On March 6 and 7, 2020, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of its music director, JoAnn Falletta, presented Florent Schmitt’s Légende, Op. 66 in concert. But it wasn’t the customary version for saxophone that the composer had created in 1918, but rather the version prepared several years later that features a solo violin. Arthur Nicolas ‘Nikki’ Chooi, the recently appointed BPO concertmaster (and formerly concertmaster at the MET Orchestra in New York City), was the featured soloist.
What’s more, the orchestra and soloist were slated to record the piece as part of a new NAXOS album devoted to the music of Florent Schmitt – the BPO’s second such recording. That news was doubly welcome in that whereas the saxophone version of the Légende has been recorded often in its piano and orchestral incarnations, Nikki Chooi’s will be the world premiere recording of Schmitt’s violin version with orchestra.
Composed at the end of World War I, Schmitt’s Légende has an interesting history. The piece was commissioned by Elise Hall, a wealthy Franco-American socialite who was also an amateur saxophone player. Hall was responsible for commissioning new works from a number of (primarily) French composers including Claude Debussy, Vincent d’Indy, Léon Moreau and André Caplet in addition to Schmitt. Taken as a whole, these commissions helped raise the profile of the saxophone as an instrument worthy of being taken seriously in the realm of classical music.
Of Elise Hall’s commissions, arguably the Schmitt and Debussy works have achieved the greatest fame – not least because both have become “standard repertoire” fare in highly recognized classical saxophone competitions such as the annual Adolphe Sax International and Andorra SaxFest events.
Within several years of penning his original saxophone/piano version of Légende, Schmitt had orchestrated the music as well as produced two other versions of the piece – one featuring viola solo and the other the violin. While there are differences in the solo parts – no doubt to conform to the qualities of all three instruments – the differences aren’t all that pronounced. Furthermore, there are no variances at all in the orchestral parts.
Was the preparation of multiple versions done by Florent Schmitt to fulfill a request on the part of other soloists who saw the potential for their instruments? Or did Durand et Cie., Schmitt’s longtime publisher, wish to increase its appeal to a significantly larger group of solo players?
The answer isn’t clear. But what we do know is that the Légende remains far better-known in its saxophone incarnation. There have been several dozen commercial recordings of that version of the piece made – although nearly all of them with piano rather than orchestra.
Beyond that, live performances of the piece abound on YouTube and other social platforms.
By contrast, the viola version of the piece has been commercially recorded just once (a circa 1990 Cybelia recording with orchestra), while the violin version has had just one commercial recording as well – with piano instead of orchestral garb.
So, the new NAXOS recording with Chooi and the Buffalo Philharmonic is a premiere of sorts – and very welcome news.
In March 2020, I had the opportunity to attend the BPO concerts that preceded the recording of the Légende, which were a highly effective performances and a huge hit with the audience. Prior to those concerts, I was able to visit with violinist Nikki Chooi to ask him about his experience in preparing the piece for performance and recording. In addition, I wished to explore the similarities and differences between Schmitt’s three versions of the piece. So Janz Castelo, a veteran member of the BPO’s viola section who also knows the Légende, joined us in the interview.
Rounding out the discussion was Louis-Philippe Bonin, a prominent Canadian saxophonist who has made the most recent commercial recording of the Légende in its original sax version (released in February 2020 on the ATMA label).
[Because Bonin was prevented from traveling to Buffalo due to pre-existing musical commitments in Montreal, he participated in the interview “remotely.”]
Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: What were your initial impressions of Florent Schmitt’s Légende when you first encountered it? What feelings did it evoke for you personally?
Louis-Philippe Bonin: I was first attracted to this piece because of its title, which I thought was unusual; this was early-on in my studies on the saxophone. I was used to encountering concertos or sonatas. The title of Légende, which seemed to imply the lack of a predetermined formal structure, piqued my curiosity.
