Inspiration strikes us all in many ways, one person’s muse may most certainly be another’s demon. For me, I ‘grew up’, saxophonically-speaking, listening to Javier Oviedo and idolizing him as one of my musical heroes - his sound, melodicism, and watching him Just Do It in the musical world. I had the immense joy to sit down and speak with him prior to the Holiday Gala concert for The Classical Saxophone Project in November 2018 where I had the honor and privilege to perform aside him. Throughout the week I was in New York I was spoiled getting to talk to Javier for hours at a time and soak up all off the unforgettable information from this man. Seldom can I remember a time meeting with someone who’s fire and passion was so strong it made me feel ignited, Javier Oviedo is no exception. As you will soon discover in this interview, there is a contagious spirit with this man. He is instantly likable, relatable, hilarious, and most importantly - simply down to earth. Undeniably having his own voice, Javier Oviedo is truly a consummate musician.
The Saxophonist: How did you first get involved playing the saxophone?
Javier Oviedo: Well, like many young people in the US, I started in sixth grade. I was actually leaning towards choosing to play flute or clarinet. You know, there are these instrument ’petting zoos’ for fifth graders. We were taken to try a number of instruments, but my father said, “Oh, maybe you should play the saxophone.” I don’t know if he particularly cared for the saxophone. I think it was because it was an affordable instrument. I came from a large family so finances was always a concern. I was lucky though. My first instructor, Mr Adan Salazar was my band director, who just happened to be a saxophonist. Mr. Salazar was a decorated teacher in Texas and he got me set on the right foot, so to speak. In high school my instructor was yet another saxophonist, Alfred Esquivel. It was during these years I began to study privately. Lee Hoppel, a jazz-man in San Antonio who led a group call Jubilation later introduced me to my future college professor, Harvey Pittel.
NM: What was it like studying with Mr. Pittel?
JO: I learned a lot from Mr. Pittel, there is no doubt. He is an outstanding teacher and I think his methods are clearly proven by the excellence of his students. He was a very demanding teacher aiming to fully explore your potential. But what I think inspired most is that he taught us to be extremely demanding to ourselves. If at some point he got upset at you, it wasn’t because he was upset at you personally, it was because he believed you weren’t trying your best. Since, I’ve always tried to do the best I can and to be always in search of improving my playing. Now as a teacher, I appreciate my students doing that as well.—There is always something do work on.
TS: So would you say your desire for being better and wanting the best for yourself is why you moved to New York?
JO: Yes, one of the reasons. As you know now, being in New York, where there are so many talented musicians. And it’s daunting when you arrive and become aware of that fact. This forces you to really find your way and do a little soul searching. You have to ask yourself “What makes me stand out?” The public will always be impressed by fast fingers, loud notes and high pitches—It’s a fact. But music is not always served and being able to convey your deepest feelings as well as being respectful of the thoughts of the composers is most important for me. That little extra something that no one can teach you that makes the difference. you have to find in yourself. This is, for me, the most fascinating part of performing.
TS: What would you say is your thing that makes you, you then?
JO: I think I allow my personality to come through in my playing. It’s funny, but not many people do that. I see technical prowess, I see incredible ability, but I see too often a lack of musicianship, as if only playing the notes correctly were enough. Maybe the competition is too high, the pressure kind of keeps you boxed in by “I just have to be right”. This approach kills the joy of making music, in fact it kills the quintessential goal of performing.
TS: What prompted the creation of The Classical Saxophone Project then?
JO: Partially coming from a selfish place. I came to New York when I was 31, so a good 10 years older than most of the guys coming out of college at the time. Being more mature helped me realize I didn’t want to conform to the norms, doing what everyone else was doing. I knew I had to take a different route. I was told that I played and sounded different than others. I wanted to approach music through a different angle, try to do my best to let music speak. I was lucky enough at the time to meet Jean-Pierre Schmitt, who was the director of a school where I was teaching, and he was interested in the fact that I wanted to be a classical saxophonist, I wasn’t a jazz musician. He also understood the importance of educating the public about this other facets of the instrument. Music lovers are astonished to hear the saxophone perform classical music. I think the most common reaction we usually get after a concert is, “I didn’t know the saxophone could do that!” So, it did come from an inner desire to share what I had to offer. CSP tries to share that passion for the saxophone to the general public. We choose our repertoire carefully, form Baroque transcriptions to contemporary pieces. We introduce programs with one or two contemporary pieces and present them to our public. Our public has developed a trust in our taste and accepts the fact that we offer to them an opportunity to discover new sounds, new languages. We are confident that it is what is going to make awareness happen.
