David Shifrin has probably played the 1791 Clarinet Concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) five times as often as any other concerto—but, as he says, he’s “never disappointed” by a chance to play it again. And audiences, it seems, are never disappointed by a chance to hear it again: it remains one of the most beloved pieces by one of our two or three most popular orchestral composers. But what exactly is the piece that we love? The concerto, it turns out, has a complex history. The last major work that Mozart completed, it was one of a number of late compositions inspired by the artistry of his friend (and gambling buddy), clarinetist Anton Stadler; and it was originally written for the basset clarinet, an instrument with an extra four semi-tones at the bottom of its register.
The instrument was, as David puts it, “difficult and cumbersome.” Among other things, to compound its awkward demands on the player’s fingers, it had a hole at the bottom that you needed to close with your leg. No surprise that the instrument died out—and no surprise that when the work was published, it was “adapted” for a conventional clarinet, with transposition or rewriting of those passages that required the lowest notes.
This altered version was the standard for nearly two centuries, until the scholarly reconstruction of the original score in the 1970s. For David, who had first learned the standard version while still in high school, discovery of the original was “revelatory.” What had been lost? Besides many “arpeggiated passages which include the low A, there are numerous examples where Mozart playfully used three registers, repeating the same phrase three times: in the high register, the mid register, and the low register.” The tonal quality of those passages is altered when you move the low passages up an octave. Then, too there are moments “in the beautiful adagio where the clarinet takes on the role of the baritone and plays very soulful, melodic lines into the lower reaches of the instrument, which are not possible on a normal clarinet.” Even once the original score was published, playing it was difficult, since there were no basset clarinets around to play it on—but in 1984, David commissioned Leonard Gulatta to make an extension for his instrument (a task that proved more difficult than either expected). Since then, he’s played only the original score.
So what is it that makes the piece, in either version, so memorable? There is, of course, the familiar observation that “there’s not a note out of place”—a cliché, as David remarks, but true nonetheless. But beyond the perfection, beyond Mozart’s melodic and harmonic gifts, beyond the “drama and reflective qualities and humor,” the concerto has a special blend of qualities that stem from the very nature of the instrument. The clarinet, especially in Mozart’s hands, has extremely “vocal” qualities—but it is also still an instrument. And this allows a “mix of operatic, lyric vocal qualities with virtuosic instrumental qualities that reflect Mozart’s genius for writing opera and his own virtuosity as a pianist and violinist.”
On tonight’s concert, the Clarinet Concerto—what David calls “a half-hour of serenity” or what conductor Larry Loh calls an “oasis”—separates two large-orchestra blockbusters. The evening begins with the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). Hindemith’s reputation has been unsteady, to say the least. He’s been considered a daring modernist (especially during his early years in Germany) but also dismissed as old-fashioned (especially in his later years when he taught at Yale). At one time, he was so famous that Raymond Chandler, in one of his detective stories, could use him as a stand-in to represent exclusive high art in general; nowadays, if he’s not been forgotten, he’s at least seriously overlooked. Since its first performance in 1944, though, the Symphonic Metamorphosis has maintained its status as an audience hit. No wonder. Like the works by Theofanidis and Rachmaninoff featured on our previous Masterworks concert (and like the entirety of our final Casual concert), it takes its basic thematic material from earlier music. In this case, Hindemith draws on some fairly obscure works by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), best known to concert audiences, perhaps, for the overtures to his operas, especially Der Freischütz. Hindemith generally keeps the original themes fairly intact—but he twists harmonies, colors, and structure in a consistently delightful way. And while the music may be, as Larry puts it, “emotionally reserved,” it’s nonetheless marked by a sonic spectacle that’s muscular and witty at the same time, a spectacle that will be especially evident in this performance, which Larry promises will be “as wild as possible.”
Whatever else you can say about the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), it’s neither serene nor witty—nor emotionally reserved. On the contrary, it is, in Larry’s words, “fully heart-on-the-sleeve emotional.” Written in 1888, it’s the second of the three great symphonies on which Tchaikovsky’s reputation as a symphonist rests; and like its siblings, it’s suffused with an anguish that probably stems, at least in part, from Tchaikovsky’s closeted homosexuality. Indeed, like the Fourth, it begins with the statement of a motto theme that is generally understood to represent fate—a theme that, in this symphony, interrupts all four of the movements. But if the Fourth (heard last season) escapes from fate with a questionable manic desperation and the Sixth (heard in 2014) gives in to the darkest despair, the Fifth ends in triumph, as the fate theme is transformed into magnificent hymn of affirmation.
As is so often the case with romantic symphonies, the outer movements carry most of the dramatic weight; in between, though, are two of Tchaikovsky’s most endearing inspirations. The third movement is one of his infectious waltzes. Even more infectious is the Andante, which was turned into the pop song “Moon Love,” made famous by Frank Sinatra among others. That movement features what first horn Julie Bridge reminds us is “one of the biggest horn solos in the repertoire.” It’s the kind of musical moment you can never exhaust: “I’ve been working on it since my high school years,” says Julie, “and there are always way to improve upon it.” All in all, then, the Fifth justifies its popularity by offering consistent creativity from first bar to last.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org