It’s also a work that I heard relatively often in university recitals. It has the reputation of being an easy-to-play work due to the absence of major technical difficulties for the soloist. On the other hand, unlike many works for saxophone and piano it requires great maturity and musical sensitivity to play well — not to mention being able to control the softer nuances of the musical passages as much as possible.
I believed for a long time that it was a secondary work – that is, until the moment I took a close look at the piece. It was then that I came to understand the complexity that this work poses for saxophone players!
Janz Castelo: For me, the first time I came across the piece was several years ago when the Buffalo Philharmonic was playing the pieces for our 2015 recording of Schmitt’s music. I was investigating what Schmitt might have written for viola and came across the Légende online, in what I think is the only recording of the viola version.
I also looked at the part, and immediately realized that the version for viola is incredibly difficult. As it turns out, the solo parts for the violin and viola versions of the piece are almost the same. So, if you hear the violin playing, just imagine the viola playing those same notes in the same register and how much more difficult that would be. So, I guess my first impression was, “Holy crap! This is difficult!”
Nikki Chooi: The first thing I did after I got hold of the violin solo part was to listen to an alto sax recording. What struck me were the colors that Schmitt evokes in the piece, and the gestures as well. Those are two main characteristics that recur throughout the music: the one maestoso phrase that repeats throughout the work, and then the almost-melismatic passages where there’s not really a melody, but more like a cascade of notes.
Janz Castelo: Like Nikki says, the colors and textures are quite amazing. This is a piece that’s all about color and texture. I mean, you aren’t going to go home singing a melody from this piece, but instead remembering the color, texture, and how it’s orchestrated — how the music moves from one instrument to the next – sometimes the soloist and sometimes in the orchestra, and varying the timbre of the sustained notes.
Nikki Chooi: Yes, there’s a lot of back-and-forth give-and-take happening with different instruments in the melodic lines — between myself and maybe the oboe, the first-stand violins, or other instruments of the orchestra.
PLN: The Légende dates from 1918, which was the year World War I ended. To some listeners, the brooding character of the piece suggests the impact that the war may have had on Florent Schmitt, who like many other Frenchmen served at the front during several years of the conflict. Do you come away with that same sense as well?
Nikki Chooi: It is indeed a dark and brooding work. There is such atmosphere and color in the orchestration intertwined with the solo part. As I study and work on this piece, I try to evoke the many emotions embedded within it, and it only makes me wonder what Florent Schmitt was going through as he was writing this.
Louis-Philippe Bonin: The war’s influence is possible, although I believe that Florent Schmitt’s deep interest in the Orient (and “orientalism” in music) had greater influence on the works he wrote during this period. The Légende is imbued with Schmitt’s passion for oriental music (particularly from Turkey); it’s harmonically very charged, very voluptuous, and imbued with great sensuality. You might say that the soloist does not “sing,” but “tells.”
Along those lines, I also detect the influence of Debussy: Think in particular of the suave, sensual melodic lines of Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune and of the Saxophone Rhapsody, where the melodic inflections have a very similar quality to what we hear in the Légende.
Schmitt’s hostility to academism and other restrictions imposed by the tradition of the Paris Conservatoire drove him to create a piece that is resolutely French, but also tinged with his love for non-European musical influences. It’s for this reason that this work is nearly unique in the repertoire for saxophone.
Janz Castelo: I think we can easily read more into war correlation possibilities than what’s really warranted. It’s easy to look back with revisionist history and impute connections that weren’t actually there. I agree that there’s more of an orientalist flavor than a reaction to wartime experiences. There is a certain exoticism about the piece; the harmonies are quite exotic. The music is very beautiful, but in a dark way.
PLN: One could say that the Légende has become “legendary” in the classical saxophone world. These days it is a staple among the pieces used in adjudicating sax performance competitions around the world. By contrast, the versions for violin and viola are less-known and performed far less often. To what do you attribute this difference in fortunes?
