Alumni Profile: Nick Russoniello

One of our greatest classical saxophonists

WollCon Alumnus Nick Russoniello, an accomplished saxophonist and composer based in Sydney, has been the recipient of major awards over the years, including the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year, and the Fine Music Kruger Scholarship. Both awards have helped propel his career here in Australia and internationally.

“The ABC Young Performer of the Year award certainly opened a lot of doors, and still continues to do so. It was often quite hard to be taken seriously as a “classical” saxophonist, so taking out a big prize like that made people pay more attention. It gave me the chance to play with a lot of the top orchestras and ensembles in the country, and that kind of experience is extremely rare, priceless really.” Said Nick.

He has appeared as a soloist with the Adelaide, Queensland, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras and as a guest artist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian World Orchestra and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

He plays the soprano sax mostly, but also plays alto, tenor and baritone sax when he wants to mix it up and, depending on the compositions he writes and plays.

“The soprano sax has a really rich and expressive tone. It’s a great lead instrument. More recently I’ve been messing around with a C Melody saxophone, a type of sax that was popular in the 1920’s but is basically extinct today. It has an amazing mellow sound.”

His research into that 1920’s style of sax is for a recent project he’s been working on – recording live music to silent films.

“I did a few concerts with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where we played the soundtrack live and the film was screened. It’s a fantastic formula for a concert and I wanted to try my hand at writing for film. The old silent movies didn’t necessarily have soundtracks composed for them, so I thought that would be a good place to start.”

A sample of Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1917 comedy classic “The Immigrant” with live soundtrack (abridged) and original score by Nick Russoniello.

His journey at WollCon began with saxophone lessons with Nigel Edwards, playing in a jazz combo with Eric Dunan, and also playing in BlueScope Youth Orchestra for many years.
He recalls a special solo performance in Akaroa in New Zealand during a 2003 tour of the BlueScope orchestra.

A younger Nick Russoniello performing at Wollongong Town Hall.

“I think that’s when my music stand fell off the stage during my concerto and Tanya Phillips had to hold up the music for me! That was certainly memorable. There were lots of other great times too. I remember some music retreats at Bundanoon and lots of concerts at the Town Hall. The outdoor Christmas concerts were also really memorable.”

He has many WollCon mentors to thank for helping to guide his career and his success.

“Nigel was my saxophone teacher until I went to Sydney Conservatorium for further study. He opened up a whole world of classical repertoire to me. It really shaped my decision to go down the contemporary/classical path. Mrs Powell was a fantastic music theory teacher and I was lucky enough to play lots of jazz with musicians like Nick Southcott and Eric Dunan. All these experiences were so important, I learnt an incredible amount from a lot of different people at WollCon.”

Nick has recently completed a PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium – a doctorate on composition that looks at creative cognition and ways we can better understand the creative process.

“The PhD was an enormous amount of work, but I got to write and play some great music so it was definitely worth it.”

His future plans were stalled due to covid lockdowns and restrictions, and as such has a backlog of projects he is keen to get on with.

“There is a new album soon to be released, called The Golden Age Project. It’s 1920s inspired, with a string quartet, and I play some of the C melody sax. There were a lot of really, really good saxophone players that played that instrument that are now forgotten so I play some of their music. There is also some Gershwin, Schulhoff and some originals on the album.”

He also has some exciting collaborations and performances coming up, with percussion virtuoso Claire Edwardes and another with internationally acclaimed pianist and improviser Daniel Rojas.

“There are also some Duo Histoire gigs (with classical guitarist Murilo Tanouye) that we’re in the process of rescheduling. I believe we’ll be playing the Seymour Centre soon.”

His advice for young music students is quite simply to do as much music making as you can.

“Experience is so important. You have to do big, big practice hours alone in your room but it’s also very important to be playing in groups and performing as much as you can. I know there are lots of opportunities at the Wollongong Conservatorium for ensemble playing so get involved! Also, you need to be listening to music all the time. You can’t expect to play well if you haven’t taken the time to listen to the masters.”