Why Don't You Play Some Gershwin?

An American in London: Professor Frederick Hemke
John Robert Brown

Saxophonist Frederick Hemke is Director of Doctor of Music Studies at The School of Music of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He was in Britain to give a joint masterclass at the Royal College of Music. I met him at his hotel in West London.

Hemke is in his 46th year at Northwestern. "That's kind of amazing," he says, "because in this day and age - at least in the States - people don't stay that long in one post." He explains that the reason is because Northwestern University has high academic and musical standards. "Over these 46 years of teaching I've had some marvellous students," he says. "After all, the reason that you teach is because you want to have really fine students. Although I've been tempted away several times, I've stayed there just because of those two qualities of the institution.

"The university is not terribly large. In fact, it's a rather small university by American standards. A normal university in the States would be 20,000 to 30,000 students. Ours is 12,000, comprised of about 6,000 undergraduates, and approximately 6,000 graduate students - masters and doctoral students. The school of music is made of 550, being 400 undergraduates and 150 masters and docs. It's actually a controlled size; we don't admit any more than a hundred freshmen per year. Whereas the number of graduate entrants may vary, we keep the undergraduate population at a hundred per year throughout the four years of study."

Evanston is a city of 75,000, which means that students at Northwestern don't do a lot of gigging locally, but work is to be found nearby in Chicago. Indeed, Hemke's CV has an impressive list of recordings made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"The Chicago Symphony is a great orchestra," he says. "Like everything else, it has evolved over time. Primarily it was noted for its brass, which is always very strong. Strings were always fine of course, but it was the Chicago brass section that was strong and still is; the tradition remains. I've played with the Chicago Symphony for years and years. Not on a full-time basis, because there is no such possibility for saxophone. I've made quite a few recordings with them, as well, on pieces that use saxophone. That was always a joy, because those musicians were really so wonderful to play with. It was great fun."

Among Hemke's famous students, the best-known is probably David Sanborn. Is he from Evanston, I wondered?

No. He comes from St Louis. Just like so many others who come to Northwestern, David Sanborn was a very smart intelligent boy. He had real talent, and worked very hard, both on classical music and on jazz. And he didn't do too badly, did he? He had a penchant for the Selmer Mark VI. There are some saxophonists who feel that the Mark VI is the Holy Grail of saxophones. I have one, and that's fine. It's a lovely instrument - but currently I use a Selmer Series Two.

Hemke started with a Balanced Action, an earlier Selmer instrument. After that came the Selmer Mark VI and the Mark VII, and then into the "Supers". He recalls: "The key work changed, which made it a little bit easier to perform on. A little bit of fine-tuning for saxophonists who really needed technical command, the instruments became better and better. The bore did not change radically until the Series Two. Even then, it was merely a minor change.

Frederick Hemke and Kyle Horch

"I think the Series Three came out mainly because there was a need to compete with some of the other instrument manufacturers that were gaining momentum in the trade. The new Series Three was, for me, a little bit too bright. I liked the previous model, the Series Two, because it was a little bit darker, and that's what I play now. There were also some key changes that occurred on the Series Three that I didn't particularly like. There is a mechanism on the Series Three to attempt to keep the high C sharp at the octave in pitch. The problem is that it ruined the possibilities - in my mind - for the tuning of the middle C sharp. Whereas on the Series 2, although the top C sharp was a little bit sharp, you could modify it with fingerings - and you could also take care of the middle C sharp. There are some other minor things, also, but I preferred the Series Two for that reason.

"Other than that, after the Balanced Action, the Mark VI was really a very popular instrument with performers. The Mark VII came in. The company had modified the spatulas for the little finger of the left hand. Many musicians found this to be very uncomfortable, so they went back to the Mark VI. After that, it became a mystique that the Mark VI was the best instrument. The Mark VII disappeared from view, just because of that spatula of the left hand. G sharp, low B, low Bb on the VII, became a little awkward for people who had smaller hands. So the Series Two went back again to the key work of the Mark VI. The bore was not that completely different from the Series Two. The key work was like the Mark VI; it had a little darker sound, not quite so bright."

"Music for saxophone is going through quite a change these days," says Hemke, mentioning a period of neo-romanticism of composers William M. Karlins, William Albright, David Maslanka and John Anthony Lennon. "Now the French have taken a really wild turn," he says. "For that matter, some of the English composers have, also, where the saxophone is treated as an instrument capable of doing everything. You stretch the limits of the instrument to the nth degree. I see more of that all the time. Traditionally the instrument has been one of melodic character. All the music that has come out of that neo-romantic period is beautiful music for the saxophone. But I saw this happening even when I studied with Marcel Mule at the Paris Conservatory."

Hemke recalls Marius Constant, who composed Musique de Concert. "A very nice piece," says Hemke. "Then Constant wrote a concertino which started to go off on an interesting but different track. Marcel Mule, who'd liked his first piece, couldn't stand his second piece. Mule said: "I don't know what has happened to Marius. He has really gone off completely on this.""

"On the other hand, students that come to me today have had a lot of background in the kind of music that requires growling and screeching. So I have to learn the music myself, and teach it. It's not always the most fun thing. But I get a sense of where the instrument is heading." Hemke believes that teachers, composers (and saxophonists) usually reflect the times.