Louis-Philippe Bonin: I think there are several reasons why the work is hardly ever played on violin or viola. The most obvious one is that the Légende isn’t among the works taught in large institutions, which makes awareness of the piece less — unlike the original version for saxophone which has been taught by the great pedagogues for several decades, all over the world.
Janz Castelo: The original version of this piece was scored for the saxophone, and the viola version came a year later — in 1919, I think. The violin version wasn’t prepared by Schmitt until the mid-1920s. I think this is significant. In the early 20th century, composers, particularly in France, were seeing what they could do to integrate the saxophone into the classical world. Some did a better job than others. Even today, the saxophone is something of a novelty in a classical orchestra. But this piece shows Florent Schmitt being somewhat progressive at the time.
It’s just conjecture, but I suspect that Schmitt might have prepared the viola version when someone approached him and said that the piece would work well on the viola. And a few years later, perhaps a violinist might have suggested the same thing.
Louis-Philippe Bonin: There’s another factor that may be at work as well. With many pieces for saxophone commissioned in those times, publishers might have been worried about the ability to achieve good sales, and were inclined to also offer transcriptions when publishing these new works. It’s the reason why we see so many original works for saxophone that also have versions prepared for violin, clarinet, viola and so forth. The publisher would have an advantage in making the piece available to other instruments, because there were so few saxophonist soloists active in classical music in the early 20th century. Such a mercantile consideration may be why we have these other versions of the Légende that are playable on the violin and the viola.
I’d also point out that the Légende has particular historical value because it was one of the works commissioned at the beginning of the century by a wealthy benefactor, Elise Hall, who was also an amateur saxophone player. She commissioned works from the leading French composers of the day – pieces like the Saxophone Rhapsody of Debussy, the Choral Varié by Vincent d’Indy, the Légende by André Caplet and of course Florent Schmitt’s own Légende.
These commissions helped raise the profile of the saxophone in the classical music circles of that time. With these pieces, the saxophone entered the big leagues and began to be taken more seriously by classical musicians in Europe and the United States.
PLN: When you consider the solo writing in the Légende, do you see it as idiomatic for your respective instruments? Are there particular passages in the score that appeal to you most strongly?
Louis-Philippe Bonin: When looking at the differences between the versions for saxophone and those for violin and viola, we can see that the melodic lines written in the low and high notes are written somewhat easier for the saxophone. There is also a practical reason that has to do with the person who commissioned the creation of the Légende. Elise Hall was a wealthy patron but a poor musician, frankly. It’s quite likely that Florent Schmitt tempered the difficulty of the saxophone part to ensure that she could actually play it! As in Debussy’s Saxophone Rhapsody, the saxophone is used mainly in its medium register and isn’t called upon to play purely virtuoso passages, making it easier to perform from a technique standpoint.
I should add that today, the pedagogy of the technical and expressive capacities of the saxophone has greatly evolved. A majority of classical saxophonists now play these works by choosing to add the notes which were originally reserved for other solo instruments. A good example of this is the 1943 C-sharp Minor Sonata by Fernande Decruck.
Janz Castelo: I like the saxophone version of this piece, because the contrast of the saxophone against the orchestra is more than what you have with a string soloist. The viola matches the register of the alto sax better than the violin, and we’d already seen historical examples of wind pieces being transcribed for the viola with hardly any changes to the parts. But that doesn’t get around the challenge of differentiating the sound of the viola from the rest of the orchestra, which is more difficult than with the saxophone.
I’ve studied all three solo parts for the Légende, and the viola part actually goes a bit lower than the saxophone in several spots. In addition, in some of the pickup gestures, the viola has a few more notes than the sax — and it’s even more embellished in the violin part. I wouldn’t say that any one solo instrument part is “better” than the other — they’re just a little different.
Nikki Chooi: Rehearsing the piece over the course of the last few days, I’m getting the sense that the writing in the orchestra is very thick. I have to work really hard to get my sound above that of the orchestra. There may be different ways to color it, but I’ve found that to cut through the orchestra, I have to work very hard at it.
