Doctors at one time prescribed playing the saxophone for certain ailments?! Learn all about the saxophone's invention, development, and all the genres it's hopped to along the way.
The Eastman Saxophone Project gives a remarkable performance of Gershwin's An American in Paris
Listen to the Contrabass Saxophone in what might be the first (and only?) Contrabass Saxophone duet
Saxophone star Jess Gillam in an excerpt from Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown.
From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's resident saxophone player, Rich Kleinfeldt. Rich was a saxophone soloist and Master of Ceremonies with United States Army Band for 13 years, and he's a co- founding member of the acclaimed Washington Saxophone Quartet. He tells us all about the saxophone, where it came from and why it was invented, its popularity in a multitude of genres, and even how at one time playing the saxophone could be prescribed by a doctor. Plus stay with us to the end as he plays some of his favorite excerpts on the saxophone.
Thank you so much, Rich, for joining me to talk all about the saxophone, which you may not know, was actually the instrument I really wanted to play when I joined band in sixth grade.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, I want to ask you, John, why you didn't. But I can tell you that, as a saxophone player, I was very optimistic and perhaps naive when I began in terms of opportunities and things to play. But playing the tuba was a good choice on your part.
John Banther: Well, actually, I ended up playing the trumpet. I wanted the saxophone, not because of the sounds it made, although I'm sure it sounded nice. I didn't really know, but it was so shiny. It has all these buttons, it comes apart. It has a cool case. I saw all that stuff and I just wanted to have that instead of something else. But our band director yelled, " No more saxophones!" There were too many, this was the nineties, and I settled on trumpet there for a few years.
But it's great to learn more about the saxophone now because we kind of call it the saxophone, but it's also a family of instruments, and it sounds like it had an interesting beginning to it as well. So I guess just to start, where and when did the saxophone come from?
Rich Kleinfeldt: It's named for its inventor, Adolphe Sax. Sax came from a family of people who invented and created instruments. His mother and father were both instrument makers and developers, and Adolphe was very interested in getting involved in that. And he created other horns. There's a horn called the Saxhorn. There's a horn called the Saxotromba, which is sort of a brass instrument with a brass mouthpiece and so forth.
But his idea for the saxophone came out of listening to the brass and the woodwinds and thinking there something that should be there to kind of connect those sounds. And he actually invented the saxophone, unlike other instruments that sort of evolved or developed from earlier versions, like the flute, which is perhaps the oldest of all instruments. The saxophone was invented. It's a hybrid, it has a brass body, and I think you put it very well. Students look at that and they think, " Wow, that's pretty, I want to play that." And it's very popular. And then it has a woodwind mouthpiece like the clarinet.
And so when he invented it was 1840- ish, early 1840s. He grew up in Dinant, which is now in Belgium. He traveled to Paris with this invention and it really caught on. People liked it because it could play loud. It was omnidirectional, in other words, unlike a trumpet where you blow and it goes in that straight direction, the saxophone, you're surrounded by sound. So it was this intriguing thing, but he really had a hard time convincing people that his invention was worthy of being in a band. And there's an interesting story, I'll tell you very briefly.
The story is that there were two bands in the park in Paris, and they had a competition. One band had saxophones and the other didn't. And the band with the saxophones won the competition in part because they were so... It's such a big sound and it filled it out. And Sax was, from then on, liked and very popular. And this was the 1850s, by that time.
John Banther: That's really interesting in that, well, one, it was invented, not developed over time. And the first thought is, " Well, if he invents it, Well, how did it become popular?" He wasn't just going town to town, hawking this saxophone at the flea market or something. So it sounds like it got its first big start after its invention in these type of wind or military bands.
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And I think people don't know this generally, but the Paris Conservatory was a training ground at the time for wind players, for the military band musicians. And so it fit very well with that. But Sax had grander ideas. He wanted it to be part of the orchestra as well. And that's where it didn't really kind of take off. Hector Berlioz was a great advocate of the instrument, but he didn't write any parts for the saxophone in the orchestra, but he did think it would be a good thing. And there were other composers like Camille Saint-Saëns, I think...
John Banther: Georges Bizet, I think too.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah, Georges Bizet. Actually, that was a very bold move. Georges Bizet for La Lezione, incidental music for a play. This is 1870, John, and the saxophone was not even proven, and Bizet included it with the orchestra. And it was quite something. It's a beautiful saxophone part.
