Saxophonist  Frederick  Hemke

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Frederick Hemke was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 11, 1935. In 1956 he became the first American to receive the Premier Prix du Saxophone from the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris. Hemke earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a master's in music education from the Eastman School of Music, and a doctor of music degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hemke joined the Northwestern faculty in 1962 and was named the Louis and Elsie Snydacker Eckstein Professor of Music. He chaired the Department of Music Performance Studies until 1994 and served as senior associate dean for administration. After 50 years of teaching, Hemke retired from the Bienen School of Music in 2012 and was named professor emeritus. His career was celebrated in June 2012 with a Saxophone Orchestra Monster Concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, featuring some of the world’s premier saxophonists, many of them his former students. Most recently, Hemke presented a master class for the Northwestern University Saxophone Studio in November 2018.

An internationally recognized saxophonist, Hemke performed and presented master classes and lectures throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, New Zealand Philharmonic Orchestra, and Korea Philharmonic Orchestra. Having appeared on many occasions as an invited soloist for the World Saxophone Congress, he also coordinated the event when it was held at Northwestern in 1979. He served as an adjudicator for numerous national and international competitions, and was a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris, the Sweelinck Conservatory of Music in Amsterdam, the Basel Conservatory of Music in Switzerland, and several U.S. universities.

His recordings include solo albums, chamber music, and six recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. As editor for the Southern Music Company, he served as a consultant for the Selmer Company and the La Voz Corporation, which manufactures the Frederick Hemke Premium Reed.

Hemke received many honors during his distinguished career. In 2004 he was named a Northwestern University Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence. Other honors include the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Excellence in Teaching Award, the Bienen School’s Professor of the Year award (1987, 1989, and 2002), and the Kappa Kappa Psi Distinguished Service to Music Award. He died on April 17, 2019, at age 83.

Hemke is survived by his wife Junita Borg Hemke, daughter Elizabeth Hemke Shapiro (Nicholas), son Frederic John Borg Hemke (Rachel), and grandchildren Daniel, Martin, Charlotte, and Peter. A Celebration of Life was held on Sunday, June 2, 2019, from 1:30-2:30 p.m. at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, IL 60208

==  From the Northwestern University Website  


hemke On the same day that I interviewed composer Frank Ferko (April 20, 2000), I subsequently had this conversation with saxophonist Fredrick Hemke (pronounced HEHM-kee).  It is perhaps significant that they were with Northwestern University, my own alma mater.  Editing both in August of 2020, I am not sure I would have remembered that detail from twenty years previous, except that I began by thanking each one for coming to my home-studio, and asking about the effects of the weather on their musical output . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you for coming out on a rainy day.  Does a rainy day affect your performance on the saxophone at all?

Frederick Hemke:   Not a bit.  Perhaps it might affect the reed.  In this kind of climate, you become used to wide variances of climatic conditions, so it’s part of the game.

BD:   Has air conditioning helped or hindered that process?

Hemke:   [Laughs] Today, it doesn’t make much difference.  I have a signature reed which is guaranteed to play perfectly in all conditions.  [Laughs]  That’s what I told my students, at least.

BD:   You don’t ever use plastic reeds?

Hemke:   No.  No.  No, that’s revolting.

BD:   Do you whittle on your reeds, or take what comes in the box?

Hemke:   For many years, I used to whittle on reeds, but I’ve given that up as a waste of effort.  So, now I just take them out of the boxes they come in.  If they don’t work, I give them the traditional wall test.

BD:   Throw them at the wall and see if they stick???

Hemke:   [Laughs again]  Yes, right.  Not to see if they stick, but you run them against the wall, and if they collapse, then you know it’s a bad reed.

BD:   You don’t pass it along to your beginning students?

Hemke:   No, that would be unfair.

BD:   Perhaps a reed that wouldn’t work for you as a strong experienced player might work for someone who is just developing an embouchure.

Hemke:   No.  Reeds are graded by size, and beginning kids usually use a softer reed for a very limited amount of time.  After a few months of playing, they will develop just about the same strength reed that I use right now.  The more years that you’ve experienced in playing doesn’t mean that the reed becomes harder.  You arrive at a point when you use a medium cut reed.  That works for most beginners that have played beyond just a couple of months, as well as the best players.

BD:   So, the embouchure doesn’t get so much stronger that it takes more resistance to control it?

Hemke:   The embouchure generally becomes a stronger muscle to be sure, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a reed’s strength.  In fact, you want to avoid that because inevitably, too much pressure on the reed causes the sound to become very, very thin and nasal.

