Holly Hubbs, ambassador for classical sax, has new CD

Musician Holly Hubbs is on a one-woman mission to enhance the reputation of the saxophone from an iconic jazz instrument to a woodwind recognized for its classical repertoire as well.

Showcasing classical saxophone music, the challenge is that the relatively new (1842) instrument doesn’t have as much original repertoire as other woodwinds. So Hubbs spent a sabbatical exploring and adapting the rich repertoire of the clarinet, even though she admits it has been somewhat off-limits for saxophonists to borrow from clarinet repertoire. “I was interested in pushing buttons,” she said.

The result is the CD Crossing the Break, with pieces originally for clarinet arranged for soprano saxophone. The CD also features Professor of Music John French, holder of The William F. Heefner Chair of Music at Ursinus, and Nina Cottman, a Delaware Symphony Orchestra violist. The CD is available on CD, a site that allows independent musicians to market their music.

Hubbs spent hours wading through the Free Library of Philadelphia music collection. “I pulled down a dusty piece all in Cyrillic (an Eastern European alphabet) that had never had been checked out. It’s a wonderful piece and it wound up being illustrative of my saxophone technique,” she said. It is the first piece on her CD, Sonata No. 2 by Alexander Gretchaninov, a Russian romantic composer who lived from 1864 to 1956. The Gretchaninov was previewed on the Philadelphia classical music station WRTI Nov. 29 by host Mark Pinto. 

Not all the pieces were good candidates for transcription, especially if the brassy saxophone sound seemed incongruous with the intent of the piece. Other composers represented on the CD are Max Bruch (1838-1920, Germany), François Devienne (1759-1803, France) and Louis Moyse (1912-2007, United States).

Hubbs came upon the saxophone on her own in fifth grade, as neither parent was musical, she said. She loved the piano as well, but “insisted” on learning the saxophone, which was a sound she was familiar with from the Big Band records her parents played.

An associate professor at Ursinus where she conducts the jazz and woodwind ensembles, Hubbs has performed internationally. A native of St. Louis, she holds bachelor’s degrees from Quincy and Western Illinois universities, and a doctorate in saxophone performance from Ball State University in Indiana. She has written articles in Saxophone Symposium and has presented research at conferences. Her research into the music of early American women saxophonists led to a CD of the music of composer Kathryne E. Thompson. In January she will play at the International Saxophone Symposium in Virginia, a world premier by composer Kile Smith, whose work has been heard at Ursinus. 

Making music or teaching others about music, her hope is that students and audiences will be open to accepting the saxophone as a regular sound in classical repertoire.