That's the kind of thing that happened. But then it didn't catch on like Sax had hoped, in part because it became more of a solo instrument than a connection in the orchestra. In the band, it worked very well, but in the orchestra it sort of stuck out a little bit too much.
John Banther: So it sticks out a little too much in the orchestra. But then on the other hand, we get those beautiful sax solos in some of the orchestral works in which it does appear. And so far we've been saying saxophone, but this is a family of instruments. He didn't create just one, but we have several in all these different ranges. How does that all work together?
Rich Kleinfeldt: When he designed them on paper, his idea was to go from very high to very low, much like the human voice. And he wanted the bore of the instrument, the way it was shaped, to be such that when one instrument stopped, the other would take over and it would continue down the range. So the highest instrument, very small, sopranino.
Then the soprano, which we know very well today, Kenny G is a guy who made this instrument extremely popular. The jazz player, Sidney Bechet in the 1920s, the soprano was his chosen instrument.
So the soprano is up there, then the alto.
And then the tenor.
The base, and the contra base.
And so all of those instruments together make up the family of saxophones. And when you go from the lowest note in each instrument, and the highest for that matter, they connect in fifths. So not to be too technical, but it's B flat, E flat, B flat, E flat and that kind of thing. Yeah.
John Banther: Well, for one, I'm going to put some video on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org of these various instruments because we've mentioned them. But the most popular are, as you were talking about, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. And then the other ones on the higher register, on the lower register. Some of those are extreme and just extraordinary to watch. I think it's the contra base saxophone, there's only three of them even made. I mean, it's just like... It reminds me of Jurassic Park. I think it's Goldblum, he says, " so preoccupied, whether they could, didn't stop to think if they should." With some of these lower and super high ones. But it is a really interesting family. We don't really have something exactly like this, with the other ones.
Rich Kleinfeldt: We kind of laugh about the contra base because the lowest pads on the contra base saxophone are like manhole covers. And...
John Banther: And those pads are the... It's what you're actually... It's what's covering the hole on the instrument.
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And so your hands... You have to push a key and it plops down on this hole and makes those low notes and the instrument starts to vibrate and so forth. And it is... You're sitting in a chair and the contra base is like six feet tall and you're actually vibrating with the instrument. It's an incredible sound.
John Banther: Wow. That must feel quite strange, too.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yep.
John Banther: Being made of brass, do you not have the same humidity issues like oboe and clarinet? Those made out of wood, they can be very, very sensitive to cracks and things like that.
Rich Kleinfeldt: We have other problems. I mean, we have moisture that builds up and we use swabs to clean it out. But the problem we have is much like a brass player, like a trumpet or a trombone. And that is when the temperature rises, when the instrument gets warm, the pitch begins to go up. And so if you're playing in a group and it gets really warm in that room, you have to be careful because you're playing out of tune, and you have to be very mindful of that.
But the mouthpiece right at the top can be adjusted. It can be moved in and out to help with that pitch problem.
John Banther: And the actual reed you're using, it looks similar to a clarinet in that it's a single reed. It has a very thin part on the top where it vibrates, and then the thicker part attaches to the mouthpiece. Is that right?
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And I'm glad you brought up reeds. I mean, there's so many stories. The person who coined it is debatable, but the phrase was, " There are no good reeds, only less bad." And so the search for the perfect reed... I mean, you want to get a saxophone player started on reeds. It's just like mind bending because you work on it and it's made of cane much like bamboo, and it's shaped. And there are different sizes from very thin, as you pointed out, the tip is thin. There can be very soft reeds and very hard reeds. But I must say that things have changed recently. And the instruments that I play and that my colleagues play in the Washington Saxophone Quartet, are plastic reeds.
John Banther: Okay.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And I would've never imagined years ago playing a plastic reed, but there is a company that makes these reeds, and they used to be relegated to marching band because they had such an ugly sound. But now the quality of these reads is high tech. And it's so cool because you can put the horn down and the reed does not dry out. It's plastic. So it's changed, I think, my approach and many others too. There are some professionals in orchestras that play it.
John Banther: Wow.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Ricardo Morales, the principal Clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has been playing plastic reeds for years.
