July 2019
Vienna, Austria

Saxophonist Georg Palmanshofer is one of the rare bunch of musicians playing classical music on an instrument that is mainly associated with jazz. The Viennese speaks about his favourite moment as a performer, the secrets to being a successful music teacher and feeling at home when he's on stage.


Georg Palmanshofer takes his saxophone out of the box. "You'll be hearing a snippet from a Glazunov piece," he says, blowing a few times into the mouthpiece of the instrument as if getting rid of dust particles. "It's the most famous classical concert for saxophone," he promises, slowly embarking on a short musical journey.

I am seated in his room of the Vienna apartment that he shares with an old school friend, keeping my chin up while he performs his one-minute solo. It is filled with smooth transitions and sorrowful tones that are deeply rooted in romanticism. I do not dare to say a word and let myself be carried into a world so foreign to me, and yet I feel moved to the core by the sounds of it. When the last note is played, Georg quickly glances at his watch - "We shouldn't be playing after 7pm or the neighbours will complain" - putting an abrupt end to his performance. I can't hide my disappointment.

Two minutes into the conversation the mood is cheerier. "Diversity!" Georg exclaims without thinking when asked what he enjoys most about classical music. He is now seated by the foot of the bed, facing me directly in the eye with only my tripod between us.

"Think of Gregorian chants, Bach, Händel, Mozart, classical Beethoven, Schubert," he drops the names of grand influencers. "The whole development [of classical music] through the history makes it so rich in colours and emotions. Through the years these emotions and the way they are expressed have changed. That's the special thing about classical music - it has a way to describe these emotions."

The saxophone was first developed in the 1840s by Belgian musician Adolphe Sax, and it is an instrument that is hugely dominated by jazz, forcing classical saxophonists to fight incessantly for their place in the classical world. For the entirety of his musical career, Georg has been dedicated to doing just that. He is a recent graduate of the renowned Music and Arts Private University in Vienna, inarguably one of the biggest centres for classical music in the world. His class was filled with a variety of people from all over the world, including Japan, USA, Chile, France and Italy, allowing him to see different approaches to music. "It was a really great time because you could see how music is taught in the different parts of the world," he says. Despite a brief consideration to move to Paris - the birthplace of saxophone - he decided to stay in Vienna, where he feels most comfortable.

Since receving his diploma at the beginning of this year, Georg's invested a lot of his time into teaching and performing with contemporary musicians, including Bulgarian pianist Iliyana Stoyanova, with whom he's formed a duet called "Duo Impetus". His further collaborations with contemporary composers include Jorge Sanchez-Chiong, Duncan Youngerman, Marino Formenti, Georg Friedrich Haas and Olga Neuwirth.

"The fascinating thing about contemporary music is that no one played this music before you," he explains. "The composers are really thinking a lot before putting something down on paper, and you're the first one who is allowed to interpret a piece. It's kind of personal. And, of course, you're part of the development of classical music."

Not everyone, however, is a fan of this development, leaving a lot of people confused and frustrated with the seemingly random sequence of sounds. Contemporary music is not everyone's cup of tea, but Georg is unaffected by the negativity.

"The great thing about music is that you can always transport a message. But to really understand the music, it's necessary to study [its past]. The composers all know the history of the music, so I try to [encourage the doubters] to close their eyes and try to find out what music is trying to say. If there are strong impulses [in the piece], such as hard slaps - it has an impact on you, even without knowing the language of music. You just have to be open to it." Georg pauses, then adds wryly, "Worship the past but also develop the future."

"[Contemporary music] is kind of personal, and, of course, you're part of the development of classical music. Worship the past, but also develop the future."

"[Contemporary music] is kind of personal, and, of course, you're part of the development of classical music. Worship the past, but also develop the future."

Georg's love for music was more of a happenstance, considered the fact that he doesn't come from a family of musicians. His older sister, a clarinet player, was the one to pave the way, but his first encounter with the world of classical music goes way back. The memory of watching Zubin Mehta conduct the hugely popular Vienna New Year's Concert on TV is one of the first images that comes to his mind. At the time, Georg couldn't classify what he was hearing. He simply felt amazed and moved by the sounds, inspired to learn how to master an insturment himself. At age nine, he - as most siblings do - followed in his sister's footsteps and started taking saxophone lessons in a local music school in Perg, Upper Austria. In fact, Palmanshofer gets overly excited at the mention of his first saxophone tutor.

"He was a very, very kind person with a good sense of motivating people. I know many people who start to play instruments and then stop after a few years. [But he had] a very sensitive way of speaking, actually never pushing...and somehow it was already enough for me to want to practice," Georg explains confidently, but is also quick to acknowledge the dangers of being too understanding when it comes to sharing your musical prowess. "If you're too kind and let the pupils do what they want, you will never reach any development in [their] technique."

Palmanshofer, who himself has been giving lessons for the past several years, has tried to apply this tactic to his own teaching methods.

"I really enjoy teaching, and it is a really satisfying moment when you see that someone improves and enjoys the lesson," he says. "The student immediately recognises when you're too tired, so it's a true exchange of positive energy. The joy that you can transport to other people -  and they will transport it further. With students you see new ways in which things can be right or wrong," he explains.

"The step on the stage before [the concert] begins is like coming home."

"The step on the stage before [the concert] begins is like coming home."

When Georg doesn't teach, he tries to perform as much as possible. With his repertoire including a variety of concerts and festivals around the world, does one particular moment stand out?

"When the last note of the concert is played, there is this little silence before the applause. It's not a moment, it's more of a feeling. On the one hand, it's a very selfish feeling, and on the other hand, it's a very giving feeling, because there is so much tension, and anything can happen in that silence. You feel immediately if you did a good job or not." For anyone wondering at this point how much a performer picks up on stage from the audience, the answer is: a lot.

"You can immediately say if there are ten people who really mean the applause or a hundred people not liking [your performance]," he says. "If there are only two people who are really appreciating what you are doing, to me these are the best moments."

At this I can't help but wonder: What is his ultimate definition of success?

"Success is a dangerous word for music, because as soon as you want to have success, music itself loses importance. Music should be at the centre of what you are doing. Success is when you make people happy with what you are doing. If they are emotionally moved or start to cry after your concert, and maybe they start to think about something they wouldn't normally think about in their daily life - or think nothing at all, which is also good sometimes."

This quote seems like a good way to wrap up his story, but is there anything else he would like to add? He pauses, then smiles. "There are no borders on the stage. The first step you make onto the stage before the concert begins is always nice. It's like coming home."

Yes. This is way better.

Photo credits: spectre quartet / siavash talebi