Grand Master of the Saxophone

Claude Delangle talks about the Andorra Sax Fest, his career as a saxophonist, and about the bright future of his instrument

Soloist, researcher and pedagogue, Claude Delangle, one of the greatest contemporary saxophonists, stands out as the master of the French saxophone. Privileged interpreter for classic works, he enriches the repertoire and encourages creation by collaborating with the most renowned composers, including Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Toru Takemitsu, Astor Piazzolla, and promoting the youngest.
Since 1986, he is invited saxophonist in the Ensemble Intercontemporain, he also appears as soloist with the most prestigious orchestras (London BBC, Radio France, Radio of Finland, WDR Köln, Berlin Philharmonic, Kioi Tokyo). Passionate for his instrument, he goes beyond the work of the soloist and frequents the Musical Acoustic Laboratories of the University of Paris 8. The results of his research on specific acoustics of the saxophone will be for him a precious asset in his collaboration with composers. After obtaining several outstanding Premiers Prix at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris, Claude Delangle was appointed professor in 1988, where he has created the most prestigious saxophone class in the world. Pupils of all nationalities long to receive this education, which combines concerts with the possibility of studying with important composers and offers a large range of interdisciplinary activities. In Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Asia, Claude Delangle is requested for interpretation courses.


WFIMC: When did you visit the Andorra Sax Fest for the first time?

Claude Delangle: I think it was shortly before Covid, in 2017 or 2018. I don’t remember well, because in the beginning it was a very quick journey, just to play a recital and go back to Paris. Later on, I got much more involved as a jury member and teaching master classes.

What is your image of Andorra? What importance does it hold for Saxophone players?

The most important characteristic is that it´s not only a competition. The name is “Andorra Sax Fest”, not “Andorra Saxophone Competition”, and that makes all the difference. The festival provides not only a nice surrounding for the competition, it makes the whole event a bit more “human”, so to speak- its not so much about competing, but there are masterclasses, concerts, seminars, exhibitions of materials and crafts- a whole little microcosmos of our instrument that takes place during one week in Andorra. For the competitor, that might be disturbing in a way, but if you don’t make it to the semifinals or finals, there is still plenty of things to do: you can enjoy not only the wonderful mountains and valleys around, but you can have direct contact and meet the world’s most important teachers and performers, right there.

Are there similar events elsewhere?

I don’t know if there is any event that can be compared to Andorra. Maybe in the U.S., there they have regional and national congresses, but they are always being held at big universities. Based on their system, they have either Saxophone Quartet Competitions or solo competitions, but usually only for younger people and not on an international level.

How was the SaxFest created?

Andorra was founded virtually out of nothing: when Efrem Roca first arrived and began to work as a professor at the local music school, a tiny school actually, he told himself he would not not survive in such a musical environment unless he did something new. So he went ahead and built this great event, all by himself. 
Efrem Roca´s profile is very specific: a typical Spanish artist. The Spanish Saxophone school has been strong for quite some time because they have a huge tradition of wind bands and marching bands. Every tiny village in Spain has at least two wind bands, and competition is quite hard for professionals and semi-professionals because the bands are supported by the local town halls, where jobs as soloist, teacher or conductor are hard to get. Then, maybe 25 years ago, things began to change. I remember visiting Spain with Maurice André at the time, and the level was not great. But here and there, specific classes for saxophone, flute, trumpet were organised, and public interest began to grow.
Efrem visited a lot of different places, travelled a lot in Spain, studied in Montpellier with an important colleague- before he made up his mind and created the SaxFest.

Compared to similar events, how does Andorra rank in the world today?

Traditionally, we have one really big international competition which is the Adolphe Sax Competition in Dinant, Belgium, the hometown of the saxophone inventor. It is held only once every four years and is modelled after the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. It’s a competition with a 30-year history, so it cannot really be compared with Andorra. But then again, if you look at how far the Sax Fest has come, it is really quite amazing. The organisation, the rules, the location- it’s all perfect.

One thing I think that could still be intensified is the connections to great composers. You know, I spent much of my life commissioning pieces, trying to find good composers to work with: Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, Murail, Ligeti, Crumb…Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. But we have to continue to get composers- it’s a responsibility in the saxophone community to make a strong impact with repertoire. Not only with existing repertoire, but also commissioning new repertoire. An event like the Saxfest can really make a difference, so I think we have to keep looking for great living composers who are willing to write for us.

