Chart-topper Amy Dickson reclaims the joy of sax for classical fans


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The Independent Culture

It is the brassy musical upstart, whose siren tone indicates the arrival of a femme fatale. But the saxophone is finally coming of age after an Australian musician topped the classical chart with an album that returns the instrument to its orchestral roots.

Dusk & Dawn, featuring works by Chopin, Philip Glass and John Tavener, arranged for saxophone and performed by Amy Dickson, a Sydney musician now based in London, has claimed the number one slot in the UK Classical chart.

Ms Dickson, 31, is leading an orchestral revival of the saxophone. Its creation in the mid-19th century came too late for the instrument to find a role in the established symphony order.

Instead the sax became an integral element in the rambunctious big band jazz music which dominated dance-floors and later enhanced numerous pop hits, providing the famous riff for Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street and the wine-bar sophistication of Sade’s Smooth Operator.

Ms Dickson, who studied at the Royal College of Music in London, is happy to embrace the traditional “sultriness” of the sax. However, contemporary composers are returning the instrument to the forefront of classical music, as its founder Adolphe Sax intended.

“I’m thrilled to be number one,” she said. “It’s a very interesting time now because so many composers, like Mark-Anthony Turnage, are writing for the sax.”

Ms Dickson, 31, who began playing the saxophone aged six, has performed works from composers such as Steve Martland, the notoriously atonal Harrison Birtwistle as well as Turnage’s "Two Elegies Framing A Shout", for soprano sax and piano.

She has previously arranged Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto and a movement of Tavener’s "The Protecting Veil" for soprano sax, recording them with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Her new album features interpretations of Fauré’s "Pavane" and Chopin’s "Nocturne".

“I hope it’s a breakthrough,” she said. “The sax is being used more in orchestras because contemporary composers are writing for it and there are more saxophonists who play well these days. It’s growing exponentially.”

The saxophone was an instrument born out of time. “Had it been created a little earlier, it might have been incorporated into the changes Wagner made to the symphony orchestra,” said Ms Dickson, who has an endorsement deal with Armani and performs at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room this month.

“Berlioz was a big supporter but it didn’t get used as much as it should have. It was associated with military bands. Then it became popular in jazz.”

The sax attracted a set of clichés along the way, including its association with smoky dive bars and female sensuality “It is a very candid instrument but there are so many different tone available and the range of expressiveness is enormous,” Ms Dickson said.

The rehabilitation means Lisa Simpson will no longer be thrown out of music class for honking on her horn. “When I play concerts so many people come up after and say they’ve never the instrument played like that before,” Ms Dickson said. “It’s a beautiful instrument when played well. The sax followed me everywhere when I was growing up, from Baker Street to M People.”