By Melissa Mitchell
While Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan was making headlines this summer with Lilith Fair, an unprecedented cross-country tour featuring some of the best-known female performers in popular music, equally big but quieter strides were being made by women on the academic side of the music aisle.
At the UI, saxophone professor Debra Richtmeyer received word that she was one of only three female soloists and one of 25 Americans invited to perform at the 11th World Saxophone Congress in Valencia, Spain, Sept. 27-30. More notably, she was the only one among the trio tapped to perform with full orchestral accompaniment.
"Being selected to perform a concerto with orchestra is a very special honor," and a first for a woman at a world saxophone congress, according to the UI professor, who has performed at the international event four times previously. At this year's congress, she played the European premiere of the Concerto for Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra with the Mediterranean Chamber Orchestra. The concerto was composed for Richtmeyer by two-time Pulitzer prize nominee David Ott.
Also performing in Valencia was the Tower Saxophone Quartet, a UI graduate-student ensemble Richtmeyer coaches. Members of the award-winning quartet who have performed at the White House are Jeremy Koch, Joyce Griggs, Nathan Degenhardt and Richard Wyman.
"This is also a special honor, since very few students are ever invited to perform at world saxophone congresses," said Richtmeyer, who said the experience was everything she'd hoped for for herself as well as her students.
"I played well, and my students played great," she said. Her own personal assessment of the experience was confirmed through feedback from a few of the congress's other notable participants. Richard Ingham, who has hosted the British Saxophone Congress for the past few years, described her performance as "the definitive in saxophone playing." And, in a word, Juan Antonio Ramirez, president of the Spanish Saxophone Congress and host to this year's international gathering, pronounced Richtmeyer's musicianship "phenomenal."
The UI professor, who plays "everything from jazz to romantic to avant-garde, and everything in between" has performed with symphony orchestras as well as in big bands with entertainers as diverse as Natalie Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, and Seals and Crofts. Along the way on her career path, Richtmeyer became a dues-paying member of a fairly exclusive club the first generation of female saxophonists to teach at the university level.
"This has been a male-dominated world and still is," she said. More women are jumping in the pool as time goes on, however. This year, a third of Richtmeyer's freshman saxophone students are women, which is more than she has ever had at that level in 17 years of university teaching. And, she added, "There are several of us teaching at the university level now in the United States, including the president of the North American Saxophone Alliance, Kandace Brooks."
Still, Richtmeyer said, she remains acutely aware of her responsibility
as a female role model "something my generation didn't have."
In the classroom, she said she makes a conscious effort to stress the advantages
for both male and female students of performing in mixed-gender
ensembles. "I also try to make them aware that men and women have both
male and female sides that they bring to their performance styles, and that
they need to be in touch with both sides."