The saxophonist speaks to Toby Deller about the challenges and joys of bringing an instrument not usually associated with classical repertoire to audiences across the world

‘With pianists, yes, I had a hard time,’ says saxophonist Valentine Michaud, recalling the difficulty she had finding a regular recital partner. ‘I played with the official accompanists in the school in Lausanne where I was before and I had a lot of trials with pianists. But they were always too busy with violinists or solo work so it always ended up that they were too busy or they were not interested in this music.’

So when a pianist from Lithuania, Akvile Sileikaite, introduced herself at the end of a welcome day put on by the Zurich University of Arts where they were studying, it was not something she was expecting.

‘I had no clue who this girl was. But it’s really rare that a pianist actually offers to play with saxophone because normally they have lots of things to do with violins, cellos – everything but saxophone. The modern repertoire is extremely difficult for the piano and it’s not very common that pianists are interested in it. So at first I thought she didn’t know what she was stepping into and I was like: are you sure about that? Do you know what the repertoire is? And she said: yes, there’s this and that. I thought: she actually knows! We started right away.’

Under the name the AKMI Duo, they have since flourished in Switzerland, where they are based, and abroad with the duo making its UK debut this month courtesy of the 2019 Swiss Ambassador’s Award. But their success so far comes with its challenges.

‘It’s not so easy to bring audiences to concerts because they don’t know what classical saxophone is,’ says Michaud. ‘And it’s also not so easy to convince programmers or managers or agencies because it’s a very specific repertoire and it’s not traditional so it’s hard to sell tickets. It’s easier to sell tickets with a Schumann piano concerto than with an unknown contemporary saxophone concerto, so the programmers get scared and the audiences never get to listen to this music. It’s like a circle that never ends: because they don’t know this music they don’t like it and because they don’t like it we don’t play it to them.’

She is upbeat, however, about the challenge of enlightening people to its possibilities. ‘We have to find programming ideas that are still appealing to people but are true to your faith as an interpreter. Because if you just play nice, easy listening music to please the audience, that’s not what I want to do. I also want to play what I really like and what I believe in.’

“It’s easier to sell tickets with a Schumann piano concerto than with an unknown contemporary saxophone concerto”

She mentions a performance she gave last year at the Festival de la Cité in Lausanne. ‘It was a very heavy contemporary programme: a piece by a young French composer called Secret Procession; there was Stockhausen’s In Freundschaft and Pierre Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double and a premiere of a work by a friend of mine. It was all extremely contemporary. It was a really broad audience because it was in a festival where every concert was free, a festival with every kind of music: there is rock ‘n’ roll, everything there. We played this show in the cathedral – it was really a show performance, not just a concert: there was a whole drama happening so no applause in between the pieces, just one hour of music. There were a lot of children there, a lot of people who were just passing by, a lot of kids stayed until the end. It’s really hard music and even for me in a concert it would need some intense concentration to really appreciate it. People came to us and said, “Wow! We didn’t know this music but in this context it’s really working.”’

The music she played there was from a transdisciplinary show, Shout, part of a trilogy of collaborative performance art entitled Waiting for Amon that she created with, among others, her visual artist brother Emmanuel. This kind of work provides another outlet for her and her repertoire, although, with her parents artists too, her enthusiasm for it goes back to her childhood in France. It grew alongside her musical development and what was a hobby became a professional interest.

‘I think if you use other artistic mediums, then you can bring this repertoire to people that wouldn’t have maybe even had the idea of going to listen to it in the first place. It’s interesting to have contact with different audiences or children, even; children are really receptive to this kind of performance. It’s something that I really like and I think I’ll keep going in this way. I also like to do many different things so it gives me a chance to express myself with saxophone, of course, but I can also experiment with stage directing or choreography or even designing sets or clothes. I can put more of myself in this than just in a concert, maybe.’

AKMI’s tour will be a more conventional recital, however, even if Michaud reckons her more experimental work pays dividends in her stage presence and her relationship with her instruments. She picks out two original works for saxophone as highlights of the programme.

‘The William Albright sonata is a landmark in the saxophone repertoire, and we will record it also on our debut album in September. It’s a piece that I really love. Also a new piece that has been written for us will also be on an album. We commissioned it thanks to another competition that we won called the Orpheus Swiss Chamber Music Competition. We were allowed to ask a Swiss composer to write something for us so I asked Kévin Juillerat. He is also a saxophone player, so I knew he would really do something for the instrument. It’s a piece that really uses the timbres of both instruments and make them merge – it’s becoming really one sound. It’s why we like it a lot because it’s really chamber music in the true sense, it’s becoming just one musician.’

The AKMI Duo tour the UK between 15 and 17 October, performing at Wigmore Hall, the Stoller Hall and the Dora Stoutzker Hall.

Sound Bites

On Switzerland

It’s a really good place to be when you are a contemporary music player and a young player because there are a lot of organisations which support young musicians. I’m really thankful for this because I got some great opportunities. And I think it’s a really open-minded audience here. People are really curious about a lot of music and it’s really important to me because the saxophone is really recent so most of our repertoire with the duo is modern or really contemporary. Sometimes in other countries, for example in Russia or even America sometimes, they are not so open to this kind of music. Here people are willing to hear it – of course they don’t always love it because sometimes it’s hard to listen to. But they are really curious and it’s nice because there are a lot of experimental music performances. This is actually why I stayed in Switzerland.

On expressiveness and musical learning (her Masters topic)

Now I’m teaching I can see also that it’s not easy to talk about, especially with teenagers because they are sometimes a bit more closed than us. As teachers we have a tendency to focus on the perfect whatever: perfect scale, perfect technique, perfect execution. As a student, I was focused on doing the most perfect performance and nobody told me about what you should say with your music for a long time. I also think that maybe children would engage and commit more in their musical practice if they would understand from the beginning that music is really a way to say something to people. If it’s just a way to practise at home and be the best at whatever competition, then it’s a bit sad.