BD:   I assume that you spend much of your time developing the pure sound of the saxophone?

Hemke:   What I do is spend most of my time developing the ears of a student.

hemke BD:   Well come back to students in a minute, but in your own playing, it’s the development of the pure sound, is it not?

Hemke:   Of course.  The essence of any musical instrument is a sound and the sound it creates.  Because of my own background and my own training, I have a sound in my ear, and regardless of what the reed is or the mouthpiece is, or whatever, I’m going to try to emulate that kind of a sound that’s in my ear.

BD:   It’s maybe more of a difference to a violinist, but do you use different saxophonesdifferent alto saxophones, or different tenor saxophonesto get different sounds, or to put different ideas across?

Hemke:   Sure.  It’s really not that different.  We don’t have any Stradivarius saxophones, but there are better manufacturers of the instrument.

BD:   Are there any Adolphe Sax saxophones left?

Hemke:   There are.  I’ve played quite a few of them, and the sound is not basically different from today’s contemporary instruments.  Their sound is, perhaps, a little bit darker in quality, but if you talk about darkness and lightness and brightness in sound, it’s always difficult.  What strikes me in playing an Adolphe Sax saxophone is just because of the bore size itself, it seems to be a little bit darker in quality than the contemporary saxophone.  You can definitely sense a difference of sound between one manufacturer and another, depending upon the equipment that you use
meaning the mouthpiece, and the reed in particular.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   During your career, you’ve seen the development of the saxophone from being mostly just a swing band instrument to being a real concert instrument.  Have you helped in this development, and are you pleased with where it’s going as far as concert music audiences?

Hemke:   I would like to think I’ve helped in that development.  When I was a kid, back in the 40s, you could find precious little recognition of the saxophone other than swing or jazz.  Believe me, I find nothing wrong with that at all.  I’m a great lover of jazz, but there was not another side to the saxophone.  It was just that alone.  I knew only a few individuals who attempted to do something other than that on their instrument.  One was Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001) here in United States, and the other was Marcel Mule (1901-2001), who I eventually studied with in France.  What I have seen over the years is a tremendous interest by contemporary composers to include the sound of the saxophone in both solo writing, and in chamber writing in particular.  What I sense is a continual of progression of good music being written for the saxophone, and that’s very, very helpful and very fruitful for all of us.  Beyond that, jazz has continued to flourish, and the saxophone along with it, and I like both sides of it.  I like saxophone as an instrument of jazz because it’s such an expressive instrument, and also on the concert side of it.  With the tremendous amount of literature that is now written for the saxophone, it’s a very, very exciting time.

BD:   When and why did you decide to go the concert route rather than the jazz route?

Hemke:   All through high school and college, I did a lot of jazz.  I had my own bands, as a matter of fact.  But, I came to the realization that I was never going to be the kind of jazz player that I would really want to have been.  I’ve listened to too many great jazz artists to know that it was not me.  I just couldn’t do that with the kind of jazz perfection that is possible to attain.  On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed concert music, classical music, and that was just my bent.  I just love that direction, and I made a really conscious decision to do that.

BD:   Does it please you that you were perhaps one of the pioneers in getting saxophone music into the concert hall?

Hemke:   I hate to even think of myself as a pioneer, but in reality that’s probably true, because when I began teaching saxophone, there were few universities that taught saxophone at all.  As a matter of fact, Northwestern University was the very first institution, and it was a gentleman whom I didn’t mention along with Mule and Raschèr, and that was Cecil Leeson (1902-1989).  Cecil was also was innovator in his day, and he wrote a lot of saxophone music himself.  He also commissioned a lot of really well-known composers at the time including Paul Creston, and Jaromír Weinberger, and a number of others.  [An interesting story of the Weinberger Saxophone Concerto, which was comissioned by Leeson, is in the box at the bottom of this webpage.]  Cecil taught at Northwestern, but just part-time.  Then, a few years after he started at Northwestern, a really fine and wonderful teacher by the name of Larry Teal (1905-1984) taught part-time at the University of Michigan.  Those two institutions were really the only places in the United States that taught it at all.

BD:   So, anyone who wanted to study sax as a concert instrument had to go there?

Hemke:   Absolutely.

