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Spicing it up with a little sax

If you need a saxophone player to accompany your choir, local musician Willem Moolenbeek is your man. Of course, his performance with the Menno Singers at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church tonight (Saturday) may well be your only chance to hear such a combination of sounds for the foreseeable future.

But it wasn’t always this way, Moolenbeek says.

Local musician Willem Moolenbeek is bringing the saxophone back to its classical roots for a concert combining choral music with brass.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Local musician Willem Moolenbeek is bringing the saxophone back to its classical roots for a concert combining choral music with brass. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
“There was a great Harvard professor of orchestration who gave the saxophone two pages at the back of the clarinet section,” he said of Walter Piston’s 1955 Orchestration textbook. “He mentioned the saxophone, and he nailed the coffin when he said that through popular music, jazz, and so on, saxophone performance has become sloppy and usually played out of tune.”

Moolenbeek laughed, “Once he wrote that, a whole generation of people just went, ‘Oh, I’m not going there.’”

While the saxophone has popped up in orchestral pieces since the mid 20th century, notably in work by Ravel and Gerwshin, it has become much more commonly linked with jazz artists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane … and Lisa Simpson. This development might have surprised Adolphe Sax, who invented the instrument in 1894.

“Somewhere along the line,” said Moolenbeek, “saxophone from being an instrument that would normally be considered for orchestral music got derailed into popular music of the time. It never really got on track again.”

“Now it’s coming around again because there’s no orchestra that has a full-time saxophonist because there’s not enough work. There’s barely enough work for orchestras anyway!”

Tonight’s performance, “Wandering West,” is the first of a yearlong series from the Menno Singers called “Explorations,” with each concert featuring music that symbolizes a direction of the compass. Tonight’s selection includes cowboy songs, 18th century Russian Music, 16th century funeral music, and 19th century folk songs, a diverse array if there ever was one.

Moolenbeek will join the choir for three songs by Renaissance composer Cristobal de Morales, as well as a new piece by Tim Corlis titled “In Paradisum,” composed specifically for Moolenbeek.

For the local musician, it’s a chance to create a union with the choir, rather than overshadow it.

“As opposed to being a jazz musician, honkin’ along … I shouldn’t be dismissive …” Moolenbeek laughs. “But at the same time, I like to feel I’m a voice that’s singing as part of the chorus, or a soloist singing overtop of the chorus. I look at it as an opportunity to be another singing instrument.” (True to form, his official website is called singingsax.com).

“It made us listen much more carefully as a choir,” said Menno Singers president Mark Diller Harder of a recent rehearsal. “Your ears have to listen in a different way knowing that you have this saxophone improvising over top. We just had a much more focused sound, and an extra emotion that was added to it.”

Moolenbeek has accompanied choirs in the Waterloo Region as well as Elora, Toronto, British Columbia and other places. “I’m almost agonizingly aware that I don’t want to detract from what the choir is doing,” he said. “Some people find it completely off-putting, and some people revel in it.”

Still, even the detractors can provide a certain comfort. “I did a piece of music once, and somebody reviewed and said, ‘It was like hearing Kenny G noodling in the green room.’ I thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe he meant that as a little dig … but a lot of people like Kenny G …”

“Wandering West” begins tonight at the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church (1310 King St. N.) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for students, and can be purchased at Mennonite Savings and Credit Union branches or at the door. More information is available at www.mennosingers.com.


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