John Banther: That's interesting that the saxophone was invented by someone being forward thinking. And it seems to, along the way, accepted technological advances. Here an example with the plastic reed.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah, that's a good point. Except we kind of joke that the saxophone is one of the more present period instruments. Because even though there have been advances, a key added here and there, it hasn't changed very much since 1840. It still has clinky keys and makes noise. It's still fraught with all sorts of adjustment problems. And repairmen love the instrument because they're always in need of repair.
But there are these improvements. But basically it is what Adolphe Sax invented. When you go to a museum in Brussels, Belgium, you can see the original Adolphe Sax instrument, and it looks much like mine and every everybody else's.
John Banther: Wow, that's amazing.
So we've got the invention of the saxophone. It's use in its early times with these bands. And also some daring composers like Georges Bizet.
So I guess what is happening around the early part of the 20th century? Is it just military bands and things like that? Or does it start branching out into other types of music?
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, it is a little of both. The military bands in the 1900s started to use the saxophone a lot. About 10 or 15 years later, I would say the nineteen- teens, 1920s, the saxophone started to take off as a jazz instrument, too. And also... And this is a curious thing... In the United States, when they started manufacturing saxophones, there was a craze because you could easily play the saxophone. I mean, you just put your mouth around the mouthpiece and blow and you get a sound. And what these manufacturers were saying was, " Uncle Tom, if you want to play with your Aunt Ruth standing by the piano, we're going to make a saxophone for you."
So they made a special kind of saxophone called the C melody saxophone. And a lot of jazz players actually in the 1920s played the C melody because you could read the note right off of the piano. It was exactly the same note, and they weren't made very well, but they were made fast. And there were thousands of these instruments sold. Even doctors who dealt with people who had asthma and other breathing problems said, " Play the saxophone. That's a good way to get your breath going, to get your wind going."
So it became extremely popular. And then as time goes on, then more serious jazz players start to play it. And that's the part that really caught on in the United States. And in indeed, to this day, most people think of the saxophone as a jazz instrument.
John Banther: I mean, well, first off, we can't breeze by that. Sometimes playing the saxophone was doctor prescribed? I mean, poor Aunt Ruth or whoever that was in the beginning of the story. With Uncle playing the saxophone near her with very little training, probably a rough sound right in her ear. I mean, it's just interesting to see into the 20th century where we have a more accurate to more detailed records of these things, seeing the saxophone explode in popularity and be able to genre hop to different things like into jazz and become a staple, but also be doctor prescribed. I mean, it's... I don't know of another instrument with quite this same history.
Rich Kleinfeldt: No, I don't either. And there are two things that come to mind. The popularity was such that there were these ensembles, Quintet, sextets of saxophones. The Brown Brothers was a very famous group in the 1920s and 30s, and they all played a different saxophone from very low to very high. And the C melody figured into that group. There were all women groups playing saxophones, and they were almost like vaudeville routines because they could play all kinds of music. And you've touched on that. I mean, the different genres, pop songs and so forth. And that sort of built on that popularity and the burgeoning of the saxophone throughout the country and the world for that matter.
But the other thing that's important, and this came from my mentor, a person that I first heard in high school, Fred Hemke at Northwestern University, who taught saxophone very seriously for many, many years. His famous line was... Or infamous, " The saxophone is the easiest instrument to play badly and one of the most difficult to play well."
John Banther: Yes.
Rich Kleinfeldt: So I remember that... I still remember. I use that today as my sort of mantra, " Keep it up, work hard to make it sound pretty."
John Banther: Work hard, make it sound pretty.
There's other instruments too that seem easy, when you pick them up, to make a sound, to get some notes out. But what that actually means is it becomes extraordinarily competitive and the playing rises to a high level pretty quickly. Euphonium is another instrument that's similar, where you can get a sound out of it. If you want to be one of the big players today, you're going to be spending 10 years of your life playing this instrument all day to master the sound and all of the intricacies you need to play it.
So moving on to today, as it's explodes in popularity in the 20th century in jazz, do you see a trend moving back more towards classical? Or maybe not moving back, but are there more classical saxophone players today than there were 30 or 40 years ago?
Rich Kleinfeldt: Absolutely. I started college in 1966, and at the time, the saxophone was only offered as a serious instrument to study in a handful of schools. I was lucky because in Illinois... I went to a small school in Decatur, Illinois, Milliken University. And my teacher was a graduate student from Northwestern where Fred Hemke was teaching.
