Donald Sinta summed up the saxophone situation in one sentence: "The world is not ready for us."
The tall, wiry musician, who was on his way to a rehearsal at the University of Maryland yesterday for the Eighth World Saxophone Congress, might be as famous as Itzhak Perlman if his instrument were the violin. He is a legend to fellow saxophonists, a professor at the University of Michigan and an eternal optimist when he talks about the future of his instrument and its players.
"I think it's the greatest wind instrument we have," he said. "It has many personalities, many voices from the most sensitive to the most abrasive."
But he is also a realist: "We have no place in traditional classical music. That's our problem and that's what's exciting. The world is not giving young saxophonists any invitations, so they have to be inventive, they have to be assertive. We have young saxophone players as good as James Galway, but how do they get the big break?"
This week at College Park, Sinta is immersed more intensely than usual in the exciting, challenging and problematic world of the classical saxophonist. The saxophone congress has attracted 500 musicians from Europe, Japan, North and South America. Some of the stars on this instrument are giving evening concerts -- people like Sinta and Jean-Marie Londeix, James Houlik and Eugene Rousseau, who are the Heifetzes and Horowitzes of the instrument. Hundreds of other saxophonists will go public spectacularly at 4:30 this afternoon in an open-air concert -- more like a mass demonstration for saxes -- on the steps of the Capitol.
Between these extremes, dozens of young saxophonists are having brief moments of specialized glory this week, performing for audiences made up mostly of their peers and colleagues. Players like Richard Dirlam, who performed yesterday morning. The music was "Hanblecheyapi: Crying for a Vision," composed for him in 1982 by Michael Aubart. It is a lament for the death of John Lennon, composed for alto saxophone and tape, emotionally structured like a ritual of the Oglala Sioux and using three Beatles songs ("The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be" and "Yesterday") in its thematic material. The tape provides an atmospheric setting for the solo as well as subjects for musical dialogue. The saxophone's material is, in turn, richly emotional and technically brilliant, encompassing tonal regions usually associated with the oboe and the French horn and giving the music its own distinctive flavor.
It is one of dozens of new works scheduled for performance during the Eighth Saxophone Congress, and if it is a fair sample it supports the claim by Jean-Marie Londeix that we are entering a golden age of classical saxophone music. Londeix is the dean of French saxophonists and has made the Bordeaux Conservatory, where he teaches, probably the world's leading center of saxophone studies.
"Older saxophone music," he said, "treats the saxophone like any other wind instrument. But in the last 10 years composers have begun to explore the saxophone's spirit. We are getting music for the saxophone that is idiomatic to the instrument as Chopin's music is idiomatic to the piano. It is impossible to play this music on another instrument; it will not sound right. Many serious composers are becoming interested in the saxophone. They are fascinated, for example, by the fact that the bass instruments can play as fast as the others, the phrasing and expression can be identical throughout the ensemble."
In a survey of saxophone music, Londeix said, he found more than 10,000 pieces in classical style. "In this century," he said, "more music has been composed for the saxophone than for the cello."
Richard Dirlam studied with Londeix in Bordeaux, was awarded first prizes and certificates of honor, and performs with Londeix's Ensemble International de Saxophones. He is clearly one of the instrument's young giants, a complete musician with a dazzling technique. But nobody is knocking down doors to put him on concert programs.
"I perform as much as possible, solo and in ensemble," he said, "but it's very difficult to make a living with the saxophone in the United States if you don't play jazz or double on other wind instruments. I have played jazz, and I have played in rock bands, but my first love is classical music of the 20th century, and I don't play any other instruments." He earns his living at North Texas State University, teaching saxophone and serving as assistant conductor of the university orchestra.
He first encountered the saxophone by accident: "I was up in my grandmother's attic and found a box with a strange musical instrument in it -- a saxophone. She said I could keep it, so I took it home and began to play with it until finally I could get it to make a musical sound; then my family began to pay for my lessons -- $2.50 a week. When I dropped out of the university to go and study in France, my family told me, 'You're crazy,' but I stuck with it."