TS: How long did it take to the CSP to gain popularity?
JO: We’re still in our growing stages. It’s our ninth year, but we have our steady fans, which I really adore and we are making new friends after each concert. I work with a great team that helps us make things possible. But it takes time. It took about three or four years year establish a reputation to a larger audience, We started playing in more prestigious places. Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall became a regular venue in our season. In 2014, the celebration of Adolphe Sax, 200th birthday in collaboration with the Belgium Consulate was sold out! That was an exciting time and we reached a level where many people who didn’t know us began to help. These people just loved what we did and were happy to tell other people about CSP. Word of mouth is the slowest, but it is the most effective form of getting your work out there, it defines your true fans. Social media is a precious tool too. Facebook and Twitter have been powerful tools to help get people at our events.
TS: Besides performing, you have all these great projects going on. You have two CDs out, which are both phenomenal, but what challenges have you faced during this journey?
JO: Thank you! I think the biggest challenge is that people still don't know the saxophone and its full repertoire. Many have preconceived notions or prejudice of what the instrument can do. A large part of that is the majority of the repertoire written for saxophone is mostly unknown and the composers names are not always the most famous. It is difficult to attract a new audience when they have so many options at any given time, to take a chance with an unknown composer, an unknown music or an unknown experience.
One thing I am very insistent on is to host events at a low-cost to our community. Some of our events are even free to the public. It’s the same everywhere, I imagine, but the rising costs of producing these events creates a real burden on us to continue to perform in place the public knows.
TS: Have you ever had any prejudice against you as a classical saxophonist?
JO: I don’t know if you would call it prejudice—maybe it is—but I know if situations when someone says, “Oh, well I don’t like the saxophone so I won’t come.” How do I respond to that? Maybe “Give it a try. You might like it!”
TS: What have been some of the greatest highlights of CSP?
JO: We’ve had so many great opportunities to perform in great venues here in New York and around the world. To me the greatest is the chance to meet people from different backgrounds and experiences. I love speaking with audiences after concerts and getting to know them. I’m a very social person so it fits my personality to talk with people.
TS: So what are some future goals for CSP?
JO: I’d like to see CSP become a resource for young saxophonists. Currently we are planning to implement a scholarship program for youngsters to help attend music schools. I’ve been working with different music schools in the area to attract talented students. I guess as I get older I see myself in a mentoring position. I’m interested in seeing that deserving people find the help they need.
CSP is also working toward building a bigger audience base in New York. We’re using the social media and our contacts to spread the word more and more. I mentioned before that our ticket prices are very affordable or even free. This keeps the door open for new listeners without obligation.
We’ve also begun working on a new recording. This will be a collection of classics for saxophone and symphony orchestra. We’ll be traveling this month to the Czech Republic to record this music with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a huge undertaking! We’ve set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for this project and it can be accessed via our website at www.classicalsaxproject.org.
TS: What would your advice be to a saxophonist who graduated and wants to move to New York and play there?
JO: Don’t hesitate! Do it while you’re young! One thing is certain. You can not make it on your own. You need to connect with players, maybe a teacher or someone at a local college or university because it is really meeting and connecting with others that makes things happen. Many colleagues of mine launched careers that way. They knew people. They met people. It’s not always an easy thing to do because most of our training is alone in a practice room. Besides, many musicians aren’t trained in public relations. It’s not easy to talk about how good you are, even if you are.
TS: So I want to ask you one final question, where do you draw your inspiration from? Are there any specific artists, writers, or philosophical isms that spark that for you?
JO: [Laughs] You know, that’s a hard one. I can’t pinpoint one person. Many people inspire me. Not just musicians, people of different kinds. It could be a writer, a filmmaker, whatever. I think what inspires me is the promise of working with a group of people to make something beautiful. It doesn’t matter what your part is. We all bring something to the table. But I don’t even know if I could give you a specific name for inspiration. There are so many people throughout history to learn from. You never know where inspiration will be found. Just keep open to them!