There was a man named Larry Teal at University of Michigan, and he's sort of considered the father of the classical saxophone in the United States, and he started teaching the saxophone at Michigan in the 1950s. So his students went on to other colleges. And today, essentially every college in the country has a program in saxophone, and the players are just fantastic. One of the best schools in the country is the Eastman School of Music. They have an ensemble called ESP, the Eastman Saxophone Project, and there are like 15 or 20 of these saxophone players on stage playing, from memory, pieces like the Bach Toccata and Fugue, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. All these arrangements of pieces, and they sound fantastic.
So you're absolutely right. The level of playing has gotten higher and the number of players has grown. The difficulty is, where do you put them all? What do they do? That's the dilemma.
John Banther: It sounds like we are in the third generation, or... Yeah, maybe the third generation now, from the fifties and these teachers you're talking about, to now it's grown this big.
Where are most saxophone players playing? If someone wants to play the saxophone and they wanted to pursue it for their life, are they playing mostly in military bands, wind ensembles, saxophone quartets, something else?
Rich Kleinfeldt: I think two of them, in a very limited way, military bands. And here in Washington, I was in the Army band, and the players today are fantastic. They have master's degrees, doctorates and so forth, and they've made a career of playing classical saxophone.
But to me, the future for classical saxophone is in the quartet. And there are so many fine quartets around the world. The growth of classical music in Europe started much earlier, classical saxophone, than it did in the United States. So there are groups in Paris, in Amsterdam, they're all over the world, and that's where I think the future is. Because, as a soloist, there's not enough interest or repertoire to keep you employed. But as a quartet player, if you can keep your group together, and that's the difficult part, there are a lot of opportunities in chamber music. It's growing. It's still very difficult.
I have to tell you very quickly, the Washington Saxophone Quartet has been together for 46 years now.
John Banther: Wow.
Rich Kleinfeldt: I was a co- founding member in 1976. And to this day, at every concert we play, people come up and say, " I had no idea the saxophone could sound like that."
John Banther: Wow.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And that, to me, tells you everything about where the instrument is and where it's going. It's being more accepted, it's being more welcomed, but it's still difficult. And I'm an eternal optimist, so I've become a champion, like my colleagues, of the instrument, and we're making inroads. And there are many young groups that are coming along that are just really fantastic. And so hopefully it'll continue to grow. I mean, we had the same feeling in the 1960s when I started out, my idea was I'll major on tenor saxophone, which was a rarity at the time. And I figured, in a very naive way, if I'm a really good classical tenor player, I'll get all the gigs.
Well, I got all the gigs, but there are only 10 of them or something.
John Banther: Right.
Rich Kleinfeldt: So I mean, my first gig was to play the excerpt from Lieutenant Kije from the Prokofiev Ballet... I mean the movie. Lieutenant Kije, the movie music. And we traveled to Springfield, Illinois, and I went with a bunch of fine players from the University of Illinois and other thing. And I was just in seventh heaven sitting in the orchestra playing these excerpts. It was really great.
John Banther: What other composers from the 20th century champion the saxophone? Like Bizet and Sax was trying to do in the 19th century?
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, Maurice Ravel was an advocate for the saxophone. Even though Bolero, which he wrote, he was not real pleased with it. But he did include the soprano and the tenor. Ralph Vaugh Williams included the saxophone.
Alban Berg in the opera, Lulu.
Prokofiev, whom I mentioned. Also William Walton. William Walton included it in Belshazzar's Feast. Which was at the oratorio. He had this comment. He said, " I'm looking for the sound of a cat being strangled."
John Banther: Oh no.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And I think the saxophone has the best opportunity to make that sound, because it has this long kind of... It's a funny thing. And I've never played that excerpt, but I came close. I had a conflict one weekend about three or four years ago, and it's a really fun part.
But there are a number of composers who included the saxophone in the orchestra. And then there were a few who wrote concertos that still live on today. Alexander Glazunov, the Russian composer. When he was in Paris, he wrote a sax quartet, which is still played very much today. And the concerto for saxophone.
Which every saxophonist practices and performs. And then Jacques Ibert, another Frenchman wrote a piece as well.
