To say that Bennett Parsons is a man of varied interests is a bit of an understatement. Having graduated from Arlington High School (AHS) in 2014, he is now in his final year of the Harvard-New England Conservatory (NEC) dual-degree program, which includes four years of study at Harvard and a fifth year at NEC. Last spring he completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Harvard, and he is now at NEC, where he studies classical saxophone and will receive an M.M. (Master of Music) degree at the end of the year. Although the sax is better known in jazz and pop settings than orchestral ones, a fair amount of classical literature for the sax exists, and Parsons is determined to enlarge that repertoire by creating his own transcriptions of music written for such instruments as violin, oboe, and cello.
On October 3rd he gave a concert at Harvard that concluded with his arrangement of the Brahms Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, in which he played the cello part on baritone sax. I caught up with Parsons a couple of weeks after that event to ask about his experience as student at Harvard and NEC as well as his plans going forward. According to this newly minted Harvard graduate, his future will include both computer programming and professional musicianship in equally important, if not strictly equal, doses. In life as in his education, he hopes to achieve a balance between science and art.
Tell me about Harvard. Why did you apply to the dual-degree program?
I was always interested in Harvard because the name is so well known to people growing up in this area. When I was in eighth grade, I heard about the program from a member of a saxophone quartet I was playing in at the time. He had just been accepted into the program and was very excited about it. From then on, the Harvard-NEC program was my first choice.
How was Harvard academically and socially?
It was exciting. The professors were so accomplished and inspiring in what they had achieved and engaged all the students at a level that I never experienced before.
That said, the classes were really difficult, especially in the computer-science track, which requires notoriously long hours. So the environment was somewhat limited socially because people were working all the time. On the other hand, the students were very interesting, and I met people I never would have otherwise.
How did you become Ken Radnofsky’s student?
I started saxophone in the fourth grade with private and group lessons through the school; Ms. [Paula] Demetrio [Ottoson Middle School band teacher] recommended that I take private lessons with Ken because she knew he lived in Arlington and was taking on young students. So I started with Ken in fifth grade, and I’ve studied with him ever since.
Isn’t it amazing that you happened to live in a town where there was a classical saxophone teacher?
Even more amazing is that he is literally THE classical saxophonist in all of New England. He’s played with all the major orchestras in the area, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
When you took up the saxophone, did you realize that the classical literature for it is limited?
Not really – it took a while for me to understand how limited the literature was compared to that of other orchestral instruments. People do spend their lives playing the saxophone repertoire, however. There is enough to delve down deep into, but it’s not very well known and it’s more recent. Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart didn’t write for the sax.
Growing up, I was isolated in the saxophone community. I played classical saxophone pieces by Glazunov, Creston, Gershwin, Desenclos, and even a few transcriptions of Chopin and Rachmaninoff without realizing they were not originally written for the saxophone. It’s only when I started thinking about what I would do to make a living that I realized an orchestra position is not an option for a saxophone player.
At some point did you say to yourself, “I’d better take up the clarinet”?
No, by that time I had been playing saxophone for eight years, and I had already fallen in love with it. I thought, “This is what I am: a saxophone player.” Also, I realized that the saxophone spans the classical and jazz genres more than any other instrument. I’m very grateful for opportunities I had as a sax player, such as performing with the AHS Jazz Band.
When you were at AHS, you did start playing clarinet in some pieces, correct?
The only reason I started playing clarinet was that in 2014 Mr. D. [Sabato D’Agostino, AHS instrumental music director] said, “We’re playing Rhapsody in Blue, and I thought, “Okay, I can play it on soprano sax.” I had been playing that instrument in the clarinet section of the AHS Concert Band and for two years at that point.
When I listened to the opening glissando on sax, I thought it didn’t sound quite right because the sax doesn’t go down as low as the clarinet. I ended up playing the Rhapsody on soprano sax at the All-Town Band Concert and on clarinet at the AHS Pops Concert.
When you transcribed the Brahms Cello Sonata for baritone sax, did you have to figure out where to place it on the saxophone?
The golden rule is to change as little as possible. Generally, the more you change, the worse it gets. I’ve found that baritone sax works best for cello because the range is exactly the same. I’ve also played the Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19, on alto sax in a transcription by Chien Kwan Lin, who was one of Ken’s students (now saxophone professor at the Eastman School of Music), and I think it works very well.
You lose certain notes up the octave, however, because the very lowest note that the cello plays on the open C string transposes on the saxophone to one note lower than the alto sax can play, and also the alto sax is an octave higher. The baritone sax, on the other hand, will play the exact same frequencies that the cello plays, note-for-note. All you’re changing is the timbre; you never have to mess with the octaves.
How long have you been playing the baritone sax?
