SaxRules with Raaf Hekkema (ENGLISH VERSION)

Today we are going to interview a fantastic Amsterdam-born saxophonist, arranger and composer.

A musician who belongs to a worldwide reference group: the Calefax Reed Quintet. A reed quintet that will soon be 35 years old and that has offered nearly 1,700 concerts worldwide. (literal)

Our interviewee today combines his work as a concert player (his main job) with teaching at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (Netherlands), a center that precisely did not admit him in his student stage.

He has recorded the 3 CDs: » J.S. BACH SUITES«, «Paganini Caprices for Saxophone» and «Bach Partitas«, arranged by himself.

Today we are lucky to interview Raaf Hekkema.

SaxRules: How did the saxophone come into your life?

Raaf: My father is a jazz trumpeter, and when I was 12 years old, he asked if me I would like to play an instrument. It still is quite incomprehensible to me why that took him so long… He gave me a shortlist of possible options, mainly jazz-related instruments. I opted for the saxophone, because of its shininess and the many buttons. Only later did I find out that I actually liked the sound of it. It took another year for my parents (who got divorced when I was very young) to get me a saxophone, with financial aid of my grandmother. So in fact I did not get lessons before I was 13, which makes me a latecomer in music….

SaxRules: Where and with whom did you train as a saxophonist?

Raaf: When I was 18, I wanted to study in The Hague, with Leo van Oostrom, as I had learned that he was an intelligent person, and more artistically involved than Ed Bogaard, who had a big class in Amsterdam (Arno Bornkamp had just graduated with him at that time). Leo did NOT accept me as a student, to my sad surprise. Just a week later my bassoonist friend (and still my colleague in Calefax Reed Quintet) took me to a party of someone who played in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. To my surprise, Arno was there, and I was introduced to him. He heard my story, and invited me to have some lessons with him, and to try to get me onto the Amsterdam Conservatory. After 3 lessons, we succeeded: I was accepted in Amsterdam! At the same time, I was accepted as a composition student in The Hague, but since I lived in Amsterdam, I decided to let that chance go and focus on saxophone. Two years later, I applied and was accepted for composition in Utrecht, where Tristan Keuris taught. He was a fantastic composer who died young… I soon became bored in Amsterdam with Ed Bogaard. After my first phase (what is now called Bachelor) I went to Arno Bornkamp in Enschede, which was far away for me, but luckily we both lived in Amsterdam, so I did not need to travel much! Now, I am saxophone teacher at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, where I was rejected as a student….! I think that it is fair to say that I learned most from sitting in a group for such a long time with my woodwind colleagues, all trained by principle players of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

SaxRules: You received the «Musician of the Year 2007» award given by the German label Echo Classic for the CD Paganini Caprices for Saxophone, with some pieces that you yourself arranged. Tell us about the iceberg that is surely behind all this.

Raaf: I was part of a government subsidized program for young musicians, which gave me the opportunity to have lessons with renowned artists of my choice. I had by then mostly spent a lot of time working on new music – lots of microtones, and thorough investigating of my instrument, and I had some adjustments done to make those things possible (have a look at the Sax Modification section of my website to view them). Saxophone repertoire never had my interest, since in my view those were all second-rate composers, OR arrangements of pieces by first-rate composers (Stockhausen, Berio). In my group Calefax, we focused on the big composers, ranging from Josquin, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, through Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovitch to newly composed stuff. I was convinced that by playing music that was NOT written for the saxophone, I would end up doing things that were outside of my imaginative world. And I wanted to do something no one had done before. My aim was to recreate Paganini’s Caprices as if they had been written for the saxophone. I had lessons in the Swiss violin class of Rudolf Koelman (former Concert master of the Concertgebouw Orchestra), which was very exciting: every month I would travel to Winterthur, play a few Caprices for the class (they had a good laugh), and then had lessons with Rudolf. After 6 years I was ready to record all 24 Caprices. Later, I was invited to play Paganini’s 2nd Violin Concerto with an orchestra here in the Netherlands – that was even more thrilling…

SaxRules: Take stock of your years as a teacher at the Royal Conservatoire The Hague.

Raaf: I was invited to revive the saxophone class in 2015. At that moment there were zero students. Since then, in collaboration with my colleague Lars Niederstrasser, we have been able to build the class to a suitable one (at the moment we have 10 students). I still don’t teach more than one day a week, because of my very busy concert schedule (ca. 100 concerts per year across the world). I think I am far from a standard teacher, and for most people I am maybe not so suitable. But for some people, especially those who are struggling with their artistic course, I could be a good solution. I feel very dedicated to my students. Sometimes I feel like giving up the job, because financially I don’t need it, and I miss the day that I teach as time for my own development, but then I enjoy teaching also.

SaxRules: You belong to a reference camber group such as the Calefax Reed Quintet with which you have recorded many good albums, you have won awards. You have played all over the world, also with other great performers and you have made a great contribution to expand the repertoire of this group: either through commissions to composers or your own arrangements. And all this for 35 years. What is your secret to maintain this success over time? Could it be because of your pop-group mindset of classical music?