BD:   Now, it’s proliferated to where it’s in most music departments,

Hemke:   At almost every one, they teach saxophone.  I have my own sons and daughters around the United States and in Europe at this time, because I’ve taught for so many years now.  I just got back from this weekend at Arizona State University, where one of my former students is the professor of saxophone.  I had a chance to listen to his students, so they’re my grandchildren.  It was great.  I sat down at the University of Houston before that, and had exactly the same experience.  So, I really feel like the old man in this, but it’s wonderful to see that kind of young talent.  The kids can play so well, and so musically.  It’s great.

hemke BD:   Does all this proliferation of saxophone in the concert repertoire surprise you at all?

Hemke:   I’ve always said that a day without sax is like a day without sunshine.  [Laughs]  So, this proliferation is very, very healthy.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that it gets to be too many players?

Hemke:   Oh, I suspect that’s true, but in the musical world, are there too many pianists, are there too many clarinetists, are there too many anything?  Eventually, in the world of music it filters through, and the cream rises to the top.  Eventually, those musicians on any instrument, voice included, who are good, but not really good, will eventually filter out.  So, no, you can never have too many saxophones.

BD:   What do you look for when a youngster comes to Northwestern wants to be a sax major?

Hemke:   What I look for is an ability to say something musically.  Forget the saxophone.  I’ve always considered saxophone to be a beautiful tool like a gold-plated hammer.  It is a marvelous instrument for self-expression, be it in jazz or in concert, the music doesn’t make any difference.  So, when a youngster comes and performs, I’m really not interested to see how fast or how loud the person can play, but are they able to see something musically?  Are they able to express themselves in a way that they can’t even do with words?  For all of us that are musicians and artists, it’s always difficult to relate what we feel in words.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But is this not what they’re coming to you to learn to do?

Hemke:   Absolutely, but I cannot, nor can any teacher, endow a student, a young person with talent.  Quite frankly, they either have it or they don’t.  I can take raw talent and be able to really exploit that, and make them grow into something that’s unique in themselves.

BD:   You’re looking more for potential?

Hemke:   Absolutely.  Yes.

BD:   You don’t have to be specific, but are there ever times when someone comes to you and their talent’s already developed, and there’s really not much more you can do?

Hemke:   No.  I have never found a student that couldn’t use some help
even another set of ears if nothing else, or someone to confirm what they’re doing is really the right track.  Nobodynot even an artistis able to say that they know everything about music.  Even artists will go to other teachers and say that they need more ears, that they want to hear what the teacher is thinking about the way he’s producing his sound, or what he’s seeing musically.  We’re all basically insecure as artists, and we need other people to reinforce us regardless of age, whether its a young kid or an old timer.

BD:   Do you still seek out other ears and other opinions?

Hemke:   Absolutely, you bet, including my wife’s.  She’s got good ears.

BD:   Do you ever seek out the advice of your students?

Hemke:   Yes, sure.  In fact, one of the greatest learning experiences for any teacher is learning from their students.  We don’t always admit that, but it happens all of the time.  Just about the time you think you have everything figured out, and you know exactly how a work should be interpreted, a young kid with a lot of potential comes up and does it just a little bit differently, and you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?  That’s really a wonderful idea.”  Yes, you learn all the time from kids.  It’s one of the great things that keeps you alive and well in a teaching situation
constantly being challenged by kids who have new and fresh ideas, as well as different ways of looking at little problems.

BD:   So, you continually grow?

Hemke:   I hope so.  I really hope so.  I would hate to think of any art
especially musicas being a form of expression that ends at any particular point.  It’s constantly evolving, constantly moving, and unless you’re part of that, you’re dead.

BD:   What about not necessarily ending, but maybe plateauing?

Hemke:   Oh, sure.  It can plateau, but you hope that the plateaus don’t last too long.  That can lead one to boredom, or make one feel grudgingly to teach.  Teaching is so exciting, just because of the constant evolution of new ideas, and new kids being presented to you that I don’t think you want to stay on the plateau too long if you could possibly avoid it.  I certainly avoid it at all costs.  I always look for something new to propel us forward.

BD:   You’re always glad when it comes in an unexpected place?

Hemke:   Always, and it usually does.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We talk about playing the saxophone, and it’s not just one instrument, but a whole family of instruments.  I assume that you are knowledgeable and proficient on the entire family?

