Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Clarinetists and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

As a musician being trained in a top American conservatory that preaches the end goal as being an orchestra job, I am often frustrated by what this country has to offer when it comes to orchestral playing. I am a clarinetist, studying with one of the most brilliant musicians in the world, Charlie Neidich, who teaches me how to not only play the instrument, but about the expressive potential of the instrument, and about generations of music. He is a soloist, who by title must sound unique. I do not, however, believe orchestral playing should be approached any differently. When I go hear the New York Philharmonic, the Met Opera Orchestra, or visiting European orchestras, I am usually disappointed by the lack of expressive playing by the clarinets. Clarinetists, especially in this country, I find, are obsessed with achieving the darkest, velvetiest tone. Oh, how beautifully pure his tone was! It's like silk! So round! Comments like that are not only bullshit, but they contribute to the image of classical music as being pretty, perfect, stuffy, and never offensive. Some wind players talk about your sound existing within a box. It can move, but never outside the lines. In my opinion, the obsession with conformity leads to everyone trying to sound like Ricardo Morales (no offense) and forgetting about themselves. People streamline their education so hard that they forget about the music.
Brahms loved Richard Mühlfeld's sound, which included vibrato (gasp!), Copland was inspired by Benny Goodman, who was an energized acrobat on the instrument, and Mozart was friends with Anton Stadler, who was busy constantly reinventing the instrument. If each of these clarinetists had tried to sound mainstream, Brahms's Clarinet Sonatas, his Trio, and Quintet, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, his Quintet, Copland's Clarinet Concerto- pieces that our world today would be worse off without, would never had been written. If these three clarinetists had played conventionally, the composers would never even have taken notice.
I recently heard the amazing Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts at Carnegie Hall. Their oboist, Stefan Schilli, completely blew me away. His musicality during the Don Juan solo was overwhelming. American oboists would have probably said that he opened up his sound too much, or that he was slightly flat in this one part. But what's more important, playing robotically or yearning with your heart?! It was audibly and visibly evident that this orchestra loves their jobs. They moved like a chamber ensemble in love with their colleagues. Not to mention, their conductor Maris Jansons must be quite the inspiration. They made the music sound fresh and alive.
But back to boring clarinet playing. The question no one has been able to convincingly answer me is, why has orchestral clarinet playing evolved in such a conventional way, void of the expressive potential that is allowed of say the oboe or violin in the orchestra? (I have heard stories about music directors asking their rebellious clarinet players to cut-out the vibrato). It's not just vibrato, either. It's about restricting the overall musicality.
Is the model of streamlining your sound sustainable in an age when orchestras are struggling to maintain relevancy in their growing communities? When they are struggling to stay exciting? Things are already pretty desperate when we need to throw a marijuana evening at the symphony in order to connect with a younger audience, alla Denver Symphony. Maris Jansons, Stefan Schilli and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra made me feel like the music was enough and really really cool.