The saxophone, on a more serious note
Many of today's symphony orchestra instruments have been around for centuries. The violin, for instance, dates to the 1500s and as a result has an enormous repertoire spanning 450 years. The saxophone, by contrast, wasn't invented until the mid-19th century, so it missed the Baroque and Classical periods entirely and, because it was known at first only in France, much of the Romantic era as well.

The saxophone is emphatically an orchestral instrument. Ravel's insinuating, repetitive "Bolero" is unthinkable without it. So is the achingly expressive portrayal of young love in Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." Puccini, who used two saxophones in the orchestrations of his last opera, "Turandot," is said to have considered the sound of the saxophone the closest of any instrument's to the human voice. Others hear in it the same soulfulness conveyed by the cello.

But then there was W.C. Fields, who supposedly observed that "the definition of a gentleman is a man who can play the saxophone but doesn't."

That crack points to classical saxophonists' plight: Most people probably think of the instrument in terms not of classical music but of jazz. The saxophone, after all, was the domain of such revered 20th century innovators as Charlie Parker -- "Bird" -- and John Coltrane.

FOR THE RECORD: An article about the saxophone Sunday characterized the tuba as a woodwind instrument made of brass; the tuba is a member of the brass family. Also, a quotation in the story identified Jacques Ibert's "Concertino da Camera" as dating from 1913; it premiered in 1935.

Even Douglas Masek, one of the most in-demand classical players in Los Angeles, says that after he took up the sax as a 10-year-old, he was "listening to big band music and thought that was the way the instrument was supposed to sound. Then I heard a recording of the German saxophone virtuoso Sigurd Rascher. 'This is unbelievable,' I thought. 'Nobody plays saxophone like this.' "

Jim Rotter, another distinguished local player, tells a similar story: "I had been interested in jazz growing up because that's what I first heard -- big band, then bebop, players like Bird and Coltrane. Classical music really fascinated me, but I didn't know the saxophone could do that.

"Then my high school band teacher gave me recordings of Sigurd Rascher and the Frenchman Marcel Mule, who was a concertizing saxophonist and Herbert von Karajan's saxophonist with the Berlin Philharmonic when a saxophonist was needed. I heard that instrument sing -- just like an opera singer," he says.

Like the tuba, the saxophone is a woodwind instrument made of brass. It was invented in the 1840s by the Belgian Adolphe Sax for military bands and orchestral use.

"Adolphe," as Masek calls him, "was going for a new instrument that would bridge the gap between the brass and woodwind sections. He came up with this instrument made of brass and thought he would try to put a mouthpiece on it, with a reed. He actually envisioned a saxophone section in the orchestra." In fact, there are six members of the saxophone family, though orchestral music is written primarily for soprano, alto and tenor.

Sax was an ambitious, brilliant man who had a knack for making friends and enemies alike. He improved a number of instruments, in particular the clarinet, and made the formerly unreliable bass clarinet into a standard component of the orchestra's woodwind section.

He obtained 35 patents, including one for a weapon intended to level cities -- he called it the Saxocannon -- and another for a fumigation box that interested Louis Pasteur. He was also a fine musician and the first saxophone instructor at the Paris Conservatory.

Somehow, though, the saxophone failed to cause the stir he had anticipated. Composer Hector Berlioz was a friend of Sax and a powerful proponent of the new instrument, but even he hardly wrote for it. Gary Foster, a veteran Los Angeles player who glides effortlessly between orchestral jobs and jazz gigs, speculates that the composers of Sax's day and later may have had an "aversion" to the saxophone.

"Why else would so many composers famous for broadening the orchestra, like Stravinsky, not include it?" Foster asks. "Why didn't Stravinsky include the saxophone in the "Ragtime" section of his 'L'Histoire du Soldat'?" Stravinsky's alleged response when fellow composer Ingolf Dahl told him in 1949 that he was writing a saxophone concerto seems to bear this out: "Oh, that's nice. But the saxophone has always reminded me of a slimy, pink worm."

Some composers may have been ambivalent. Rotter recalls playing Lukas Foss' "Baroque Variations" a few years ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Foss conducting. "We were rehearsing and we came to the big solo, and I played it and everybody shuffled their feet" -- the musicians' sign of appreciation for a fellow player -- "and Lukas stops, peers over the orchestra and says, 'What instrument is that?' I held it up and said, 'It's a soprano saxophone, maestro.' 'No, it's not. It's not crass and ugly enough.' So the next time 'round I just crassed and uglied the best I was capable of -- and he got this big smile on his face."

Masek, who campaigns to get first-rate new music commissioned for his instrument, thinks certain composers may have ignored the saxophone simply because of "the lack of first-rate players." After Sax died in 1894, it wasn't until Rascher and Mule came on the scene in the 1930s that composers began writing for the saxophone in earnest.

In a bibliography of the instrument compiled by a student of Mule's, French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix, 14,000 works are listed, more than for any other woodwind instrument. But Londeix acknowledged to Rotter: "Maybe 1% or 2% are worth playing. And how many of those are masterpieces? Oh ... I don't want to even guess."

Filling in the performance gaps

According to Masek, "there is no orchestra in the world that employs a full-time saxophonist." So how do these rare beasts, classical saxophonists, stay alive? Between them, Masek and Rotter play for virtually every resident and visiting orchestra in the Southland.