Hemke:   Oh, sure.  They are all completely similar.  There are minor differences of embouchure, but they’re all basically the same.  The family consists of a wide range of instruments, from a sopranino down to the contrabass.  Okay, very seldome have I played sopranino saxophone in my career.  It almost never occurred.  There was a meeting of the saxophones in Tucson, Arizona last month and I was asked to prepare a new concerto for saxophone and orchestra by the Chinese composer, Zhou Long.  He and I corresponded over the telephone, and he had some idea of how he was going to write for the instrument.  I had some idea through his recordings of what to expect, and what I could ask of him.  It took a long time for him to compose the piece.  He had never written for saxophone before, and I started to get it in bits and pieces via fax.

hemke BD:    A few measures here and a few measures there???

Hemke:   Right, and eventually a movement at a time.  It was a three-movement work, and the first section to arrive was the second movement for alto saxophone, which is my major instrument.  I thought, “Well, this is good.”  It was a lovely lyrical movement.  Shortly after that came the first movement, which was for soprano saxophone.  I have played soprano saxophone in saxophone quartet, so I’m thought, “This is interesting
first movement, soprano, and second movement, alto.”  A few weeks before the occasion, the last movement came for sopranino saxophone, and I thought, “How in the world am I going to make this thing really work?  Soprano first, alto second, and sopranino which I never played.”

BD:   I just assumed he would continue down go to tenor!

Hemke:   That’s what you would think, but no, that wasn’t the case.  The last one was for sopranino saxophone.  So, I talked to him about it, and he said, “That’s the sound I want.  I want that a kind of bright, blatant style.”  So, I picked up the sopranino, and found that it really wasn’t that much different from the alto or the soprano, or the tenor.  They all have a family, and it’s just a question of getting my embouchure.  I used it with a very, very small, tiny little mouthpiece.  But it was fun, and I really enjoyed it.

BD:   In general, what advice do you have for composers these days who want to write for saxophone?

Hemke:   First of all, write for the saxophone regardless of which one it is.  The main body of literature for the instrument is for alto.  There is not too much for baritone.  The next probably would be the soprano or the tenor.  The soprano is used because it’s in saxophone quartets.  You find a lot of composers write for saxophone quartet, and more recently they write for soprano in a solo context.  The Villa-Lobos Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra harks back several years, to the
30s and 40s, and sort of led the way.  You’ve got a lot of other composers that pick it up as well.  The tenor saxophone is used probably because it’s been so popular in jazz, so a lot of composers have that kind of a sound in their ears.  But, most write for alto.  I wouldn’t dictate which instrument they should write for, just write for the bloody instrument!

BD:   Beyond which instrument to select, do you have any suggestions on how to go about getting good saxophone material on the paper, or is that simply left to the composer?

Hemke:   You always try to work with a composer yourself, so that he or she understands what you’re able to do as a performer.  One of the characteristics of a saxophonist has always has been our willingness to participate in the production of contemporary music.   That’s probably because we don’t have Beethoven and Brahms that we can go back to.  The saxophone was invented in 1838, which makes it a relatively late bloomer on the field.  You have some orchestral works
Pictures at an Exhibition and LArlésienne Suitesbut the majority of what they play is by contemporary composers.  You have to work with the composer, and we are the kind of being that says, “You’re going to write something for the saxophone?  I’d love to play it.”  The composer, on the other hand, asks what we can do, so we have said, “We can play way, way beyond the notated range of the saxophone, and we can play more than one note at a time.  We can play very, very soft, or we can play very, very loud.  We can go like blazes because the technique of the saxophone permits it.”  [Laughs]  Well, that’s what they write, and inevitably you have to be able to play it.

BD:   Are they writing technical exercises, or are they writing beautiful lines?

Hemke:   What composers ultimately write is a consequence of who they are, and their worth as composers.  In any age, you have to be able to trust the composer to write what he or she will, and let posterity determine whether it’s great music or not.  There are composers that write some very, very beautiful lyrical melodies and lyrical lines, depending upon the school that they came from.  Lots of them are impressed by the fact that the saxophone is very, very technical, so they write all kinds of technical works.  The French have been guilty of that for years.  The French revel in seeing how fast you can play, whether it’s on clarinet, flute, saxophone, or any of the woodwinds.  They just love to see how fast you can play.  There’s been a trend, recently, towards neo-romanticism, as going away from strictly twelve-tone form of serial music, even in some of the revised serial composers, like Bill Karlins here at Northwestern, for example.  He’s a really romantic kind of a composer, and he’s got great melodies to work with.  I see more and more of that for the saxophone.  To me, it’s always been interesting that there is more music written for the concert saxophone than for any other wind instrument.  We have a huge repertoire of music.  Not all of it is great, but there’s a huge body of repertoire.

BD:   Do the transcriptions of Bach and Handel work at all, or should they just be ignored?

