A cornucopia of clarinetists opens New World’s “Clarinet Visions” festival

By Lawrence Budmen

Composer Jörg Widmann was among the many clarinetists who participated in the New World Symphony’s “Clarinet Visions” festival Friday night in Miami Beach. Photo: Marco Borggreve

[Editor’s Note: Technical issues prevented this review from being posted last weekend.]

The clarinet is one of the most versatile of wind instruments and the New World Symphony’s two night “Clarinet Visions” festival is presenting some of the world’s top players in a widely varied menu of works that display the instrument’s multi-faceted possibilities. 

On Friday night at Miami Beach’s New World Center, “Rhapsodies and Echoes,” the first of the programs, featured an innovative new score, a reinvention of a cherished classic and a minor Gallic masterpiece as well as some comedic entertainment music.

Laura Ardan, principal clarinet of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, was the first to take the stage for a subtle and focused performance of the Concerto No. 1 in F Major by Carl Maria von Weber. Weber was a pathbreaking opera composer and wrote two worthy symphonies. His clarinet concertos are shallow potboilers however, yet Ardan and New World conducting fellow Chad Goodman managed to instill considerable subtlety and musicality into this minor-league showpiece. With her instrument’s attractive woody tone, Ardan phrased with almost operatic sweep and her runs were articulated with aplomb and full control throughout the instrument’s range. The Adagio was spun almost like a Mozartean melodic thread and the sprightly tune of the final Rondo was vigorously conveyed. Ardan managed to infuse ruminative beauty into the central episode, and her superior musicianship made one of Weber’s lesser creations compelling.

Jörg Widmann is one of Germany’s major contemporary composers and a fine clarinetist. He soloed in the American premiere of his 2001 Echo-Fragmente. The work was commissioned to be played jointly by the two orchestras of Freiberg, Germany – the Freiberg Chamber Orchestra (which plays at Baroque pitch) and the Southwest Germany Radio Symphony (which utilizes modern tuning). 

Dividing the two ensembles across the stage, Widmann places a continuo group across the center, including celesta, harp, accordion, banjo and guitar. There is a quarter-tone difference in the tuning of the two ensembles. Far from being a mere stunt, Widmann’s work is a layered, ear-catching soundscape. Despite the large, varied forces, most of the score’s dynamics are soft and restrained.

Initially, a recorder echoes the clarinet’s phrases. Some of the soloist’s figures suggest modern dance rhythms of the disco variety. There are darker thematic contours from the Baroque ensemble and a faux Bach solo from its concertmaster. A sense of riveting shock marks the sonorous entrance of the valveless horns. The clarinet often duos with the harp which, at times, produces strummed, wiry effects. 

The nearly 25-minute score is replete with constant surprises, agitated confrontations between the two orchestras and soloist and almost elegiac moments. This is a major addition to the solo repertoire for the instrument and a boldly original concept, carried off with mastery. Listeners who believe that compositions written in a high modernist idiom cannot be good music need to hear Widmann’s highly inventive work.

A real stage personality, Widmann assayed his often terse and complex writing with skill. At times, he breathed into the instrument and drew supple and varied effects and emotive stasis. Kazem Abdullah, principal conductor for the clarinet programs and himself a former New World clarinet fellow, commanded the expanded forces skillfully and brought out Widmann’s play of timbres and colors.

Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F minor has long been a staple of the repertoire. Luciano Berio transcribed the piano part for orchestra, turning the piece into a concerto. The Italian avant-garde composer’s orchestration calls for horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani and a full complement of winds and strings.  Berio’s recreation works surprisingly well. managing to achieve a Brahmsian orchestral sound, anchored by cellos, bass and winds.

Soloist Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic, understands Brahms’ late romantic musical currents and played the moody themes of the first movement fluently and with impeccable technique. He captured the autumnal nostalgia of the Andante, making the long-breathed phrases sing. An unusually fast tempo for the Allegretto grazioso channeled the movement’s rustic ethos. Ottensamer’s nimble articulation of the finale’s theme and variants was spirited and exuberant. Abdullah drew out the dark coloring of Berio’s instrumentation while unobtrusively supporting Ottensamer. 

Debussy’s Première rhapsodie is the impressionist master’s uniquely personal version of a student exam piece, written on commission from the Paris Conservatoire. It manages to fulfill that purpose and still provide ten minutes of beautifully crafted musical fantasy. Two harps and strings add misty tonal painting. Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, conjured up a lyrical, singing line and pinpointed the pyrotechnics in a coolly cerebral manner, putting the music above mere display.  He received the standing ovation of the night. Goodman kept Debussy’s textures from turning cloudy, leading with clarity.

The orchestra left the stage and all of the program’s solo clarinetists returned plus Andrea Levine (principal clarinet of the Louisville Orchestra) and New World clarinet fellows Angelo Quail, Jesse McCandless, Jesse Gilday and pianist Thomas Steigerwald. Widmann’s Bavarian-Babylonian March is one of those toe-tapping tunes that are greatly entertaining and immediately forgettable but the players and audience were clearly having fun with this feel-good conclusion to a fascinating exploration of the many musical faces of the clarinet.

The New World Symphony presents “Clarinet Visions: Testimonies” featuring Andrea Levine, Anthony McGill, Laura Ardan and Martin Fröst playing works by Nina Shekhar, Anthony Davis, Julius Eastman, Aaron Copland and Derek Bermel. Kazem Abdullah and Chad Goodman conducting. Concert time is 7:30 p.m. Saturday at New World Center. nws.edu

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Tue Feb 22, 2022
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