I mean, there are stories, John, that are just fantastic. In the movie, Streetcar Named Desire, there was a love scene. And back in the day, the sensors were concerned about that love scene being too over the top for general viewing. Well, they kept the love scene in and they took the saxophone part out of the movie because it was too seductive. So the saxophone can really create lots of sounds and has. It's been a... I don't know. It's been an enticing instrument for so many composers and arrangers, yeah.
John Banther: And the sound. I mean, think of the sounds of saxophones in Duke Ellington even compared to these. I mean the variety is just immense. I'm wondering how the saxophone parts differ from other winds when you are playing. In the orchestra, the sound is so unique, it's used as a solo instrument very, very often.
When you're playing with a band, how do you find your part fitting in? Is it fitting in with some of the woodwinds, maybe clarinet or maybe more closer to the brass or that connection that you mentioned earlier? Connecting the brass and the woodwinds?
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, that connection is important because the upper saxophones, like the alto and the soprano, usually play along with the clarinets and the flutes to some extent. And then the tenor and the baritone will play along or double with the trombones and the euphoniums.
The trumpet and the alto saxophone fit very well together. So you're in this section and you're creating a unique sound in the band, but yet you are also combining with the others to warm it up. Some bands in Europe use more saxophones than bands in the United States, and it's a very dark, pretty, woodwind sound. And Percy Granger was one who loved the saxophone, he played it.
And he included all of the family, the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. Those four instruments.
John Banther: Maybe that's why every saxophone player I've played with or worked with, they're always a team player.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah. I think... Well, and saxophone players are eager to be involved, included. I played a Webern piece once and I was just over the top. I mean, " Wow, I'm getting to play this piece with violin and piano." Anton Webern.
John Banther: Yes.
Rich Kleinfeldt: The tenor saxophone. And it was really quite fun. And the saxophone can create some interesting sounds because it has that range. So I was playing very high and very low, and it's a challenge, but it's also a treat. A real joy to be able to do that.
John Banther: That's great. And I think we're going to hear you play a couple of things for us in just a moment right after this.
Okay, Rich, I think we're all excited to hear now you play the saxophone. What's the first thing you're going to play for us?
Rich Kleinfeldt: This is perhaps the most well known solo part in an orchestral arrangement. And it's The Old Castle in the Pictures At An Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, who included the saxophone. So as a saxophone player, you sit for a couple of movements and you wait, and then this movement comes along early in the orchestra, in the piece. And you are given this solo part that's just, I think, one of the prettiest for any player. And then after being included in a couple of parts, you play along with some other instruments, you actually end the piece, that movement. The saxophone is the last note to be heard. And that's kind of a fun thing.
John Banther: I have to say, Rich, that's also one of my favorite moments for the saxophone, as well, in an orchestral work because it's this medieval castle that's kind of being depicted here. And this troubadour is singing a song. And these troubadours, I means centuries ago that they were around. It's just, it's haunting, it's mysterious. It's just one of the more intriguing things that I hear in the orchestra.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah, I agree. And it's fun to hear how other players approach it. We all have our own ways of vibrato. Which is an integral part of playing the saxophone, that vibrating sound like a singer. Some will play it very straight and very subdued. Others bring it out a lot, but it's always very pretty. Yeah.
John Banther: Are there any particular challenges in this one, musically or technically?
Rich Kleinfeldt: One of the challenges is to sit and wait and make sure your instrument is warmed up. And I talked about plastic reeds earlier in our conversation that's taken some of the fear out of the instrument not working.
John Banther: Because if the reed that's made of wood, if it dries out a little bit, that'll probably affect your response when you then try to come in after sitting for 10 or so minutes.
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And when you start to blow, there's nothing more embarrassing than to have that gap between. So you want to be able to play it right away and make it sound good. You don't want any squeaks when you go from one note to another.
It's also in a very demanding key. There are a lot of fingerings that you have to figure out to make it sound very smooth and pretty. But the payoff is that it sounds good when you do it. So, that's nice.
John Banther: It's beautiful.
What is the next thing you can play for us?
Rich Kleinfeldt: This is.. If Ravel's orchestration of Pictures At An Exhibition was popular, this one is perhaps the most well known. It is Bolero by Maurice Ravel. And in this particular piece, the tenor plays the first solo... And there's so many solos. And then you continue on much different from Pictures At An Exhibition where when you're finished, you don't play anymore, you just sit until the end of the orchestra. In this case, you are playing right along with the orchestra, which is pretty cool.
