Saturday, October 17, 2009

Richard Stoltzman at Strathmore

When I was in grammar school, I played the clarinet. When I was old enough to join the band, about the 4th or 5th grade, the priest that led the band at Sacred Heart School, Father Johnson, came to my house to discuss what instrument I should play, pointing out the differences between the brass instruments and the woodwinds. I remember thinking how hard it sounded to play a trumpet. I also remember saying that I wanted to play the clarinet, like Benny Goodman. Sadly, I only played through eighth grade, one of the enduring regrets of my life.

Tonight, I watched a clarinet player described as the greatest of our time, Richard Stoltzman. I have to admit, I hadn't heard of him until I learned of this concert. My interest in going was based more on the opportunity to see a live performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, than who would be playing it. It is one my favorite pieces of classical music and I've listened to it hundreds of times. It is the first classical CD I ever bought. The performance did not disappoint.

That said, it is interesting listening to a piece of music in which every note is familiar. Frankly, Stoltzman took a while to warm up. He missed a few notes in the first up tempo movement. But he found his stride in the second slow, movement, which is heartbreakingly lyrical. And in the third movement, which is very quick, complex and challenging, he was flawless.

But he really let it rip after the intermission. The second set was a collection of Gershwin pieces, including Pomenade from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, as well as Bess and Summertime from Porgy and Bess. It was clear that he enjoyed playing this music over the Mozart, which probably does in his sleep. The finale was Copland's Clarinet Concerto, which the conductor said was the only clarinet concerto in two hundred years that even approaches the quality of the Mozart. Interestingly, this piece was actually commissioned by Benny Goodman, himself. It was a much more modern piece and not quite as accessible as everything that went before. Still, it offered an amazing display of Stoltzman's virtuosity.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, made particularly entertaining Stoltzman's impish behavior on stage. It was unclear whether his funny faces and many mysterious side conversations with the players and conductor were designed to amuse us or were merely self-indulgent artistic antics. We chose to believe the former.

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