Profile: Alastair Penman, saxophonist and clarinettist, and the Menuhin Room concert series

On 11 November Alastair Penman and Jonathan Pease are performing an eclectic mix of repertoire for sax and piano as part of the Portsmouth Menuhin Room concert series.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at this concert?

This concert will be our tenth performance of music from our new album Soar; more performances than we’ve ever given of the same project before! It’s such fantastic repertoire, and every performance we unearth new hidden gems within the music. It’s a pleasure to perform so much together as we’ve come to know each other’s playing inside out and feel completely at ease sharing the stage. It’s a pleasure to return to the Menuhin Room having given our first ever performance here earlier in the year.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?

Although neither of my parents are musicians, they wanted to give us lots of opportunities as children, and I was very lucky to have an older sister who took up the flute (she’s now a professional flautist herself), and later encouraged me to start the clarinet.

Inspired by hearing the jazz groups at school I took up the saxophone and I had a fantastic first saxophone teacher, Claire McInerney (whose credits range from playing in the house bands on Parkinson and Strictly Come Dancing to West End Shows and even the soundtrack to Harry Potter!). Claire nurtured my love of jazz and soon all I wanted to do was play the saxophone!

After taking an Engineering Degree at the University of Cambridge I took a Masters in Saxophone at the Royal Northern College of Music, studying with Rob Buckland, who has been hugely influential on my playing. After this I won an award from the City Music Foundation, through which I came to work with John Harle. John was one of my saxophonic heroes from a young age (one of the first CDs Claire lent me was of John Harle), so it was a real honour to work with John. He offered to produce my first album (Electric Dawn), which was released on his record label (Sospiro Records), and later invited me to take some classes at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I am now Professor of Saxophone, working alongside John. Eighteen-year-old me would never have dreamt I would have the opportunity to work with such a saxophone colossus!

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

Playing “classical” saxophone is a very niche market, and a very small world, so it can often feel like there aren’t many performance opportunities. It’s easy to look at clarinet and flute playing colleagues with orchestral jobs and be jealous of the fact that there are no such positions available to sax players. It can be tough at times realising that the project you most want to pursue aren’t the most financially rewarding, but it’s important to be true to yourself and keep creating the music you love!

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

My first two solo albums were both just myself and electronics. Whilst these projects were great fun to create and to perform live, it can sometimes feel quite lonely being the only musician on stage. When I play with Jon it’s such a joy to have live interaction and interplay. There is no greater joy than making music together with other musicians!

Are there any composers for whom you feel a particular affinity?  / Which works do you think you are able to perform best, and why? 

I love playing works by living composers with whom you can discuss and workshop ideas. One of my favourite composers is Jenni Watson, who is one of the most exciting living composers for the saxophone. I commissioned Jenni to write a piece, Deconstruct, for my first album, Electric Dawn. It’s a wonderful piece that’s really personal, and it’s turned out to be one of my most successful recordings and one of Jenni’s most performed compositions. More recently Jenni and I have been playing together in the Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet, and I was really pleased to include an arrangement by Jenni on my new album Soar. Other composer’s whose works we recorded on Soar include Andy Scott, who was one of my teachers at RNCM, and Paul Mitchell-Davidson. On hearing our recording of his piece, Lullaby, Paul wrote a new piece, Rage Against the Dying of the Light, dedicated to myself and Jonathan, which we look forward to premiering next year!

What are your most memorable experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

I’ve been lucky to play at some incredible venues with some fantastic musicians. One performance that will always stay with me however, is the first time I performed with the London Contemporary Orchestra. It was the UK concert of the world tour of 4U: A Symphonic Tribute to Prince, at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d never played with the orchestra before, and there was just one rehearsal on the morning of the concert. As we ran through the programme we came to a sax solo, after which the conductor said they might put a spotlight on me at that point. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger adrenaline rush than the spotlight descending on me in front of a sold-out Albert Hall!

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

The Arts are in a terrible state in the UK at the moment (due to lack of funding), and having a career as a musician is a really difficult path to follow. I remember being told that you should only become a musician if you can’t imagine doing anything else; I think that’s sound advice. To be a musician in the current climate you have to really love what you’re doing, and do it for the love of the music! (Definitely not for the (lack of) money!)

How would you define success as a musician?

I think anyone managing to pay their bills as a musician is being pretty successful these days! Musical integrity is hugely important though – I think truly successful musicians are those that are able to play the music they love!

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

Still be playing the saxophone and writing music hopefully!

About Alastair

Hailed as a “pioneering instrumentalist and writer” and praised for his “surpassingly beautiful music” and “undoubtedly brilliant mind”, saxophonist Alastair Penman is a dynamic and versatile performer and composer. Alastair is a City Music Foundation Artist, Park Lane Group Artist, BBC Introducing Artist, Live Music Now Artist, a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, and has won awards from the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, RNCM and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Alastair is a Henri Selmer Paris and Vandoren UK performing Artist.

As a soloist, Alastair has been a guest recitalist at European and World Saxophone Congresses and his debut album, Electric Dawn, has received airplay on BBC Radio 3. Alastair’s EP, Do You Hear Me?, which highlights the climate emergency, has been described by critics as “groundbreaking”, “a superb mix of sounds” and “damn good music” and his most recent album, Soar, alongside pianist Jonathan Pease, has been described as “an extended dazzling display of talent”. Alastair leads the award-winning Borealis Saxophone Quartet and plays baritone saxophone with the Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet. Alastair has performed with orchestras including the Philharmonia, London Contemporary Orchestra and Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

As an educator Alastair is Professor of Saxophone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has taught classes for Royal Northern College of Music, Trinity Laban Conservatoire, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and UCLA (USA). Alastair’s compositions appear on the ABRSM and Trinity Saxophone syllabuses and his YouTube channel (Saxophone Resources) of educational resources receives over 40,000 views each month, with over 3.5 million total views.

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