Are you planning on being back in Andorra next year?

I don’t know yet, dates have not been set, but I am celebrating 50 years of performing together with my wife, so we might be able to give a recital.

Do you have any special memory of Andorra? Something that is symbolic for the place or the people there?

Andorra is special, as I mentioned before, because of the variety of events- competitions, masterclasses, seminars, concerts- but also because it’s a small town and everything is very close together. This makes it very easy to get together, to meet people, to connect. Almost every night there is a concert or an event, and afterwards there is a party or dinner. People are always together, and especially for young players it’s very easy to meet some of the great players and involve them in a conversation. This is great, it’s important, because (if I may say something…) jury members can be a very strange “species”. They may be good musicians, good teachers, wonderful people- but when they are within a competition jury, the sometimes seem to forget humanity. Almost. The problem is not in the music, in the wrong notes of a player- the problem is how jury members sometimes talk and argue about competitors. I think the most important thing for us is to give encouragement to the young artists, put them on track, get them onto their career. It is so hard to be a musician nowadays- probably more difficult than ever before.

How about yourself? How did you find your way to the saxophone? Looking back and comparing, what perspectives do young artists have as a saxophone player?

As for the first part of your question, I was very fast. I was a bit too quick in my studies because I finished the Paris Conservatory when I was 20 years old, and I was aware that I didn’t really know anything. I was able to play quick, play loud, play soft. I could play well, but I had little experience in chamber music and a very small repertoire. So I started to meet composers, commissioned new music, but also I studied with other instrument players- pianists, violinists. For me, a musician cannot develop his or her skills by knowing only how to play this particular instrument.

The technique of an instrument is based on its repertoire, and it´s based on relationships. Music is relationship, nothing else but relationship. 40, 50 years ago, the level of teaching, the level of playing was okay, but not great. The French school was pretty much the only one, it faced no competition, and the playing was sometimes very mediocre. Today, chamber music plays a much bigger role, the saxophone quartet has become really popular (there even is a quartet competition in Osaka every four years!) and we have a lot more repertoire and a lot more opportunities. But the point is that young players must diversify, must find their own way, their own opportunities. Many young players do not succeed having a career, and it’s not because they have no talent, not because they cannot play. Today, it´s not enough to play well- it’s absolutely not enough!
Actually, I think competitions should help and provide more answers, advice, not just money. Answers to some big questions: what does the society need? Where can my place be in the society? The society needs answers too- answers to all the horrible things happening all around the world, and music can do something for society. I prepared so many students for international competitions, and I always tell them: prepare the best you can, do your best, get the first prize if you can. But getting first prize doesn’t mean you are the best. You need to do much, much more. Winning a competition is only a beginning of a long and winding road to success.

But in general, chances are better today for aspiring young players? What potential do you see in a career in classical saxophone?

Sure, the chances are better than 50 years ago. There are many more opportunities, especially for chamber music, for Saxophone quartet. In Europe we have maybe 15 very good Saxophone quartets with rather remarkable careers. They play in great halls. But also solo players- there are quite a few, and they get to play with major orchestras. There is some great repertoire, that helps a lot. Today, if you have a phone and money, you can easily commission a piece for saxophone. 40, 50 years ago, even if you had money, it was very hard to get a composer to write for saxophone, as the instrument was a complete stranger in the business. Composers would outright refuse when you asked them. But now, saxophone is a popular instrument, it’s accessible, and audiences love it. Of course, there is also the proximity to Jazz- many classical players are now trained in improvisation. At Paris Conservatory, we have improvisation classes already for many years, and they are very popular. For a classical player to do Jazz is not easy because instrument and mouthpiece, and of course the whole spirit are very different. But its good to know a bit, its good for a jazz player to know how to play a concerto, and it´s good for a classical player to know how to play bebop in a nightclub…

Did you ever play in a nightclub?

When I was 25 years old, yes, I did. But I quickly decided to stop because it was so tiring- playing all night until two or three and getting back home at four. Then in the morning back to the conservatory, I simply could not do it.
But to get back to your question- we do have a lot of potential today. I think the future of the saxophone looks bright! I am optimistic.


©WFIMC 2024/FR