I’m not trying to approach the music the way a saxophonist might play it — the tone quality, the timing it takes, or how the music breathes. I’m trying to imagine what I can do to spin out the lines while using vibrato, bowing, playing closer to the bridge and all of that. I’m trying to create those special sound qualities for my particular instrument — as well as being heard.
Janz Castelo: An alto sax would cut through better, volume-wise, simply because the sax is a louder instrument. In an orchestra, you typically have one saxophone but many violins and violas. For this reason, we’ve had to work on balances a bit. Even through the score says forte in some of the tutti orchestral passages, we have to keep in mind that we have a string soloist, not a sax soloist.
In some ways the viola may be the better stringed instrument choice. Even though the violin can play higher, the piece sits in the middle register for the violin, whereas on the viola it sits in our upper register — on the A-string where it’s much more piercing. Our A-string is not as piercing as a violin’s E-string, but our A-string is definitely more piercing than a violin’s A-string – or even the D-string where a lot of this piece lies for the soloist. It’s just at a lower register for the violin.
Nikki Chooi: That’s true. For us, the higher register is not used very much in this piece, except in a few flourishes that were added by Schmitt expressly for the violin version of the piece. But the main line, if you were to follow it, is all on the A- and D-strings. That’s why it presents something of a challenge, but I’ve been working with the conductor and the orchestra on adjusting the dynamics.
As for these flourishes and gestures we’re talking about, they seem very pianistic to me. You can just imagine Schmitt or some other good pianist tossing those off very nicely. And for the sax it also seems very idiomatic for that instrument. But for violinists and violists, we have positions, and while I’ve been trying to make these a single gesture, it isn’t exactly easy. We have to work on elaborate fingerings and crossing strings in order to find a way to make it sound organic.
Also, at the beginning of the piece there are many arpeggios. The way the saxophone can play those is a pretty common form of arpeggios, but for us it’s a bit of a struggle. My strategy is to not to think of how a saxophonist might play them, and instead try to make them as “violinistic” as possible.
Other than that, the piece doesn’t pose too many technical challenges for me as a soloist — apart from getting the most sound that I can and project over the orchestra.
Janz Castelo: I’ve noted another interesting difference between the three solo instrument parts. The saxophone part has very long slurs and lines, whereas in the violin and viola solo parts it’s a lot more broken up, just to make the notes pop out. Of course, a saxophonist can hold their breath longer than we can play the length of our bow!
When comparing between the violin and viola versions, I do think that the viola version allows you to create a darker sound. In the opening solo phrase for instance, the open G of the violin sounds better on the viola because we can play it on the C-string and vibrate it. On the other hand, the parts being in the same register make our playing a lot more challenging over the course of the piece — particularly when we’re having to go high up on the scale. Many viola concerto repertoire standards are a lot easier to play than this piece, it turns out. I wouldn’t say it’s unplayable, but there are a lot of places in the Legende where as a viola soloist, you’re touching your nose.
In the one viola recording that exists, there are spots where the orchestra almost drowns out some challenging viola passages. I don’t know how many takes they did, but you can only conclude that there were some major acrobatics going on just to be able to achieve what they got on that recording. So, in that sense it isn’t very idiomatic writing for the viola.
PLN: What technical challenges, if any, does the music present for soloists? In your view, what special approaches or nuances does it take to deliver an artistically successful interpretation?
Louis-Philippe Bonin: For saxophonists, the work generally does not pose great virtuoso demands. There are certain passages that require special attention — diminished arpeggios played rather quickly that are written in irregular rhythms — but all-in-all those can be an interesting but easily handled challenge for any serious player.
The problem is greater when it comes to the piano part. Faithful to his fine talent as a composer for the piano, Florent Schmitt does not spare pianists — instead writing a complex and very busy score with three staves!