"Composers feel that saxophonists are willing to take a chance - whereas a clarinettist or a flautist will not necessarily do that." In Hemke's opinion, our basic inferiority complex as saxophonists leads us to perform without question anything and everything that is written for us. "We're not orchestral instrumentalists, so that we play the solo and small ensemble music that composers write for us. As a result we get a lot of music that is exceedingly difficult and demanding: altissimo registers that go beyond the hearing of dogs; slap tongue to the nth degree; pianissimos that are so soft that nobody can hear them. These are all possible on the saxophone, and are marvellous techniques to be used in composition. Christian Lauba's compositions, among others, from the French school, exhibit almost a new kind of technology for the instrument. You must completely forget about the rest of the historical performance demands, to go with what the techniques demand. Some of the music is very interesting; some of it could be played on any instrument if they were able do these "tricks".

"Saxophones can do it, but it's not necessarily saxophone-conceived music - at least, not in the character as I previously knew it," he says. "I have to be involved in these cutting edge things. My wife doesn't like to listen to my concerts because of this." He laughs. "She says she just doesn't enjoy the music that I perform. My retort to this is that I have a responsibility. A composer writes a piece of music for me, it's my responsibility to learn how to play it and present it. Her reply? "Well, why don't you play some Gershwin?"

"In the States the listening audience is very conservative. So there's a dichotomy here, between the saxophonist who's playing avant-garde music, and the listening audience. This is a real problem." Hemke is of the opinion that Europeans are more accepting. As far as American audiences are concerned, he believes that they want to hear Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Bruckner, and Bach.

"Ibert, Glazunov, are not completely out of sight," he says, "Because they still serve as a reference, particularly for younger saxophonists. There was a time when a fourth-year student in college would have considered his recital certainly to include the Ibert Concertino da Camera, because it is the epitome of saxophone literature. Now students are playing the Ibert as seniors in high school.

"By the time they get to college they would like to know what comes next, which presents big challenges for them. When I was a student, the only people that used slap tongue on saxophone were the saxophonists in Guy Lombardo's band. Now it has become a needed performance tool. Not only do you have to be able to slap-tongue, but you have to be able to slap-tongue very quickly. Same with the altissimo. If you can't play altissimo by the time you're a senior in high school, you are going to have a really tough time of it, because if you are going to be a serious saxophonist, you've got to have that technique right there from the very beginning of serious study at college level.

"Everything that's written now just takes that altissimo register as commonplace. So the Glazunov is really passé. Again, that work becomes a training piece, a reflection back. Most of the early French School material, which was based on all of the Musique de Concert and the Conservatory Concours pieces, all of these, are also training excellent pieces.

"Gabriel Pierné, Pierre Max Dubois and Eugène Bozza - they are all still fun to play, and I love them, but they are preparatory pieces at this point. They are not usually pieces that students wish to present as culminating recital pieces. They are simply pieces along the learning way that can give you, if nothing else, a study of beautiful saxophone sounds, and a foundation for building technique. I have some saxophonists today who still want to play Piazzolla. And I've had students who want to play the Hot Sonata of Schulhoff.

"I play avant-garde music, but I always try to preserve some kind of balance in recitals. To me, that's the most important thing. I don't see that I have to offend audiences who don't understand the music, who have a tough time even going to a regular concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where you hear Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg [Verklärte Nacht, first performed in 1903], and are tempted to leave the concert because they can't understand even that. Well, if they can't go beyond 1903, how in the world can you handle any of today's music?

"Of the saxophone family, beyond the conventional SATB we use the sopranino, bass saxophone and Tubax, whenever the music calls for these voices. Students learn to play all of the saxophones. They often own a soprano, alto and tenor - not a baritone. The University owns three sopraninos and two basses. We gave a Monster Saxophone concert two years ago, in which we used a contrabass saxophone and a soprillo.There has been a movement in the universities to offer a saxophone ensemble experience, so now composers are beginning to write for saxophone ensemble. Quite a few transcriptions already exist, but we are beginning to see some new and contemporary music in that, as well as transcriptions - new music by François Rossé, for example. I've seen quite a few avant-garde large saxophone ensemble music come out of France recently. Now there has also been some coming out of England."

"This is a very peculiar time for a composer; there seems to be no mainstream. We [saxophonists], who are willing to attempt almost anything, are not actually part of any stream; we're always out there pushing the frontiers. That is very progressive and stimulating, of course, but we may also be placing ourselves into a position of being unable to recognize a mainstream if it does appear."

Hemke feels that some composers don't give a hoot about audience reaction. "In programming avant-garde saxophone music there still is a place for Ibert, Creston, Glazunov, any of the older French music, or perhaps even a good transcription. Along with these, include one or more works that stretch the listener's ears and provide an education to the audience. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Hemke's concern is that an excess of the avant-garde in saxophone recital programmes hides the beauty of the saxophone sound. "We cannot play only for ourselves," he says. "Just because we are able to do almost anything demanded of us on our wonderful instrument, that doesn't give us the prerogative to make light of the tastes and needs of those who make a special effort to come to hear us."

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone magazine, 25th June 2008.

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