Walking into the half full, dimly lit Harper Hall on Sunday afternoon for guest artist Anna Marie Wytko’s recital, I suddenly realized I had never been to a solo saxophone performance and had no idea what to expect. Observing the gathering crowd, I noticed several familiar faces as well as many new ones greeting each other excitedly. Snagging a few saxophone students, I managed to ask if they knew much about the pieces she had on the program.
One student mentioned that the first piece, “Serenade” by Franz Schubert, was not originally written for saxophone. They noted that many saxophonists transcribe music written for other instruments in order to play it solo, though there are sometimes negative connotations to performing this way. Soon after I learned this, the crowd welcomed Wytko, who entered confidently; she already had complete command of the room.
Anna Marie Wytko, an internationally acclaimed saxophonist, is Associate Professor of Saxophone at Kansas State University and has performed extensively throughout Europe, North American, South America, Mexico and Canada. Her nearly endless list of solo appearances includes teaching and performing stints at the Conservatorio di Musica “Giuseppe Verdi” in Milan, at Carnegie Hall for the 2015 New York International Music Festival and as a soloist with the Polish Air Force Wind Symphony in Poland.
Introducing “Serenade,” the piece some students had been initially skeptical of as a non-traditional saxophone composition, Wytko notes it was originally written for voice. She played along with a self-arranged electronic backing track, and it was uncannily difficult to tell if she was playing or singing. Her smooth and resonant tone and connection to her instrument mirrored the production of human voice.
While “Serenade” was the only piece written for voice in the program, the following compositions showcased her emotive abilities just as well. In “Suite Rapsodica for Alto Saxophone Solo” by Jindrich Feld, it felt as if the audience was breathing with her through the lengthy and suddenly sporadic phrases. Her shifts through the swift technical passages and slow melodic sections were seamless and impeccably controlled, largely due to the engaged and expressive connection with her instrument.
My favorite piece, “Psalm,” was played into the open cavity of a grand piano while the damper peddle was held down. The piece was written by composition and voice professor at George Fox University Brent Weaver and was based on the Southern folk hymn “Tender Thought.” The overtones generated by the piano strings created an ethereal product, and in my mind, replicated the sounds of angels singing.
This physical act of playing the piano without touch truly encapsulated the saxophonist’s performance that afternoon. Wytko pushed the boundaries of technical virtuosity, color and range in her playing. She sang through her saxophone and reached out to each audience member, leaving us with an ecstatic sense of peace and energy. I know I wasn’t the only one who walked out of that theatre with a new and lively bounce to my step.