John Banther: That is such a familiar sound, Rich. It's great to hear it on its own, without the orchestra. We never get to hear it that way. And that was on the tenor saxophone, right?
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right.
John Banther: And we didn't say, the first one you played the Old Castle excerpt that was on the alto saxophone or tenor as well?
Rich Kleinfeldt: The alto saxophone.
John Banther: Okay. So we've moved down a little bit for this one.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And I must say that the tenor is my favorite instrument. It feels like a vibration, a human voice kind of thing. Yeah.
John Banther: Are there any other challenges with this one? Other than if they won't pay enough to hire an extra player accidentally whacking yourself in the arm with another instrument.
Rich Kleinfeldt: One of the things about this, there's that little thing you heard where you kind of slide up to a note. That's done different ways. You can do it with the keys as I sort of did. Some people prefer to do it with their lip and really bend the pitch. Kind of... Like that. But if it doesn't go well, you fall flat.
John Banther: Yeah.
Rich Kleinfeldt: But it's a pretty straightforward piece. The nice thing about the tenor part is it starts up high and it ends up very low. And so you get a chance to show off the range of the instrument.
John Banther: We also have an example here of you playing a solo with a band as well. Tell us about this.
Rich Kleinfeldt: This is a piece by Jean Absil, a Belgian composer. In Brussels, Belgium, the saxophone was being taught seriously and being revered much like it was in Paris in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And a number of composers in Belgium wrote pieces for the saxophone to be performed with band or orchestra. And this particular piece is called Fantasy. And I had the privilege of playing a solo with the Belgian army band in 1979. And the players there said, " When you go back to Washington, DC and play with your own band, with the army band, this is a piece that you should play. It's called Fantasy." And it's a really nice little piece that I've enjoyed ever since I played it. And the band loved it. They'd never heard it before.
And so we played it on tour and I was able to play it for quite a while. But it's kind of a... How would you say? A recitative. It's sort like a singer being involved and given the opportunity to be with the group, but at the same time kind of float above it.
John Banther: It's beautiful. Before you sent this to me, I had not heard this one. Is this something that is popular and I just missed it? Or is this something that really just was unknown until you brought it over from Belgium?
Rich Kleinfeldt: It is unknown, pretty much. I've never heard anyone else play it. My colleague in the quartet, Reg Jackson, studied at the Brussels Conservatory. He's played it, but he knew the piece, but I'd never heard it.
Jean Absil also wrote a number of saxophone quartet music pieces, too. And so that's been a real treat for us, to play his music.
John Banther: We have one more thing here to listen to, and this is your Washington Saxophone Quartet. And we're going back to a time where this composer had no idea this instrument even existed. That's Johann Sebastian Bach, of course. This Fugue in E minor that your ensemble recorded. This is... It's interesting to hear the music of Bach, which works on any instrument I think you can imagine. It's just interesting to hear it played in the saxophone quartet in this way. Especially with the vibrato, which something Bach may have not been familiar with like this.
Rich Kleinfeldt: I often introduce the quartet when we play recitals and joke with the audience. We always play Bach. He's one of our favorite composers. And I tell the audience, " This was written for organ, but sadly Bach died in 1750. The instrument was invented in 1840, so they never got to meet. But if he had known about the saxophone, he would've written this for saxophone quartet."
But what's interesting about this, it doesn't start with a high instrument, it starts with the tenor. So I get to play the first notes, and the reason I pick this is because it's a slow enough fug that you can clearly hear each of the instruments very well.
And then after I play my little part, then the baritone saxophone takes up the fugue and then the soprano. So we go from the lowest to the highest in the quartet. And then the alto comes in after that.
John Banther: Looking towards the saxophone again. And in a wind band, a wind ensemble, when someone is principle saxophone of their section, maybe principle alto sax, we'll say, what are their duties? Because we've talked about string players before. They need to be in charge, making sure the bowings are correct style and things like that. What's entailed in being principal saxophone?
Rich Kleinfeldt: It is similar to principal violin or concert master. I think what you're trying to do is make sure the section sounds cohesive. So you want that blend of instruments. You may, from time to time, say, " Let's not use any vibratto here. Let's play the notes very straight." Much like a clarinet player. Or we sat in front of the trombone players when I was in the band. And if the tenor and the other saxophones had to play along with those instruments, we definitely didn't use vibrato.
