Notes From the Player With the Fewest Notes
For well over a decade now, my name has been listed in each PSO program as a member of the orchestra. Yet, you are far more likely to see me in the audience than on stage. How is this possible, you ask? I’m a member of PSO’s saxophone section, a group as indispensable to the orchestra as a hot dog vendor is to a vegan convention.
Allegro Sax Quartet (Peninsula Symphony member) from left to right: Linda Wilson (tenor), Steve Cooper (baritone), Phil Cline (soprano), Ron Miller (alto)
What a pity that more composers don’t appreciate the tone colors that the saxophone family can add to the sound of the orchestra. I’m willing to give a break to Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, perhaps. After all, they were long since dead and de-composing when Adolphe Sax invented the instrument in Dinant, Belgium in 1846.
(Side note: To read about a life of misfortune, I suggest checking out this article about Adolphe Sax. He almost died seven times as a kid, including a three-story fall onto a rock. As an adult, he suffered from lip cancer, invented such flops as the saxotromba and the saxtuba, and died in utter poverty.)
But for those who composed orchestral works after that date, what’s their excuse?
To give credit where credit is due, let’s look at those composers who have gotten our section out of the audience and onto the stage.
Thank heavens for George Gershwin, for example. An American in Paris is scored for three saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone) in the revised edition. The earlier edition called for the first chair to play alto and soprano, the second chair to play tenor, alto, and soprano, and the third chair to play baritone, alto, and soprano. We’d still be putting instruments away after the performance even after the percussion section had packed up and gone home!
Gershwin also found a place for us in Rhapsody in Blue and the Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. Of course, Gershwin lived during the Big Band heyday, so one would expect him to know and love the saxophone. What about others, with perhaps more classical roots?
Maurice Ravel used three saxophones in his most famous work, Boléro: a sopranino, a soprano, and a tenor. I have a feeling though that Maurice was not a sax player himself. The poor tenor player has to sit there, counting measures of rest, listening first to the snare drum introduction, then five complete trips through the melody, and just as his reed has dried out and probably won’t make a sound, it is his turn to play the melody, fully exposed for all to hear. The other two saxes have to wait one extra trip round the melody, for the tenor to finish, then they get their turn.
One of my favorites has to be The Little Train of the Caipira, by the Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The baritone sax part only has about 30 notes in it. I’m sure it takes me longer to put on my tuxedo’s bowtie than to play the entire part. But, the sounds of that steam locomotive starting up, trying to get some traction on its rails would just not sound the same without the added grunts that the baritone adds, at the bottom of its range.
I would be remiss at this point not to mention Ron Miller, the orchestra’s resident composer and arranger, and a saxophone player himself. He gets tasked from time to time with arranging the works of our guest artists, changing them from small combo arrangements to full orchestral arrangements. Ron usually finds a way to work a few saxes into the arrangements. He’s done that, for instance, for Taylor Eigsti and his groups, and also for the incredible vocal/piano pair, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill. What a treat to be able to accompany such wonderful talent.
So, at your next PSO concert, take a look at the back of the orchestra. If I’m on stage, I’ll be wedged in the last row, with the bell of a french horn a few inches from my left ear, and the mallets of the timpani a few inches from my right ear. If I’m not there, TAKE ACTION! As the old joke goes, demand less sex and violence on your TV, and demand more sax and violins in your orchestra!