Raaf: Calefax has always been the main influence on me, and the biggest inspiration. Since almost 20 years now we have had state subsidy, which gives us the opportunity (and obligation!) to invest in new ways of performing constantly. We are producing 3 or 4 new programs per year, always with a new perspective on music, we travel around the world and have collaborated with a steady stream of inspiring artists of all fields, from animation to dance, from video art to mime. Upcoming June, we would have traveled to the last remaining continent that we hadn’t visited yet: New Zealand. Unfortunately, it was postponed because of the Corona-crisis. Our secret (I think) is that we managed to stay together despite the big differences in personalities and a lot of struggling. We now regard our differences as a source of inspiration. Since we also have very different courses of life, this is a never-ending source. We always had a multiple of ideas that we can realize. We started young (I was 17…) still in high school… It took us almost 15 years to be taken seriously in the field of classical music. So my advice to young musician is simple: if you believe in something, don’t give up. My way of thinking about classical music has helped me to innovate our practice (I was brought up with pop music…), and I think by now that is an accepted way of dealing with classical music. My philosophy is that when you arrange something, you are actually the composer of a new piece, based on the old piece: never say “I put that note there because I found it that way in the original”! It is the task of the arranger to know exactly WHY a note is there and to recreate the score for the new medium. If that means that the note needs to be taken out, that is not LACK of respect for the original – it means you have really understood what your task is. Maybe this is a too big topic to handle here… If you’re interested, contact me.

SaxRules: With Calefax Reed Quintet you have surely lived through many anecdotes (curious or nice situations), could you tell us some that can be told?

Raaf: After ca. 1700 Calefax-concerts in 40+ countries, yes I think there should be some anecdotes…. But it’s all so multifaceted… It’s hard for me to come up with one defining one. Sorry.

SaxRules: During the confinement, concert tours with Calefax in New Zealand and the United States among others have been canceled and recently you decided to offer a live concert from your home with old saxophones and music by Bach, Telemann and Couperin. Tell us about what this pioneering experience of offering online concerts was like.

Raaf: That was a very strange experience. I normally try to be in contact with my audience, but for obvious reasons that was impossible. Afterwards, I read through all the comments, and then I actually felt the contact that I was longing for. It was nice to be playing at home, although a nice acoustic would have been better.

SaxRules: Name the 5 people who have influenced you the most on a musical / personal level

Raaf: That’s easy: the other members of Calefax. Well, Arno Bornkamp was important for me when I was young, and later I had a few very influential lessons with Claude Delangle. And my wife is truly my artistic sounding board, even though she is not a musician.

SaxRules: What has been your sweetest musical moment so far?

Raaf: Calefax played the ‘Prinsengrachtconcert’ twice, in 2010 and 2012. It’s a yearly midsummer open air concert on one of Amsterdam’s beautiful canals, with 10.000 people attending. Unforgettable. Oh, and I SANG a Moondog song as an encore in New York Town Hall, for 900 people. That was very exciting to do.

SaxRules: Set up. 

Raaf: Whoops… That’s a lot. I own 9 instruments. I don’t want the collection to grow too much, because I want to be able to keep in touch with all of them occasionally (I tend to think of them as some sort of harem).

  • Altos: 1985 Buffet-Crampon Prestige, 1970(?) Buffet-Crampon Super Dynaction (my spare instrument – great horn though!), 1927 Buescher straight True Tone, 1926 Buescher True Tone.
  • Sopranos: 1992 Yanagisawa Elimona, 1924 Buescher curved True Tone, 1920(?) Hawkes & sons soprano in C.
  • Tenor: 1922 Conn C-Melody, 1931 Adolphe Sax/Selmer. Oh and I have a (no brand) keyless sax.

I have started to learn how to reface mouthpieces, so on most of my vintage horns I play on my self-made pieces (I bought a load of old mouthpieces to practice). On my regular alto I usually play a Selmer that was refaced at the Vandoren workshop to my requirements (now close to Selmer D). On soprano I play a Vandoren S27. I have been using Légère Signature 3,5 and 3,75 reeds since approx. 5 years. I don’t really believe in ligatures (people spend way too much money on them!), but I am quite happy with my Vandoren Optimum.

SaxRules: Future projects.

Raaf: In the past few years I have made a thorough revision of Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Caprices and atonal Sonata, of which I don’t understand why they are generally considered “Etudes”… I think this is some of the best repertoire that we have! Although I must admit that the edition that we know is full of problems. The results of my work will be published soon, and I am going to present a theatrical concert about Karg-Elert, in which I will be playing a lot of the Caprices. Furthermore, I am delving into new repertoire for Calefax and solo saxophone constantly. But at the moment, I am composing a new piece for Calefax, for our 35th anniversary tour.

SaxRules: Thank you very much maestro!!

You have more information about Raaf and Calefax below. Click at the pictures to access their website

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