Articulation is another thing that the first alto player will sort of lean down and say, " Let's make sure we don't play these notes too long. Put some space between them."
But I think the neat part about playing first Alto is that you get a lot of solo parts. Gustav Holst wrote a couple of suites for military band and the second suite in the Dargason, the saxophone starts out all by himself.
John Banther: Rich, there's a question I like to ask everyone, and if you don't have an answer that's fine. Or if you have to change names or time periods, that's fine, too. I'm wondering for you, what has just been the craziest thing that's happened to you while you're playing on stage?
Rich Kleinfeldt: I'm listening to you ask this and I'm thinking, " What was it?"
Well, years ago, the Washington Saxophone Quartet was on a little tour. And playing in different venues always has its limitations and is fraught with adjustments. And even if you get a chance to warm up in there early on, when the concert time comes, it's all very different. So we were playing at this college in Tennessee and the concert was in a black box, which is generally reserved for theatrical performances.
John Banther: Right. It's not an actual black box they put you in, but it's like basically a square hall that's not really meant for music, but more for, as you said, theater.
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And there were curtains before... We had to go through the curtains...
John Banther: I'm already worried.
Rich Kleinfeldt: ... To come on stage. So we had to find our place in the curtain and go on. And on top of that, this was a Bach fugue, the Fugue in G minor.
So the soprano goes out first.
And then the alto, and then the tenor is my turn, and then the baritone. So the baritone player and I are standing backstage in two different places. I'm on the right, he's on the left and we're waiting for our turn. And I looked at him and I whispered, sort of fraught and nervous, " I have the wrong glasses." So while the soprano player was playing, I ran back to the green room where we had warmed up, grabbed the glasses and came back just in time for my entrance. And I burst through the curtains and I walked up to my place. And when I'm standing behind the music stand, the chair is too close. And I tried to back up very gingerly and the chair fell over.
John Banther: Oh gosh.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And also the sound was dreadful. It was like we were playing into pillows. And so I was working really hard to project and I just... I'm sure I overdid it. But I mean it was just... And we had a good laugh about it later on, but when the bari player came on stage, he was already laughing because he heard me.
So the fact that we made it through the pieces remarkable. But that sticks in my mind is one of the craziest moments. And I'm sure there are others, but that one is probably top of the heap there.
John Banther: I mean, I'm watching all this play out in horror in my mind to be honest, because I know that feeling. You're there and you're like, " Wait a second, do I have everything?" But you've got 10 seconds until you're walking out. You have to run back now you're breathing too heavy. We want to control our breathing. A chair knocks over. And the first moment you said " black box"... Already I thought, " This is a nightmare." Because the sound is sucked out of the room. Like as you said, you're playing into a pillow, it can feel just so vulnerable. And then when you try to project, you don't have that same feedback and maybe you can overdo it.
Rich Kleinfeldt: That's right. And we're sitting there after we played our opening piece and there are these theatrical spotlights down on us and people in a very acutely raked seating, so low to high, we couldn't even see them. It was so dark and the room was so small. So it was the beginning of an evening that you want to forget.
John Banther: Well, I think we've all had some kind of experience like that.
Well, thank you so much for sharing that with us and now at a time when we can more laugh about it and hopefully we don't have any flashbacks tonight.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah.
John Banther: Is there anything else you wish audiences knew about the saxophone that they wouldn't know already?
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, I think the idea that it can sound very beautiful. I think for people who hear the saxophone, I hope that they can realize that it has a whole life beyond just the popular music and jazz. And certainly those are all very important for the instrument for music. But in the classical world, I hope that people get an opportunity to hear how beautiful a saxophone can sound.
John Banther: It can sound so beautiful. And actually what we're going to do is we'll put on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. We'll make a playlist of various works, Rich, that you think that everyone should be hearing to experience that beautiful sound of the saxophone.
Rich Kleinfeldt: And I also think that saxophone quartets give people an opportunity to hear the flexibility of the instrument. At times we can sound like an organ or we can sound like a brass group or a string group. So those are things I would love people to hear as well.
John Banther: Well, thank you so much, Rich, for talking to us all about the saxophone.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Well, thank you, John. It's such a pleasure and something that is easy for me to talk about. I love it.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more on the saxophone and some of its rare varieties, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org.
If you have any comments or episode ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org.
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I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.