From bouzouki clubs to concert halls

Absurd things do happen. Theodore Kerkezos, a saxophonist who once worked the notorious late-night bouzouki circuit for a living, eventually abandoned it all, and the money, to focus on classical music – this in an era when the move would generally be considered ludicrous. The risky initiative has brought deeper rewards for the musician. These days, Kerkezos is considered one of the world’s leading saxophonists in classical music. In Greece, his recently released CD with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra has sold out, while sales abroad, in the cities of Zurich, London and Tokyo, are faring well. This uniquely gifted Greek saxophonist, who is scheduled to perform in London with the Philharmonia in February, is gradually establishing himself on the international circuit, having appeared as a soloist with many celebrated orchestras, including the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Radio Moscow. He has also studied with notable figures such as Jean-Marie Londeix and Daniel Deffayet. He gave this interview to Kathimerini. Why isn’t the saxophone known as a classical instrument? Firstly, because it’s quite new. It was invented by Sax in 1842, and not many top soloists emerged [at the time] to inspire prominent composers. When Shostakovich had a violinist the caliber of [David] Oistrakh, or a cellist like [Mstislav] Rostropovich, at his disposal, and not a saxophonist of equal ability, isn’t it likely that the composition would be written for violin or cello? Of course, there are countless hard-to-find works by modern composers. Secondly, good instructors are rare, worldwide. And, finally, the instrument became mostly known through jazz, a popular form of expression that requires different things, but not – as people incorrectly think – less effort. How do jazz and music school become compatible? The fact that mythical jazz figures never went to conservatories does not mean anything. Mozart didn’t go to conservatories either. But piano, like the saxophone, is taught. Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, as well as others, were rare personalities, and extremely talented. They were great because they broke new ground – bebop, cool jazz. The rest of us, who absorb what they did and have to go further, must learn. Also, we’re obliged to respect the public. Ramshackle, half-learnt work doesn’t make the mark. You’ve got to invest in your form of art to enjoy it. How did you choose the saxophone? To begin with, I was charmed by its appearance when I saw it at a performance by [state radio and television] ERT’s Light Music Orchestra in my neighborhood. But my first contact with music was as a drummer, initially in my brother’s band, and later, my own, Plasis. It was the era of groups like Fatme and Spyridoula [early 1980s]. We played jazz and recorded one album… I took part for a while and observed the scene but was bothered by its sloppiness. I had taken lessons from Akis Skamagas, a noted figure in his time. I wanted something more serious. That’s rare aspiration for a youngster! Yes. It may have stemmed from my involvement, at the time, with gymnastics, which required great effort and precision. I was a national champion and have seven gold medals, and a total of 17 from the sport. If certain other factors had not intervened, I would have joined the Greek team for the Moscow Olympics. Nevertheless, I came into contact with the Athens Conservatory and the extremely serious instructor Babis Fanantatos. That’s when I realized that the saxophone was an entirely different instrument from what I had been used to until then. It’s not just solo play that counts in classical music. The instrument is part of the orchestra in works such as Ravel’s «Bolero,» Mussorgsky’s «Pictures at an Exhibition» (arranged by Ravel), Bizet’s «L’Arlesienne,» and many others. When you began, was there work for a classical saxophonist in Athens? In Greece, my degree was the first serious saxophone diploma backed by serious studies. Neither I nor anybody else believed that I would become a soloist. I began working the late-night club circuit, initially at the skyladika [infamous, low-quality, Greek music clubs] where stabbings, plate-breaking and suchlike were common, and later backed «stars» of popular Greek music. But none of that expressed me. I decided to stop and focus exclusively on classical music. My colleagues thought I was nuts – how was I going to live? But, gradually, I began playing more frequently with Greek orchestras, as there was no other classical saxophonist in the country. I left for Paris and began taking lessons with Daniel Deffayet, one of the two leading instructors at the time. I persuaded some Greek composers to begin writing for me and began emerging as a soloist. Which Greek composers have you worked with? I’ve been given works by Antoniou, Dragatakis, Mikroutsikos, Tenidis, Kanas, Amartidis, and many others. Also, Xenakis had written a quartet for saxophone, «Xas» – «sax» reversed. I met him in Paris in 1995 and asked him to write for me. He offered me two pieces, «Dmaathen» and «Charisma,» which I performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London. How did the album come about? It’s something I’d had in mind for years. An initial proposal was made by the renowned Russian director Vladimir Fedoseyev, who had conducted a performance of mine in Moscow. Other offers followed, but I chose to record with London’s Philharmonia, which is a major orchestra. The orchestra’s players got excited when they saw the material I proposed, which included the best-known works for saxophone – by Debussy, Millault, Glazunov, Villa-Lobos, as well as a composition by Ekaterini Karamessini. The recording was made with the support of Vassilis Trapalis, the mayor of Nikaia who has, generally, offered great assistance to the saxophone in Greece by founding the Nikaia Municipal Saxophone Orchestra in 2000. What happened with the Debussy material included on your album? Everybody plays it the way they want! When I got hold of the score, some things didn’t seem logical. At the time of the recordings, I was taking lessons with J.M. Londeix, the leading saxophonist who had originally played for the composers on virtually all the pieces included in my album! We discussed my concern, he looked into it, we found Debussy’s original score in a museum and discovered mistakes that had been made in the copies. We replaced them and recorded the original rendition, without any changes or revisions. Do you play a special type of saxophone? At some point, I was contracted with Selmer, the world’s best manufacturer of saxophones. The instruments I play – soprano and alto – are custom-made to my liking, with artificial aging of materials, which results in a softer sound. Do you still play jazz? Hardly, but at a different level now. I study everything more. Don’t you enjoy the absolute control one has while improvising alone on stage? Alone, you can do as you please. But on stage with a conductor and other musicians, you have to do what’s required. It’s far more difficult, but more rewarding.