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Sax appeal: Peterson introduces horn to classical music world

Russ Peterson says he began composing classical music for the saxophone because there simply wasn't enough. "We don't have this depth of literature," Peterson, 34, says. "We've got some good music, but none of it speaks to me. ... It's forced me ...

Russ Peterson says he began composing classical music for the saxophone because there simply wasn't enough.

"We don't have this depth of literature," Peterson, 34, says. "We've got some good music, but none of it speaks to me. ... It's forced me to start writing."

The instrument was invented in the mid-19th century and thus isn't usually part of a symphony orchestra. Peterson is the principal bassoonist for the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, but sax really is his first love, he says.

And it's getting him noticed.

His two most recent CDs, 2002's "Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra


and Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra" and 2001's "American Breath," drew highly favorable reviews in Gramophone, a prestigious international music magazine.

Peterson says the reviews came as a shock even to him.

"Normally, they review Pavarotti, the Chicago Symphony and Yitzhak Perlman," he says.

The good notices are yet another accomplishment for a musician who won the 1995 International Geneva Saxophone Concours in Switzerland and first place in the Music Teachers National Association National Music Competition.

His success as a composer and player has come even though his work goes against the trend in modern classical music.

"Ninety percent of (sax) music is ... not very audience-friendly," he says. "I think it's because a lot of composers aren't writing for the audience these days. They write for themselves and for the players."

Linda Coates of Fargo's Barking Dog Records, which has released two CDs starring Peterson, agrees. Barking Dog is preparing a third and has released others on which he has played as a sideman.

"Russ' whole aesthetic philosophy might be called a little retro: Gee, I'd like to perform music people want to hear and enjoy," Coates says. "Actually, that is a pretty revolutionary stance to take in the classical music world."


Peterson isn't just making a name for himself in classical music. He's also an accomplished jazz player.

"He's just a blistering jazz soloist," Coates says. "You might be tempted to think he's just a flashy guy. What's really fun is to realize the depth of his musicianship."

Bill Law, the symphony's executive director and an accomplished local jazz bassist, says Peterson is "fearless in his playing. And he plays with that hard, passionate sort of sound, like a David Sanborn-type player.

"I think so many (local) players have such strong bop-style playing, Russ brings something from the R&B world. I think he's affected all the horn players in town."

Energy rubs off

His musical talent comes with an energetic, upbeat personality, Law says. "He has kind of a pied-piper effect on all of us."

A native of Cleveland, Peterson came to Fargo from Toledo, Ohio, in 1976. His wife, Jennifer, is an oboist and English horn player with the symphony and the couple recently had their first child, 3-month-old Ella. He currently teaches at Concordia College.

His timpani and sax concertos on the 2002 CD show his versatility.


The timpani concerto, composed for the F-M Symphony's David Eyler, is dramatic, with a Mideast feel that reflects his interest in world music. The saxophone concerto showcases the instrument's versatility, with Peterson's playing caressing some notes and punching others. While an unmistakably classical piece, it also shows his jazz influences.

Eyler says the timpani piece quotes from much of standard orchestral literature, but Peterson added his own touches.

"It's fun to play," Eyler says. "Eighty to 90 percent is pretty playable by most advanced students and professionals, but there's a few licks that are very challenging. You sometimes fly around five drums rather quickly."

"I try to maintain a balance between classical and jazz playing," Peterson says. "It's two totally different worlds. I kind of enjoy being a chameleon."


And a well-traveled chameleon he is. In the past few weeks, between work in Minneapolis and teaching at the International Music Camp at the Peace Gardens, Peterson has spent only a handful of days at home.

"I'm always making up lessons," he says. "In the summer, I'm never home. I enjoy performing a lot but boy, I wish I could be home more with my wife and new baby."

The Petersons already have begun getting Ella accustomed to classical music; she was listening to Bach while still in the womb.


Not that that's any guarantee she'll take to it, Peterson says with a laugh. "She probably won't even touch an instrument."

Anyone wishing to hear Peterson in upcoming months will have opportunities both live and by CD.

He is working on two new pieces, one for sax and piano and the other for sax and string quartet, that will debut this fall as part of the symphony's chamber music series.

And Coates says Peterson's first solo jazz CD will come out on Barking Dog Records this winter.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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