Rob Wilkerson, saxophone

Q+A with Rob Wilkerson

Co-Artistic Director Matt Aubin sat down with Rob Wilkerson for a conversation about his upcoming performance of Fernande Breilh-Decruck's Sonata for Saxophone in C-sharp minor. Get to know this oft-overlooked composer, Rob, and Matt and hear the piece this Friday, January 29!

M: Tell us a little bit about yourself:
R: I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and completed my undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico. I began playing saxophone in 4th grade and became more serious in high school, playing both classical and jazz. Halfway through my undergraduate studies, Carrie Koffman became the saxophone professor at UNM and emphasized the importance of taking both classical and jazz as seriously as possible. My goal was to be a legitimate player in either style. In order to do this, you have to really put in the time to understand each style completely. You have to spend a lot of time listening and playing with other musicians. This can be a challenge as a saxophonist because there are a limited amount of classical/orchestral opportunities outside of the academic world. Virtually all of the professional classical saxophone players are teaching at a university.

After undergrad, I went to the University of North Texas for graduate school. I was a jazz major, but I also served as a teaching assistant for the classical saxophone studio. While at UNT I played in the One O’Clock lab band, the top ensemble in the jazz department and met a lot of friends that I still play with today. After completing my masters, I taught for one-year at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Upon completing my one-year contract, my wife and I decided that it was "now or never" and we decided to move to New York City.

After freelancing in NYC for four years I was recommended by some friends for Michael Bublé's band. I guess things worked out and I joined and toured for 10 years and literally saw the world. It was a very special experience that I'm still processing in many ways. The accommodations were always great, but there often wasn’t a lot of time to sight-see. It was generally 6 weeks on tour with 3 weeks off, only staying in most cities for one night. Bublé was and is a friend and truly is a unique talent. A lot of us on tour, including Michael, were approximately the same age, so we all had an abundance of "guy time" hanging out. Although I enjoyed my time there, I was approaching my 40th birthday and feeling like there were other things in music that I wanted to accomplish, so I made the difficult decision to leave.

Since leaving the tour, I’ve been fortunate to play with, among other groups, The Chelsea Symphony and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society which allow me to do the two things that I really wanted to do artistically, play classical saxophone and jazz again. Ideally, I want to achieve a balance between jazz, orchestral and being a professional sideman in New York. I'm also looking forward to sharing my diverse professional experiences through teaching.

M: How long have you been in NYC?
R: 15 years this summer.

M: When was your first TCS concert?
R: Three years ago at Symphony Space. I played Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town.

M: What brought you to the group?
R: Carrie Koffman, who had been a colleague of Matt Aubin’s when he was an adjunct professor at The Hartt School, recommended me.

M: Why do you like coming back?
R: The orchestra is great and the atmosphere is fantastic. Everyone is friendly and they play at a high level. I feel lucky that there’s been a wide array of repertoire that I’ve had a chance to perform. The arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by Yaniv Segal and the Collaboration with the Musical Theatre Factory this season stand out.

M: Where would you like to see the group go?
It would be great for us to get more exposure. The more people that hear the orchestra, the larger our audience will be and the more support we will get. I like that we’ve performed in different performance spaces. It feels a little more like each concert is a special event. So onward and upward as they say!

M: I suggested the Decruck Sonata since it is rarely performed in its orchestrated version. Why did you agree to perform it with TCS?
R: I was already thinking about some other French concerti, but I had never played the Decruck and didn’t know it. I believe that it has become more of a standard repertoire piece with the abundance of recordings produced recently. Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera is performed often—in fact I’ve performed it twice with orchestras. However, the opportunity to try something new was very attractive. After listening to the Decruck, I fell in love with it. Performing it with Chelsea is truly a dream.

M: This is a long question, with a little bit of historical context, but here goes: Decruck, a French composer, wrote many works for saxophone when she was in the US . She came to the US in the late 1920’s with her husband Maurice, who was a bass player. Maurice had been hired to perform with the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini. Toscanini eventually programmed some “new” repertoire that included saxophone. He asked the orchestra if anyone knew of a good saxophone player. Maurice, who had played jazz clarinet and saxophone in the clubs of Paris during the 1920’s, volunteered and became both bassist and principal saxophone for the New York Philharmonic. This is probably the main reason that many of Fernande’s early works are for saxophone. Here’s my 3-part question.

M: 1) Do you think that Sonata has American musical elements in it?
R: I do. French composers of that time played with syncopation, which was a nod to jazz. Many parts of the Sonata, especially in the first movement, show an interesting use of syncopation. Some of her orchestration choices seem more American to me, especially how she uses multiple voices in succession to carry a melodic line.

M: Do you think that the saxophone part is written idiomatically?
R: I do. I think that it’s written right in Marcel Mule’s wheelhouse. It showcases his range and technical ability. The Sonata uses the full range from the bottom to the top of the saxophone's standard range. At the time of the Sonata, altissimo (extreme high notes) was not widely being used.

M: Do you know any of Decruck’s early saxophone works?
R: I don’t, but I’d like to.

M: Decruck's family says that she loved Bach, Brahms and Debussy. How would you describe Decruck’s compositional voice or style?
R: Those all make a lot of sense to me. I hear all of that. I especially hear the Bach structure in the more pattern oriented passages in the 1st and 3rd movements. Those spots are not just running arpeggios, there’s a melodic beauty to the way they’ve been put together. There’s a large Brahms and Debussy rhapsodic element that I hear throughout. It’s a very moody, moving piece. I think this comes out even more with this orchestra version. I feel like the orchestra gives her more opportunity to be expressive. There’s so much more color to her orchestration.

For more about Rob Wilkerson, visit www.robwilkerson.com.

For more about Fernande Breilh-Decruck, visit www.fernandedecruck.com.