First published in The Herald on 11 February, 2015
You could be forgiven for getting the wrong impression of Amy Dickson. True, the Australian saxophonist makes chart-topping albums of film music and low-lit love ballads. Yes, a quick Google search brings up a pages of glamorous photoshoots, full of soft-focus palm trees, swimming pools and poses in which it would be tricky to actually play a saxophone. Dickson is indeed a brand ambassador for a beauty range, and in 2013 she did win a Classic BRIT award, that barometer of commercial prowess that doesn’t tend to correspond with artistic value. (In the bizarre juxtapositions of competition think, she beat a singing Franciscan monk, Friar Alessandro, to win the ‘Breakthrough’ category.)
But there’s substantially more to Dickson than industry headlines would have you believe. I meet her one Monday morning in the headteacher’s office of Dalry Primary school in west Edinburgh. She’s wrapped up in a heavy winter coat and has an Alice band sweeping her hair sensibly off her face. She’s been up since five to catch the early flight from London and looks genuinely thrilled when the headteacher hands her a mug of industrial-strength tea.
Dickson is back in Scotland next week to tour with the Scottish Ensemble, but today she’s here to work with The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, a UK-wide arts charity for whom she is an ambassador. With a long day of workshops and school assembly performances ahead of her, she talks in plain terms about the joys of working with children — and stresses that the benefit is mutual. “You’ve got these blank slates sitting in front of you. Kids give instant and uninhibited responses. You never get that reaction from a concert audience. In concert setting a lot of people’s listening faces aren’t indicative of what they’re really thinking. When I’m listening, I look like this:” she scowls in mock concentration, then laughs. “So yeah, in a totally selfish way, I get a huge amount out of working with kids. Hopefully they get something too…”
She herself started playing piano at the age of two — “only that young because I wasn’t very coordinated and my mum thought that playing the piano would help. We happened to have an amazing teacher down the road who taught her own version of the Yamaha method [a music education system based on group games and creativity]. Our suburb was only 20 minutes outside of Sydney but we lived in the middle of nowhere, culturally speaking. And yet all these kids would go in, 8-10 kids per class, some of them just tiny tots, and most of them came out with perfect pitch.”
Dickson was among those students who came out with perfect pitch — that ability to pick a pitch out of thin air and know innately what note it is. Incidentally, it hasn’t always been helpful for someone who plays a transposing instrument: the note called ‘c’ on a saxophone is not the same as the note called ‘c’ on most pianos, which can cause havoc for someone with perfect pitch. “I find it almost impossible to improvise in jazz,” she admits. “I always hear piano pitch, so roaming off into other key signatures? Very hard.” Dickson never did go down the jazz route, despite the heritage of her chosen instrument often pulling her in that direction.
She started playing saxophone when she was six. “My school lent me a disgusting instrument that probably hadn’t been washed in about 30 years. I’ll never forget that green fungal mouthpiece. Actually, I’m surprised I didn’t die! But sax was much easier for me than piano. It felt natural. I knew I’d be a classical saxophone soloist from the moment I picked up that green mouthpiece…”
She played her first major concerto at 16; on her 18th birthday she was recording with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After moving to London to study at the Royal College of Music she became the first saxophonist to win a clutch of prestigious international prizes including Gold Medal at the Royal Overseas League Competition. Her certainty about becoming a serious classical musician never wavered, yet still she kept her musical horizons is broad. “I grew up simultaneously playing in the school big band and playing harpsichord in the baroque ensemble at Sydney Conservatorium. I never thought of anything as being unusual or not cool. Everything was music, and everything was exciting.”
Today her discography is easy proof of that breadth, ranging from those sultry film scores to Richard Rodney Bennett’s Seven Country Dances with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She has commissioned new works from UK composers including Huw Watkins, Graham Fitkin and Steve Martland, and her latest album, recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last year and due for release in May, contains world premiere recordings of works written for her by Brett Dean, Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards, Australia’s three leading composers.
Dickson is straightforward about the commercial imperatives that govern the record industry, but it would be wrong to assume that she only makes her chart-topping albums in order to fund the world premieres. “There is a business aspect, of course,” she says. “An album costs a lot of money to make; it’s very romantic to think otherwise. You have to try to make it work for the people investing that money. I simply try to keep a strong idea of what I want no matter what I’m playing.”
“I love recording all these different types of music,” she says, “and I think it’s healthy for a musician to play different styles. I find it just as challenging to play a really simple melody as I do to play an off-the-richter-scale contemporary piece. A simple melody has to be shaped exquisitely. Every millisecond has to have a direction of phrasing that will make it sing.”
Next week Dickson performs two works with the Scottish Ensemble: Alexander Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto and a moody, meditative score called Night Prayers by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. She laughs as she describes the Glazunov as her “old friend — it’s my equivalent of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.” But let’s keep this in perspective, she says; “it’s no warhorse, because it’s not like I’m playing it in Paris one night, Berlin the next. This is still the niche world of classical saxophone music, remember!” If anyone can widen that niche, it’s surely Dickson.
Amy Dickson plays with the Scottish Ensemble at Dundee’s Caird Hall on February 20; Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on February 21; Inverness’s Eden Court on February 22; Glasgow City Halls on February 24; London’s Wigmore Hall on February 26; and Egremont’s Market Hall on February 27.