On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)


Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Amy Dickson – the music of Philip Glass and how she had to redefine her breathing


To mark the 80th birthday of Philip Glass this week, saxophonist Amy Dickson has expressed her love of the composer’s music through an album released for Sony Classical. The record – simply titled Glass – includes two important arrangements highlighting the flexibility of the composer’s music, and showing how well it transcribes for Dickson’s instrument.

In this interview with Arcana she talks about how the arrangements were made, how she had to develop a whole new form of breathing for the recording, and how Take A Breath, her campaign for primary school children, has touched thousands around the world.

As always, to start with, Arcana raised the traditional question:

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I’m not sure I can! I do remember starting on the piano when I was two, and having music lessons early on. Pieces of piano music still take me back to early childhood. My fondest memory is being drawn in by a cassette that we used to listen to in my mum’s car. I would be absolutely rapt while we listened and then we would press rewind and listen over again. The piece I remember most was Andalucía by Ernesto Lecuona. I learned to play it on the piano after my mum went to great lengths to find the score of it.

How did you develop a love of the saxophone?

There was a great teacher, Melinda Atkins, who isn’t that much older than me. I had lessons with her from the age of six. It was just meant to be, she was absolutely amazing for me, and the chances were so slim of something like that happening. We looked at a lot of different styles of music, she was really cool about jazz and classical, and never made me think there was anything I couldn’t do. I was her student in Sydney until I went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18.

I played in jazz bands through my childhood years, and I had the widest range of musical influences you could imagine! I played piano classically, harpsichord in music from the Baroque, while for the saxophone it was so wide ranging. I feel very lucky to have had great teachers, and they have inspired me to have no boundaries. They helped me learn whatever I could, and I also have had parents who are very keen to give me opportunities. I am eternally grateful for that.

Has that approach carried with you to your recording career?

Yes. I definitely had no idea before it about a grand plan. I work from year to year and like to record whatever I feel particularly passionate about. I have recorded some really diverse repertoire so far, and I have no idea where I will be in five or so years – and I don’t really want to know either! I love playing with new and different people all the time, and that’s so interesting. There is no set path as a classical saxophonist, the only way to go is to be open.

What attracted you to the music of Philip Glass?

I feel very emotionally pulled towards it. When I first heard the Violin Concerto I fell in love with it. It was all to do with a place where I was in my life, and it tugged at my heartstrings. I thought about transcribing it, and that was ridiculous in a sense because there was nowhere to breathe! That was when I learned how to circular breathe.

The pieces from The Hours are particularly beautiful too – Morning Passages is lyrical and a complete piece in itself, and is remarkably complete for a film score. The Violin Sonata is similar to the concerto in terms of structure and content. I immediately felt as strong a pill to this as I did to the concerto, but it’s harder than anything I have ever played. Technically it’s tricky, but the element of stamina required is something else – there really is nowhere to breathe, nowhere with a beat’s rest. Since learning how to circular breathe I have dealt with that, but it really is playing constantly for around 25 minutes.

What is circular breathing, and how did you learn it?

While you’re breathing out, you sniff in through your nose and put more air into your lungs. You manipulate the back of your throat to put air into your cheeks, so then you release the air and sniff in again.

It’s a question of separating the muscle groups so that you can manipulate them. I knew a few people who did something similar, but I decided I wanted to play the concerto, and I set aside 20 minutes a day to learn how to circular breathe.

It took around two weeks, and was like learning a new life skill! It turned out to be the first steps, and it was six months until I felt I could really do it while I was playing, as the sound could be disrupted. If you can separate your lip muscles from your cheek muscles, it is much more instinctive now, but I still have to think carefully about it.

amy-dickson-glassWhat has the reception been like to your Glass recordings, and have you heard from Glass himself?

It’s been amazing. I got a message from Sony this morning to say that overnight the video had reached one million hits on YouTube. Philip has been very pleased with it too. Generally he doesn’t let other people touch his music.

Had you heard his previous work for saxophone before starting on this?

I got to know the Façades when I was doing the first transcription. I think the best way to get to know a composer is to listen to as much of their music as possible.

What was the inspiration for the ‘Take A Breath’ campaign?

The focus is to teach children to breathe well, but it stems from playing the Glass and teaching myself to breathe again as an adult.

I have spoken to experts about this and realised that children develop bad habits as they get older. As we get older, so much of our lives could be improved by breathing better. I was going into schools with the Children & The Arts charity, and we noticed that the kids would run and run around the playground, and could then calm themselves down if they took a breath and could breathe properly.

If I had been taught that as a child I would have benefited greatly! Over time with the kids we have developed a saxophone playing elephant – Ellie – that they can relate to. The children called her that, and they would pretend to have a trunk that they would breathe air into. They would breathe through it and it would put air in their tummies. All through the exercises we imagined they were playing a note on the saxophone.


It’s amazing seeing children remembering these exercises and being mesmerised by them. Some of the children said how it had helped them when they had fallen over, taking their ‘elephant breath’. It’s about having a tool for emotional resilience too. It was amazing seeing these little people doing elephant breaths before exams.

Could you recommend a piece of Philip Glass that you wouldn’t normally play?

There is a violin piece that I have been particularly drawn to – the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin.

Finally, what does classical music mean to you personally?

That’s really difficult! (Amy pauses) What is classical music? I think the term is difficult, I say I’m a classical saxophonist but I don’t play classical music – I see that as being music from between 1750 and 1820.

If you look at classical music it’s difficult to define. I reckon that in fifty years’ time they might call some of the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s classical music. We’ll have to wait and see!

Amy Dickson’s Glass is out now. For more information you can head to her website, where the Take A Breath campaign can also be found

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)


Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius


Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify: