Toward Reed perfection

January 29, 2012

With reference to the posting concerning reed perfection, the first correction to be made quite strongly is, one never selects a special concert reed on the day of the performance. It is an ill advised decision. A cane reed is especially unstable on the first day. Synthetic reeds are exponentially less so.

Years past, I studied with Fernand Gillet, then principal oboe with the Boston Symphony. He was perhaps the definitive solfege and chamber music teacher, and he knew all of the orchestral repertoire, and premiered many of the most outstanding works of the 20th century with the Boston Symphony.

One of the most startling things about Gillet was, he never made a reed, but ordered them from some friend in Europe in exchange for a couple of suits, as I recall him saying.

As to his playing, it was simply the most perfect one can ever hear, if one discounts (his) oboe sound, as characterized by the quality of Tabuteau, who was principal in Philadelphia at the same time, and truly the founder of the so-called American school of oboe sound, and embouchure ,for that matter.

But Gillet was extremely thoughtful and was always prepared, and, he was the oboe soloist in many of the works written for the Boston Symphony, works, by Ravel, Prokofiev, and of course, Bartok.

Back to what Gillet said about reeds and performance.
“Never change a reed just prior to the performance”

His explanation was that it is better to use a reed , well broken-in which will insure a modicum of success to the performer, rather than one brand new, which will always be different, than its predecessor. Advice well given, and rceived.

That concert from so many years past is rather striking in my memory, because I would never repeat such a completely frustrating process. The subjugation one suffers attempting to find a reed which pleases one in all ways is really somewhat similar to playing the lottery. Again and again, we play, we try to win, but the chances of winning are so small, the stress brought on by anxiety hope erases all ability to truly discern, and the cane reed is changing all the time, especially in its initial stages.

One must make the process less frustrating and more of a success. Remember the music always comes before anything and on the music, mustbe placed the most attention. We must free ourselves from being trapped by a changing piece of wood.

The answer considering todays technology, is to limit the variables. In accepting to limit these variables, the synthetic reed is first,available, and second, has been improved upon , especially in the last several years.

It is quite true that one can choose a synthetic that has been cut, one that may be moulded or manufactured is some hopefully careful way. And one of them may play very well indeed.

But there is one process in the manufacture which is variable, regardless of the diamond cutting device: the reed is cut by a blade of some sort in the final finishing.

That is why these reeds can differ, one to another. No matter how superb the cutting process is, it cannot assure total consistency from reed to reed. This is why we choose synthetic. We hope to limit the variables.

If a player is asked to choose a synthetic, by stating that a certain reed plays better, or a certain cut of that reed, he is actually attesting to the fact that they do in fact, vary

There is only one quality synthetic that is manufactured completely, from beginning to end, and that reed is completely moulded, with the tip made in the same manner, rather than cutting it with some kind of knife at the conclusion of the process.

My morning(long ago) apent in utter frustration, subjecting myself to endlessly trying reeds, desentitizing musical instincts, limits musical results.

If one is able to utilize the same synthetic through multiple rehearsals and performances, musical instincts become more focused. We are able to control most of the many variables in preparation, and therefore, we secure better control over the entire performance, the music first, then , the sound. (when we begin, we learn sound, but the ultimate goal is to play and perform musically.

The shortest distances between two points is a straight line. Playing a completely moulded synthetic is that straight line.Or, as close as we can come.That is why we practice.

Keep practicing that music.

stay well.


Does the perfect reed need perfection

January 25, 2012

I remember many years ago, preparing for a concert at a college in Milwaukee, a Sunday afternoon in winter, brght and sunny.
I needed to select a good reed for the afternoon concert at 3:30. It was before noon.
I was playing very standard repertoire, perhaps Sonati by Honegger, Poulenc and Brahms and a new work either written for me, or something in manuscript. It doesn’t really matter.
Things were going well. I already had several possible(s). I was “up”.You know up,don’t you? We all do. It was a concert at a nice hall, good pianist, Good player, me.

Time passes. There are more reeds, now lining a mirror, drying, after having been tried and moistened. Still. no afternoon concert reed. Still “up”, but a little concerned.

It is 1 PM. Still a couple of hours before playing. I open another box. Of course, they are Van Doren, which I have always called VD.
(There is (or was) a rest home somewhere in Queens, seen from the Long Island Exoressway. It is called the Van Doren Rest Home. When you see it in the distance, it is colored blue and yellow, looking like a big box of Van Doren)

Well, it has now become 2PM. just an hour before playing. I am completely without clothing, sitting on my chair, and totally surrounded by about 10 boxes of Van Doren reeds. (this was in the 60’s and reeds were exponentially cheaper than now) There were also 25 in a box, cost 3.75

Now, they are prohibitively priced, and they have names similar to Baskin Robbins Ice Cream, different cuts, different prices, all high, screaming “more consistency”, and producing the same inimitable Van Doren lack of quality, and/or consistency. Or you might say, “He doesn’tknow how to fix them”.

And yes, there I was , with no reed, and an hour to go.

(now, the reed cognescenti are saying or thinking, “well, he didn’t break them in”. or he had the wrong clarinet, or the wrong mouthpiece, or…what have you.)

It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You know the feeling. It is not “UP” It is panic time.

So finally, I choose one, get it on the mouthpiece.(at that point in my career, I would never change a reed during a performance or even move it on the mouthpiece

With that many variables at stake, you do not have the time nor the luxury of choice. You play on what you have.You must.

Well, I thought I had never played so miserably poorly. It was truly horrble. No, I don’t have a tape. Actually, I wish I did have a tape, because you never really know until you listen afterward.

This is the lonly way to hear yourself. You listen to the recording of the concert as soon as you can after playing it. This is excellent advice, because you know both the feelings you had during the perormance and you simply hold those feeling up against the recording: a difficult , costly, but sometimes a wonderful learning experience.

Marvin came up to me after the concert. He asked to take me to dinner with his girl friend, Emily. I went, trying to show nothing, but feeling utter self-revulsion.

He was an amateur clarinetist and Marvin congratulated me on my playng, all the while with me eating a pan-fried delicious steak,paid for by Marvin, or maybe Emily. Maybe,she was keeping him. I don’t know.

keep practicing.
stay well, sherman

Time permitting, this will be followed by another piece on what I did wrong for that concert and the choice of reed and the “perfection” needed in that reed.


Two Clarinet Concerti in one Metropolitan Orchestra Concert

January 17, 2012

This was an unusual and interesting concert, featuring two excellent clarinetists,principals of the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestras.

Luisi Crosses Border To American Territory

During the last couple of seasons, audiences in New York have had ample opportunities to get to know the work of Fabio Luisi, the Metropolitan Opera’s principal conductor, who has been taking over most of the performances the ailing James Levine has had to withdraw from. But on Sunday afternoon Mr. Luisi, conducting the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, revealed another dimension to his artistry. Who would have expected this Italian maestro to be so at home conducting Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto, let alone an aria from “Wuthering Heights,” the only opera by Bernard Herrmann, of “Psycho” fame?
This unusual program, planned by Mr. Levine, featured Renée Fleming singing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and three American opera arias by Herrmann and Barber. When it was announced in December that Mr. Levine was withdrawing from all performances at the Met through the 2012-13 season, Ms. Fleming asked Mr. Luisi if he wanted to change the program. But Mr. Luisi was game, and he proved himself in all of the American repertory, especially the Copland concerto.

Of course with the brilliant young Anthony McGill, a principal clarinetist at the Met, as soloist, the performance was a sure thing. Copland described this 18-minute score, completed in 1948, as a kind of portrait of Benny Goodman, who commissioned it. In the wistful first section, the clarinet plays dreamy musings against the cool, contemplative backdrop of the orchestra, scored for just strings, harp and piano. Mr. McGill captured the music’s lacy lyricism, playing with a rich yet beautifully focused sound.

Then comes a transitional clarinet cadenza that evolves into scurrying riffs and runs. Playing with technical command and a teasing character, Mr. McGill was so spontaneous you might have thought he was improvising. He was just as dazzling in the jazzy final section. Mr. Luisi seemed in his element too, drawing nice spiky tones from the violins during a jaunty section in which the high strings match the clarinet’s piercing lines.