Hemke:   Oh, no, they work, and as a pedagogical tool, they work very well.  Believe it or not, last night I just got through doing an arrangement of the Korngold Cello Concerto for alto saxophone.

BD:   [Surprised]  I would think that would better on tenor.

Hemke:   It works very well on alto, but that’s because it’s my instrument.  I did an arrangement of the Grieg First Violin Sonata, and that works very well, also.  I love doing transcriptions.  It gives a pleasant break from all of the avant-garde stuff, and the new stuff that you are really obliged to play.  So, there is a place for it.  Pedagogically, Bach, why not?  Or Schumman, or Schubert, whomever.  Yes, we use it all.  The main thing is that saxophonists are trained to be musicians, not saxophonists.  What we try to do as teachers is to allow them to express themselves musically.  If they were fortunate enough to pick the saxophone because it’s such a beautiful instrument, more power to them.  But I’ve always felt that I would probably be as good a teacher on clarinet, or flute, or whatever other instrument it might be.  I happen to know the saxophone...

BD:   ...but, you also know music!

Hemke:   Yes, absolutely.

BD:   So, the difference between teaching saxophone, or clarinet, or flute is just the finger technique?

Hemke:   It’s just the finger technique.  Absolutely, that’s true.

*     *     *     *     *

hemke BD:   Let’s talk just a little bit about music.  I’ll start with the real easy question...  What’s the purpose of music?

Hemke:   What is the purpose of art?  If you’ll include music in the greater context of Art, you recognize that there is a need in all of us to transcend words.  This is my own feeling, mind you, but something happens when I’m able to express myself in music.  I paint, also, and one of my art pieces hung in the Art Institute of Chicago for about four years.  [Laughs]  That’s because my daughter works down there, and it was in her office!

BD:   [Laughs]  It came in through the side door!

Hemke:   Yes, it came in the side door, went out the back door.  [More laughter]  But, if I were to rely on words alone, I would be in real trouble.  I’m not a poet, and God bless people that are able to use words in a way that they can express themselves as a poet does.  For me, it’s always difficult, very, very difficult to say what I really want to say in words.  But, when it comes to music or art of any kind, I really have a freedom.  So, for me, what is the purpose of music?  It’s a means of saying who I am on the inside.  It means an ability to transcend words, to form a line of communication with another individual that’s non-verbal, and that, for me, is the value of any art form.

BD:   Is this what you want to do
stand up on the stage and show everyone what is inside of you?

Hemke:   I think it’s absolutely obligatory.  There’s no way around it.  We are all actors and actresses when we arrive on stage, and we have to be prepared to allow the listening audience, the looking audience, to see who we are on the inside.  For me, that’s really important, and there is a value to entertaining as well.  There’s an entertainment value, but I wouldn’t ever want to claim that entertainment was the true value of music or of art.  Certainly, there is that value, but in essence, what we want to try to do is make the audience, the listener, also creative.  You can also touch a listener, and have him or her sense nothing in particular.  When you hear the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to think of brooks and meadows.  But, if they’re able to have a feeling, a really good feeling about what they hear, then a real communication happens between the audience and the artist.  Any good artist can have that ability to draw in the audience to you, and that’s what I constantly strive for.  I am trying to say who I am on the inside, and let the audience feel who they are on the inside.

BD:   How much of this performance is you showing you, and how much is you showing the composer?

Hemke:   In any kind of performance, especially music performance, we are, in fact, re-creators.  The first obligation that we have as teachers is to  have the students understand what it was that the composer wanted to say.  So, you need to know as much as you can about the composer’s background, and the school of composition that he or she came from, and as much as you possibly can about the times in which they lived, and the social atmosphere.  There are all kinds of things that infringe upon how you interpret music.  You need to have an understanding of what the composer wanted, and that sometimes takes an awful lot of background digging in order to find out.  Once you do that, then you have your own personality to impose on them.  Yes, I’m a re-creator artist, but what I’m doing is simply taking somebody else’s material and using it to show who I am.   So, yes, we’re re-creators, but there’s a very creative process that’s involved in presenting music as well.

BD:   Do you ever find that the composer’s notation is such that you’re in a straightjacket?

Hemke:   Yes, but, then what we try to do as performers is to get out of the straightjacket and just ignore the feeling of confinement.  If it becomes so binding that you can say nothing, you have two choices.  You either reject the music completely, and say you can’t do anything with it, or you impose your own interpretation as much as you possibly can to make it work for you.