Only for about a year -- both Ken and I were surprised at how quickly I became attached to it. The way I play it is influenced by my listening to cello recordings because the reason I picked it up was to play music written for the cello. When I listen to the Brahms or Debussy Cello Sonatas or the Bach Cello Suites (which I’ve also played on sax), I’m always thinking about how cellists play – their attack, vibrato, phrasing, and much more.
What else is involved in transcribing?
Aside from the pitches themselves, you have to deal with specific techniques. So every time there’s a double stop, when the cello plays two notes at once, that’s something I can’t do. Pizzicato is something that doesn’t translate to the sax either, but that’s slightly easier to handle. For the pizzicato, many players try slap tonguing, but I don’t care for that too much because I think it’s a little bit too harsh and saxophone-specific. Also slap tongue doesn’t have nearly enough pitch, and pizzicato is all pitch. So I usually opt for a really short note with a lot of tongue to make it sound “poppy” and light. Basically I just practice subtle variations in articulation until it sounds right.
The double stop really depends on the musical context. Most of the time I just pick one of the notes, and the piano plays the other note, so you get the same harmony. At other times I turn the lower notes into grace notes for more dramatic effect. Fortunately, Brahms’s music isn’t really about effects; it’s about melody and line. A lot of concertos won’t make sense if the string player is not doing ricochet bowing and a lot of double stops or pizzicato, but that’s not true for Brahms, so his sonata was a good candidate for transcription.
How did you come to know Aristo Sham, the pianist you performed with in your most recent concert?
Through the Harvard-NEC program -- and I knew he had played the Brahms with a cellist, so he knew the piece. He’s excited about having this music played on baritone sax and thinks that the sax adds something to the music in terms of balance. It’s very difficult for pianists to hold back their sound so that the cello can be heard, but in the louder sections of the Brahms both of us can really play, and the balance comes off well.
Why are you so interested in doing transcriptions?
The main reason is that if you aren’t exposed to the music of all the great classical composers, you are truly missing something. That’s why at a conservatory everybody takes music history. Also, you learn so much more about a piece by playing it, so I think one of the biggest benefits is educating yourself as a musician.
The saxophone repertoire mostly consists of new pieces, such as the Joan Tower work [“Second Flight”] that I performed at my concert. You should always play new music by living composers, but you should also play music you want to play and love to listen to. As a performer, I want to be playing music I believe in and that makes me feel something inside. The Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy fit that description.
Are your performances on the Internet?
Video of two of the three pieces I played in my October 3rd recital are now on YouTube: the Brahms Sonata: https://youtu.be/x-R7VtufQV8 and my transcription of a Korean piece called “Sanjo”: https://youtu.be/xaLfcYfavbo.
Also on YouTube is my performance of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto on soprano saxophone with the Bach Society Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4jy4-GRPOA. Audio recordings of more of my performances can be found at https://soundcloud.com/bennett-parsons-157825356, and I’ll be adding to this site in the future.
What were your favorite musical experiences at AHS?
Right up there was playing the Vaughn Williams Oboe Concerto on soprano sax (not my transcription) with the AHS Honors Orchestra. That was the first time I played a major solo with them, and it was a great experience. Oboe translates very well to soprano saxophone.
Also, I was at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival twice: once in 2013 with the AHS Jazz Octet, which won first prize and in 2014 with the AHS Jazz Band, which won second prize in its class. The jazz band performed “Play That Funky Music,” in which I played the solo part, not only at the 2014 Berklee competition, but also at the JEN (Jazz Education Network) Conference in Dallas and during our tour of Italy.
What are your plans after this year?
My day job will be with Microsoft in Kendall Square. This summer I had an internship at their headquarters in Seattle, but I didn’t want to stay on the West Coast because I didn’t know anyone, and I thought it would be hard to find musical connections there. By staying in this area I can keep working on my musical career.
How do you envision that career taking shape?
I would like to play with large and small ensembles, and I want to play recitals. This year one of my goals is to figure out how to get in contact with local symphonies and other groups so that they’ll know me as a classical saxophone player in the Boston area. Establishing a web site and an online presence will also be important.
What groups are you playing with now?
I’m in an NEC woodwind quintet, which consists of oboe, bassoon, flute, horn, and me on clarinet. I’m actually doing a lot of clarinet playing now, and I’m liking that instrument a lot more, which opens up repertoire possibilities quite a bit. I’m also playing in an NEC orchestra. With them I recently played one of the best saxophone pieces in the orchestral repertoire: the Symphonic Dances of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
I've just begun to realize how important it is to get the word out about what I’m doing. I no longer have the built-in audience that comes with playing at AHS concerts; I have to generate an audience myself. I wish it were easy for people to get to know me in this new context, but now the ball is in my court. So when I give a concert, I have to invite people to come.
[To see Parsons's web site, click here: www.bennettparsons.com]