged classical and baroque works for his instrument. He's done hundreds of them but has performed only a handful in public.  One of those is the Andante, or slow movement, from Rachmaninoff's Sonata for Cello and Piano.  Ashu arranged the cello part for sax.

"It's very similar. It has that same lyrical quality that you can reproduce with saxophone and you can create the same sort of intensity and power. I think it works," Ashu said.

"For the most part, I think people are quite open-minded to this.  They don't seem to mind if you take a work and you obviously are paying respect to the composer and you think you have something to say with that."

Today's concert also includes Jalbert's "The Invention of the Saxophone," written for Ashu and Choi, based on a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. The piece calls for piano, sax and a narrator. University of Arizona theater arts professor Harold Dixon will perform the narration, Bierny said.

Ashu said he realizes he is setting a precedent with the Arizona Friends; if he succeeds, it could open new doors to more instruments that often aren't showcased in classical music.

"It's an honor to be able to break new ground, especially in an established, old program like the Friends," he said.

"But I think in the end, the reactions are so positive that that's what makes it worthwhile."