Sax for the memories

Pasatiempo Magazine, Craig Smith

“It can do all sorts of things. It’s got a really beautiful side: it can play so sweetly, and play with such drama and passion. It can sing like a voice. And it’s still a relatively new instrument.” Speaking by phone from Chicago, concert saxophonist Ashu was commenting on his instrument of choice.

“People are sometimes a little skeptical — a classical saxophonist?” said the Walnut Creek, Calif.-born performer, who uses one name professionally. “But seeing the reaction after a concert is really gratifying; when I meet people and they say, ‘Wow, I never knew a sax could sound like that.’”

Ashu and pianist Winston Choi perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, for the Placitas Artists Series. They are playing Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da Camera, the “Andante” from Rachmaninoff’s piano sonata op. 19, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Piano, Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat Major, three Piazzolla tangos, and Jules Demersseman’s Fantaisie sur un thème original.

Most people know the saxophone today in jazz or big-band contexts. But when Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax invented it in 1840, he conceived it for orchestras and military bands. He planned to make saxophones at seven pitches for the two genres — a total of 14 — but some were never made. There are four standard types today: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.

“When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I heard this instrument on the radio,” Ashu recalled. “I was floored.  It just struck me. For the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and when I saw the instrument a few days later, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” The next year, he persuaded his parents to rent a saxophone for him and joined the school band.

Ashu made his public debut at 16 at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington , D.C. , and his recital debut two years later at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. He studied at Northwestern University in Evanston , Ill. , with Frederick Hemke, who had taught his high school music teacher, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance there. Ashu has performed in Norway , Switzerland , and the Caribbean as well as the United States . Choi, also a former Northwestern student and a laureate of the Honens International Piano Competition in Canada , is his regular recital partner.

“My parents weren’t musicians, so music was something I discovered on my own. I would listen to great classical soloists, Horowitz or Heifetz,” said Ashu, whose Web site lists tenor Luciano Pavarotti and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as other big artistic influences. “When I got to college, Northwestern really broadened my horizons. I began taking classes like philosophy and psychology and art history. It helped my musicianship quite a bit.”

Ashu learned to play all four pitches of sax but concentrates on soprano and alto. He said, “Those two voices just move me. They resonate with me.  When I play the program Oct. 30, I’ll be doing half the program on alto and half on soprano.”

Most solo, chamber, and concerto saxophone music dates from the 20th century, by composers ranging from Debussy, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Ravel, Hindemith, and Milhaud to Paul Creston, Frank Martin, David Diamond, and John Harbison. But Ashu also arranges 19th-century music for his instruments.

“I’ve arranged quite a few things from Romantic-era music, especially the more lyrical things. They fit really well,”Ashu said. But he would probably never arrange, say, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet for sax. “That would be fun to do, and actually it would be quite a challenge.” Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 students and seniors.