BD:   You can’t just simply play exactly what they’ve written, whether you like it or not?

Hemke:   You look at it, sure.  Look at the music of Alban Berg, for instance.  Every single note has got its own dynamic, for crying out loud!  Every note has a natural, or a flat.  He wanted to make absolutely no mistake about it.  Even Bach gave some specific instructions.  If you take a look at the early Baroque works, there was a tremendous amount of freedom given to performers, but Bach got a little tired of that complete freedom.

BD:   So, he reined them in a little bit?

Hemke:   Yes, he reined them in, absolutely.  There’s a long history, but we, as performers, like to take over.  We want to say that it’s our music, so there is an obligation to find out about the composer, and what the composer’s intent is, and if the composer is so vague, or so demanding that you can’t do anything with it.  Sometimes it’s very difficult, but it’s not to say that you can’t do exactly what is wanted.  You can, but then you might run the risk of leaving yourself out of it.  You can have a tape recorder, or an electronic instrument manufacture that same performance, but the human element of who we are on the inside is very important to us as performers, and I would hope to the listening audience as well.

BD:   Are saxophone players perhaps more at an advantage because they work so many times with the living composers, whereas violinists will spend a lot of time with composers who are long gone?

Hemke:   Yes.  String players have a tremendous tradition behind them, and in a great sense, they rely upon that tradition.  We don’t have that in saxophone.

BD:   Are you establishing that?

Hemke:   Yes, sure, we are indeed.  As I said, I have children and grandchildren off in the field as well.

BD:   But, you often get to work with all these composers more often.

Hemke:   That’s correct, and that that kind of relationship allows us the kind of freedom that we need in order to do exactly as they’ve indicated.

[At this point we stopped to take care of a few technical details, and I asked his birthdate.]

BD:   Are you where you want to be at this age?

Hemke:   A profound question.  When I was young, believe it or not, I thought, “Now, take it easy.  Don’t get yourself in a situation where you peak your talent too quickly.”  Now, as I got older, I think retrospectively that I waited too long.  [Laughs]  No, I think I am where I want to be.  I love being a teacher, I love being a performer.  I love making music.  I do a lot of administrative work besides, and that allows me to provide some leadership in pedagogy.  I really enjoy all of it.  I don’t think I would be any other place except where I am right now in terms of career.

hemke BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of (a) music, and (b) the saxophone?

Hemke:   Yes.  You have to always be optimistic.  From what I have seen of the young people that are interested in music, and in proliferating their talents among others, I’m very optimistic.  After I’m long gone, the trend will certainly continue, and that’s what you really hope will be the case
that the younger people will pick up.  In a wonderful sense, I have now found a new level of young students that can pick up where I have come from.  They don’t have to start from the early times when there was nothing there at all.  They can start with their own tradition, as well as a tradition behind them.  In that sense, I’m part of that tradition, so that makes me feel really happy, and in that sense, I’m very optimistic about where the instrument is going to go.  As to where it is going to go, I haven’t the foggiest idea.  As musicians, the only thing we can do is continually encourage composers to write, and continue to perform their music so that other people can hear it.  We can also continue to be on the leading edge, rather than being on the library edge where we’re constantly doing older works.  There’s nothing wrong with being a repository for the old, but unless we’re at the cutting edge and moving ahead, you run the risk of becoming dormant, becoming flat, becoming dead.

BD:   Does that make you schizophrenic trying to do both the old and the new?

Hemke:   No, the two of them work together very nicely.  I’m not growing old, I’m growing young.  The realities of the physical being are one thing, but I don’t feel I’m growing old.  I recognize that I am, and I know I am, but I’m not.

BD:   I understand.  Thank you for spending so much time at Northwestern, and for giving so much to all these students who have come, and will continue to come.

Hemke:   What they have given me over the years is much more profound than what I have given them, I assure you of that.

BD:   [Suddenly deciding to ask one more question]  Let me ask perhaps a strange question.  I ask this of pianists sometimes, but I don’t know how this works with wind instruments.  When you’re out there playing saxophone, do you always have the instrument in your hand, or is there a time when it becomes just a part of you?

Hemke:   I have often found in performance that I step away from whoever is out there, and I suddenly find myself looking at this person on the stage and wondering who is out there.  You do step away from it.  It becomes so much a part of you that it just becomes part of the whole image of what’s going on, on the stage.  It’s a very strange sensation to be able to all of sudden step away from yourself, and just hear and see what’s going on.  I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really does happen.  You become so involved in the instrument and you being one, that it just sort of moves beyond who you are as a person.  Again, I’m hindered by my words.  I’d rather perform it and have it happen.

