Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working with Composers: Augusta Read Thomas

This is the first in a series of posts describing various performer-composer interactions.

August Read Thomas.  Photo © Young Lee
Augusta Read Thomas has held faculty positions at the Eastman School of Music and Northwestern University, and served for nine years as the Composer-In-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 2009 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the United States. 

Her music has been described as "striking in concept, texture and timbre."  "Thomas's music…fairly explodes with an extroverted boldness of utterance audiences and musicians alike find challenging yet immediate. It's music that doesn't sound like anybody else's — music that insists you pay attention."

My duo with cello has performed and recorded Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise by Augusta Read Thomas.  When we first approached Ms Thomas to obtain copies of the score, she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the prospect of us playing her music.  It is so nice to have composers really voice their appreciation for what performers do.  As we prepared the work, and performed it during our 2010-2011 season on concerts in Florida, Canada and China, we stayed in close touch with the composer.  She was also very eager to meet with Steven (my cellist) when they were both in New Haven, Connecticut working with the orchestra there  As a result of our feedback regarding the piece and, I’m sure, of her having now revisited the piece, she made a number of changes in the parts—changing rhythms, adding new notes, re-beaming rhythms.  Many of these changes were only finalized two weeks before our recording of the work.  Through this entire process, Ms Thomas was the epitome of the gracious, open, generous, and appreciative composer.  Such a joy to work with!!  So much so, in fact, she ingratiated us even more to her piece.

Look for the world premiere recording of Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise by Augusta Read Thomas on our new CD, Music for Saxophone and Cello, to be released in early 2012 on the Centaur label.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone

Just finished re-reading this book by the eminent saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix.  I studied with him one summer at the International Music Academy in Nice, France.  I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. I am always inspired when reading his writings, or reading about his life and work.  James Umble’s biography of Londeix, Jean-Marie Londeix Master of the Modern Saxophone, is a very inspiring description of his busy musical life (see my review in volume 26 of The Saxophone Symposium).  As I stated in my review, the book was mesmerizing; I didn’t want to stop reading.  I was torn between not being able to put it down, and desperately wanting to go practice!!

Londeix’s Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone was published in 1997. It is intended to guide the student of the saxophone to the appropriate study materials; it includes a few specific exercises, and some instruction on the basic approach to embouchure, holding the instrument, etc.  Included also, are nice annotated and graded lists of recommended etudes and repertoire. The volume concludes with “master classes” by Londeix on three works from the saxophone repertoire. These are very detailed performances notes on how to play extended passages from these works. In most cases he provides a paragraph or two on the interpretation of a measure or two of the musical text.  The works studied include: Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suite, Debussy – Rhapsodie, Milhaud – La Création du Monde.

Londeix includes some great tips for practicing intonation, finger speed, and tonguing. He also emphasizes the importance of the expressive element of music.  In his words, “To learn to breathe and to direct the air is more important than learning to play fast.”

Londeix, Jean-Marie.   
Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone.  
Paris : Henri Lemoine, 1997.
84 pp. In French, Japanese, English, and Spanish.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My New Web Site

I’ve recently created a new web site: 

It is hosted by Google on their blog platform.  My site is based on one of their “simple” templates.  I tweaked it a lot to make it look and act like a web site (not a blog).

Take a look and let me know what you think!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Performing Chamber Music

Last night, I had the opportunity to take part in a faculty chamber music collaboration that featured nine School of Music faculty members. This was the inaugural event in the University of Florida School of Music Faculty Chamber Music Series.  Nine faculty members were involved in the concert.

The work I performed was Charades, a piece for violin, tenor saxophone and piano by Sherwood Shaffer.  Shaffer was my college theory professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts.  His first work for saxophone, Summer Nocturne, was dedicated to me and is on my CD American Music for Saxophone and Piano  that was released earlier this year.

Charades is, as the title suggests, a parlor game played by the three instruments.  The program as depicted in the music has the instruments taking turns presenting their “charade” while the other instruments try to guess it.  Sometimes they will guess correctly, pat each other on the back and continue the game.  Sometimes they are not such good sports and quarrels ensue.

One of the great joys of music is the privilege of sharing the stage with fantastic colleagues. Whether performing in a duo with a pianist, cellist or percussionist; playing chamber music with a mixed ensemble or saxophone quartet; joining the traditional orchestra; or presenting a thrilling concerto performance; collaboration is one thing that makes performing music such a great experience.  I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some very fine musicians during the course of my career. I owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to shape the musician that I am today.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chamber Music Concert

I'll be performing on the inaugural University of Florida School of Music Faculty Chamber Music Concert Series,Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm in room 101 of the Music Building.  Admission is free!  Bring your friends.

The piece I'll perform:

Charades - Sherwood Shaffer
   for violin, tenor saxophone and piano
   w/Janna Lower, vln & Kevin Orr, pno

Other tunes by Debussy, Haendel, Bach, Rossini.and Kopetzki will be performed by Kristen Stoner, flute; Laura Ellis, Harpsichord, Kenneth Broadway, marimba; Chip Birkner, percussion; Steven Thomas, cello, and Kevin Casseday, double bass.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Touring China

In May, the Helton-Thomas Duo ( completed its second recital and master class tour of China. This year we performed recitals and presented master classes in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Tianjin and Beijing.  Concert repertoire for this tour was taken from our CD which we recorded soon after our return home.

The food is amazing.  During my first trip to China, every day for ten days I was treated to magnificent meals (banquets, really) for both lunch and dinner. I was stunned by the tremendous variety of foods; we went to a Szechuan restaurant, a Hunan restaurant, a Hot Pot restaurant, a Beijing Duck restaurant, and many more. Each one was radically different from the others. In fact, it was five days (ten restaurants) before I even saw one dish repeated. The contrast with what we call Chinese Restaurants in the US couldn’t have been more striking. 

After three visits to China (2007, 2010, 2011) I have become a more adventurous eater.  Some of the more exotic foods I have tried have included: snake, duck gizzard, calmari, kiwi juice, abalone, dragon fruit, sea cucumber, duck lung, and a number of things I could not even identify.  I even liked a lot of it (the kiwi juice was amazing; snake, quite tasty)!

The cities are huge.  Beijing is a city of 30 million people.  Forty-five minutes away by train is Tianjin, a city of 8 million people.   Okay, so it was a bullet train that cruised at 355 km/hr (220 mi/hr), but many people, so near each other.  And when you are in the city on foot, you quickly learn that the maps make things look quite close together when they really are not. A good pair of walking shoes is indispensable!

Jet lag.  It seems that most people can adapt to the 12-hour difference in time pretty well when travelling from the US to China.  The difficult part is adjusting to the time change when flying from China to the US.  It has taken me two weeks or more to get back to normal after one of these trips.

The people are nice. Everyone we met in China was very gracious and generous toward us.  Everything from their smiling faces as they welcomed us in airports and train stations, to the lavish welcome dinners with friends, to their attentiveness in master classes and concerts, and the genuine interest shown in our experiences and opinions, displayed the genuine warmth and good-heartedness of everyone we met.

We're looking forward to our next visit in 2012!!