Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra ends season with sax soloist

Ashu brings unlikely instrument to the symphony stage

By JEREMY D. BONIGLIO - The Herald Palladium


BENTON TOWNSHIP - The saxophone isn't the first instrument that comes to mind when a symphony orchestra collaborates with a guest soloist.

But then Ashu isn't your typical saxophone player.

"It's true the saxophone isn't usually something you'll hear with a symphony orchestra, but in some ways I think that just adds to the appeal," Ashu says by telephone from his home in Chicago. "The saxophone is a very adaptable instrument, so a lot of repertoire can be reworked. I also think it's an instrument that may attract a crowd who may not typically go to a symphony concert."

That's the thought behind Saturday's performance when Ashu joins the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra for "American Virtuosity" at Lake Michigan College's Mendel Center Mainstage Theatre. The 2009/2010 season finale of SMSO's "An American Celebration" series will also feature the Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra in a concert that pays tribute to patron Margaret Beckley.

Ashu, who was born and raised in California and began playing the saxophone at age 10, will join SMSO for Astor Piazzolla's Tangos and a rendition of John Williams' "Escapades," from the 2002 Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me if You Can."

"Escapades," Williams' first saxophone concerto, is easily recognizable for its alto saxophone sequence used to depict the journey of successful young con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in the film

"Like so many people, I grew up being enamored with the work of John Williams," Ashu says. "You're talking 'Star Wars,' 'Indiana Jones.' The way he's able to come up with these melodies that are so simple but hook you immediately is just amazing. If you hear a few bars, you know it's John Williams."

It also took just a few notes for Ashu to realize he had to play the saxophone.

"One day we were riding in the car, and I heard this sound on the radio that I had never heard before and I really took to it. From that moment, I just begged my parents to buy me a saxophone until they got me one. Within the first year of playing, I knew the saxophone was what I wanted to do professionally. Now when you're 10 or 11 you don't really know what that means, but I knew it was something I wanted to keep doing."

He began listening to both classical music and jazz, and it didn't take him long to realize he had to make a choice between the two.

He started entering competitions, which led to his recital debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall, and his concerto debut, which took place at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. He has since graduated from Northwestern University and has performed as a soloist throughout Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, West Indies and the U.S.

"Ultimately for me, what I most enjoy is performing," Ashu says. "That to me is what I love, that connection to the audience. When you're in the moment, and they are right there with you, it's a magical feeling."

Although Saturday's performance will also include the SMSO's performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 9, The Great; the first two movements of Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite; and Aaron Copland's "Buckaroo Holiday" and "Hoe-Down" from "Rodeo," which features the Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra performing alongside the symphony, all eyes will be on Ashu.

That's because he's helping change the way audiences think of the saxophone by adapting and arranging pieces in the classical repertoire for the instrument. He's adapted everything from Debussy to Rachmaninoff, and has even written the arrangements for pieces such as Piazzolla's Tangos, which he'll also on Saturday.

"It's really an incredible instrument," Ashu says. "It can play with such emotional intensity, sing like a voice and effortlessly project in the largest of halls. It's capable of a lot of really beautiful things. I feel very lucky to do what I do."

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