BD:   I’m glad you still enjoy performing.

Hemke:   Oh, absolutely.  The hardest part about remaining young and becoming old is that you recognize you’re going to have to give it up.  There’s nothing worse than an old performer who continues to hang on and declines in their abilities and in their presentation.  It also deprives young people of an opportunity to do what you’ve done.  It’s an awesome thought to consider that one of these days I will not be able to say what I want to say with music, and that I will have to rely strictly on words.

BD:   [Being eternally optimistic]  Partly, though, you’ll also rely on those you’ve taught, your children and grandchildren.

Hemke:   Yes, I would agree.  I live vicariously through these people, through these kids.

BD:   I’m glad that they’re making you proud.

Hemke:   Oh, I’m very proud of them.  That’s a real joy, believe me.

BD:    Good.  I wish you lots of continued success.

Hemke:   Thank you very much, Bruce.  Pleasure talking with you.

New Haven Symphony Orchestra fetes noted composer and sax professor

PublishedDonna Doherty

NEW HAVEN >> The New Haven Symphony Orchestra will be shaking off the winter doldrums Thursday with Wind on the Water, a concert at 7:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall that might as well be called Celebration.

The symphony will honor its 2009-2011 Composer-in-Residence Augusta Read Thomas with a program of her works on the occasion of her 50th birthday, which is April 24.

And it will perform the world premiere of Thomas’ “Prisms of Light,” a 20-minute concerto for saxophone and orchestra commissioned by the past and present students of renowned saxophone professor Frederick L. Hemke to celebrate his retirement last May from Northwestern University.

Many of them are expected to be in New Haven to hear the Louis and Elsie Snydacker Eckstein Professor Emeritus of Music perform as guest soloist with the orchestra in the work, for which the Hemke Legacy Committee, working mainly through a letter campaign to alums, raised more than $25,000 to cover the commission fee and expenses.

“Instead of giving him a silver bowl, they wanted to give him something that would last, something that would honor him,” says Thomas.

Hemke’s lengthy list of former students includes many successful musicians and music educators, notably David Sanborn, “Saturday Night Live” saxman Ron Blake and players in most of the U.S. service academy bands.

Thomas says the birthday concert idea “was incredibly moving and touching, and I feel incredibly honored and privileged,” but the rest is the proverbial icing on the cake.

Shortly after the concert was planned more than a year ago, Thomas was contacted for the commission, which took about eight months to complete. It will be recorded at the concert for May release on the Nimbus label.


The marriage of the two occasions happened when symphony member flutist Marjorie Shansky, a former Hemke student, told NHSO Music Director William Boughton about the commission.

Boughton jumped on the opportunity, saying, “First of all, it was my love of Gusty’s music and admiration for her as a composer that made me want to do it. ... It’s an extraordinary gift. I’m delighted that the NHSO is part of the honoring of this extraordinary career ...”

Also on the program are Thomas’ other works, spawned from her love of poetry: two e.e. cummings poems, based on his delightful “sky candy spouting violets” and (“kiss me”), featuring the Elm City Girls’ Choir and soprano Tony Arnold for Thomas’ soulful 2007 work “Absolute Ocean,” based on three cummings poems, and finally, Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose.”

It’s easy to see why Thomas loves cummings. The word images he paints are so musical and colorful, pure honey for a composer like Thomas.

Describing her composing sensibility, she says they have “bright, capricious surfaces like sparklers ... very colorful. It’s not a dark brown, muddy puddle of music at all. You feel bright blues, warm purples and sunshine — definitely a lot of color in my orchestrations, and in every way I would say all optimistic — positive caprice, some whim, some sense of humor, some joy, not dark, contemplating or harrowing.”

Thomas felt the pressure of the commission, “knowing it was a legacy” and heeded the professor’s own advice by approaching “Prisms” as if it were a violin concerto to really showcase the instrument.

“Prisms of Light” is imbued with a jazzy feel she conveys over the phone by tinkling on a piano and vocally vocalizing some examples that sound like scat singing.

Light imagery resonates in all four movements, which incorporate a fast, slow, fast tempo mix of languorous, delicate ballad moments to a staccato back and forth between saxophone and orchestra, and a unique use of percussion with marimba, drums, xylophone and vibraphone — adding colors to the prism “to remain fresh,” she says.