My favorite interpretations are those where the saxophonist doesn’t approach the work from a technical standpoint, but rather focuses on the warmth, the roundness and the sensuality of the sound. A mastery of impeccable phrasing must be the key to a successful interpretation – not to mention good intonation and an ability to change the timbre according to the musical context. Unlike many works for saxophone and piano, the soloist should not “sing” but try as much as possible to “tell a story.” Therein lies the biggest challenge of the Légende for saxophonists!
Nikki Chooi: I think the key is to be flexible. We have three different solo instrument versions and then there’s the piano accompaniment and the orchestral version, too. Each one has their own particular characteristics, and they result in a very different feel. My first rehearsal of the piece with the orchestra was eye-opening. Afterwards, I went back and fiddled around with the bowings to create more sound. Sometimes I’m taking three bows to play just one sustained note — otherwise I just don’t get the volume that’s needed in some of the big climaxes in the piece.
Janz Castelo: Some of these issues are difficult to resolve, and perhaps it’s better not to try. In terms of how to approach the piece artistically, at some point you just have to go with the music in broad terms. It’s not thinking about how a saxophone versus a viola or violin might play it, because some of the material just doesn’t fit well. Instead, just go for the music and figure out “how I’m going to make this work.” I like to say that you have to get into the “Schmitt Zone,” instead of focusing on your instrument’s limitations!
Let’s face it: I don’t think Schmitt was very concerned with how difficult the soloist would find the part – other than perhaps Elise Hall. He just wrote music. But this is where the rehearsals come in, where we can experiment with different ideas and see how they turn out.
PLN: Are there any additional thoughts or insights that you’d like to share about this piece, or this composer in general?
Janz Castelo: From an artistic point of view I’d like to say this: If you take Schmitt’s incredibly lush orchestration and tinker with it too much, or attempt to thin it out, it won’t be as satisfying. It’s finding the fine balance that works for the soloist as well as being faithful to the composer’s intentions that is the key to success with Florent Schmitt.
Nikki Chooi: We’re going to be recording this piece in a week’s time. I’m hoping that in the recording I can do much more in the way of nuances and preserving the slurs a little more, which I think I should be able to do more easily because of the miking. In the live performances, my goal is quite simple: it’s for the audience to be able to hear me!
Louis-Philippe Bonin: Today, the saxophone is a solo instrument that is written for by some of the best-known and most prolific composers in the world. The repertoire is vastly bigger than it once was, and it encompasses vast musical styles ranging from the Romanticism of Glazunov to the minimalist music of John Adams.
Florent Schmitt’s music has also experienced a renaissance in classical music programming in recent years. Let’s hope that these two trends will converge, and that musical ensembles will be inspired to include more of these works in their programming, helping to diversify the repertoire of our symphony orchestras away from a reliance on so much of the same core repertoire.
Janz Castelo: The BPO has now played a fair number of Florent Schmitt’s works. In fact, we’ve probably played more Schmitt than any other orchestra in the world, except maybe in France. Now that I know more of Schmitt and have a good grasp of his style, I wonder if music was an escape for him? He had this sound in his head, and went back to that well often. Even though there’s a span of 40 years between the various Schmitt pieces that we’ve played, he seems to have retained his own voice throughout. There’s a consistency to it — the atmosphere, the texture and so forth.
Clearly, that well was deep, because he continued to draw inspiration from it over many decades.
There’s certainly no disagreeing with Janz Castelo about Florent Schmitt’s reservoir of musical ideas, which he was able to mine again and again over a composing career lasting more than 70 years. Indeed, my engaging conversation with these three consummate musical artists helps us understand what went into Schmitt’s creative process – and the fine results.
We’re also grateful for the newest saxophone recording of Schmitt’s Légende, made by Louis-Philippe Bonin — even as we look forward with anticipation to Nikki Chooi’s violin version, due for release by NAXOS later this year.