It wasn’t a surprise that Hemke’s students gifted him with a new work, because when they asked him what he’d like as a gift, he said “a new concerto for saxophone and orchestra.” But, he says, “What was a complete surprise was the amount of money they were able to raise to get a major composer like Gusty doing a major work like this. It’s amazing.”

Hemke, who was acting dean when Thomas was on the Northwestern faculty, was quite familiar with Thomas’ talent.

“I knew the kind of writing that she did. It was very special to me that she would accept the commission. To tell the truth, I was interested in having a new work written for the instrument, but I didn’t intend to perform it.

But he was so touched that Thomas accepted the commission, that “I thought I’d take the horn out of the case and perform it,” noting that its range and speed are challenging.

“It’s going to be interesting for me, because Gusty writes in a very unique way. The concerto is really different than anything I’ve ever played before ... It has a hint of jazz, at least rhythmically.”

Says Thomas, “It’s been incredibly meaningful to me to work with this orchestra over the years ... You can’t imagine what it’s like as a composer when someone believes in you and has played your work over so many years. To say this is so moving is almost an understatement.”

Donna Doherty is the former arts editor of the New Haven Register.


See my interviews with Ross Lee Finney, Vincent Persichetti, Hale Smith, and John P. Paynter

From an account written by Tristan Willems, founding member of the Adolphe Saxquartette, and a student at Northwestern, what follows below is Cecil Leeson´s personal saga of the genesis of the Saxophone Concerto by Jaromír Weinberger.

Weinberger “had but recently taken up residence in New York [1939], where he had become, as befitted his international stature, the recipient of a quite considerable number of major orchestral performances, as well as composing commissions. One result of this rather sudden widespread popular exposure was the opportunity it gave me to become acquainted with his musical qualities, which I found to be most appealing, and this, together with the fact that he was now close at hand, made him the most logical choice for a solicitation on my part, of a major work, preferably a concerto for saxophone and orchestra.

My opportunity to ascertain whether or not he would be interested in doing such a piece for me came about through a chance meeting in the office of Boosey Hawkes-Belwin, with Dr. Hans Heinsheimer, formerly head of the opera department of Universal Editions, and like Mr. Weinberger, whom he knew very well, uprooted and newly arrived. Dr. Heinsheimer, who lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal, subsequently arranged an audition for me with Mr. Weinberger, at the conclusion of which he (Mr. Weinberger) expressed his willingness to write a saxophone concerto for me as soon as his previous commitments would permit him to do so. He then made (and I happily concurred with), what I felt to be a most sensible procedural suggestion, namely, that in view of the time element involved, which was important in different ways to both of us, he should first furnish me with the solo part plus piano accompaniment, with the instrumental score to be completed subsequently, and dependent on the arrangement of a suitable date for the premiere performance with orchestra.

The score for saxophone and piano was delivered to me on December 30, 1940. I did not anticipate any difficulty with the orchestral premiere; I studied and memorized the piece as was my custom in those days, and played it a number of times with piano, in order to have it thoroughly ready for what I looked forward to as the big moment. But I reckoned without our sudden and violent precipitation into World War II, and it was not until December 11, 1947 that the long hoped for world premiere came about. This event took place in Chicago, on the fifth program of the Temple Sholom Concert for Unity Series, with the Chicago Metropolitan Symphony conducted by Max Sinzheimer, former assistant to Sir Thomas Beecham, later, permanent conductor of the Mannheim (Germany) opera, and of course, I was the soloist.

The Concerto itself departs quite noticeably from the conventional format for this genre, "or example, the opening movement is not the familiar Allegro, but is instead, marked Andante Rubato. Beginning in a rather free, récitâtive-like style, it settles down as it goes along, however, continuing in a distinctly rhapsodic vein with innumerable florid and lace-like passages which serve to rescue it to a considerable extent, from any feeling that it is really a slow movement, although, it is the only one in the piece that might be so considered. Likewise, the second movement consists of a sparkling Scherzo, which is substituted for the usual Andante. It features two contrasting sections, a short cadenza, and a coda fashioned from second section material. The third movement is made up of a set of more or less consecutive variations on a march theme, which, interrupted for a time by an impressionistic interlude, resumes briefly, and ends with a short cadenza, leading to a coda constructed from new material.

It might be of interest to note here that when Mr. Weinberger delivered this piece to me, it was completely devoid of phrase marks and dynamic indications. These, he told me, I should myself add as I saw fit. He also told me that he had used some American themes in the course of the composition, and of this fact, for one reason or another, he seemed to be inordinately proud."

© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 20, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following July.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.