The program began with the clarinetist Stephen Williamson in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. Formerly a principal at the Met, Mr. Williamson became principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony last year, one of Riccardo Muti’s first appointments as music director. Joining his past colleagues, Mr. Williamson gave a stylish and energetic account of this subtly complex piece, written in the last months of Mozart’s life.

After the Mozart, Ms. Fleming, in lovely voice, sang the Rückert-Lieder. Some Mahlerites might prefer a more autumnal, vocally dark approach, especially in the bleakly beautiful “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”). With her creamy sound and finespun phrasing, Ms. Fleming brought out the music’s resignation and tenderness. She gave a sensitively restrained performance of the first song, “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (“I breathed a gentle fragrance”). The playful quality she drew from “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (“Look not into my songs”) recalled the chatty exchanges of Strauss’s worldly Marschallin, one of Ms. Fleming’s signature roles. Her Mahler lacked only some crispness in German diction.

After intermission Ms. Fleming’s impassioned performance of “Give me some music” from Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” had me thinking that a revival of this disparaged opera might be in order. She was also good, anguished yet cagey, in “Do not utter a word” from Barber’s “Vanessa.” And the little-known Herrmann aria, “I have dreamt,” harmonically plush and ethereal music in which the heroine laments her confinement at Wuthering Heights, was captivating in this vibrant performance.

For an encore Ms. Fleming sang the “I can smell the sea air” from André Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire,” with Mr. Luisi conducting as if Previn style came naturally. Who would have thought?’

Two suggestions, This would be wonderful, to own the recording, if there is one. And the other is to keep practicing.

stay well, sherman

Max Reger,composer,and author of a famous music review, most quoted, yet seldom identified

January 13, 2012

Max Reger 1873-1916, a prolific composer of polyphonic works for organ, but also three Sonatas for Clarinet, and his last work, a Clarinet Quintet, much in the style of the Brahms Quintet. It is considered his finest work, especially of chamber music, and well worth considering by any clarinetist or String Quartet.

Of course, there is always one big problem with programming this fine Quintet by Max Reger for Clarinet and String Quartet.

But allow me to back in my lengthening history to my discovery of this gifted composer, and the performance of all of the above works.

Years ago, I was asked by Francis Wainwright, then a senior produce for the English CBC in Montreal to perform the Quintet with the Laval String Quartet(of the University of Laval) at an Arts National Concert for the CBC. Broadcast throughout Canada, the concert was special in that is featured music of the Verein.

What was the Verein. How many know? Was it important in the history of music and the clarinet?(I don’t mean to separate history of music from the clarinet, even though many clarinetists do….but not you)

The Society for Private Musical Performances (in German, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen) was an organization founded in Vienna in the Autumn of 1918 byArnold Schoenberg with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of modern music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921 (when the Verein had to cease its activities due to Austrian hyperinflation, the organisation gave 353 performances of 154 works in a total of 117 concerts.

Circumstances permitting, concerts were given at the rate of one per week, with each programme consisting entirely of modern works. The range of music included was very wide, the ‘allowable’ composers not being confined to the ‘Schoenberg circle’ but drawn from all those who had  a real face or name. During the Society’s first two years, in fact, Schoenberg did not allow any of his own music to be performed; instead, the programmes included works by Stravinsky, Bartok,Debussy,Ravel, Webern, Berg, and many others, including Max Reger, specifically his Clarinet Quintet.

The players at these events were chosen from among the most gifted young musicians available, and each work was rehearsed intensively, either under Schoenberg himself or by a Vortragsmeister (‘Performance Director’) specifically appointed by him. Clarity and comprehensibility of the musical presentation was the over-riding aim, with audiences sometimes being permitted to hear ‘open rehearsals’, and complex works sometimes being played more than once in the same concert.(actually, without knowing of this history, I have done this many times in performance, repeating the work)

“Only those who had joined the organisation were admitted to the events: the intention was to exclude ‘sensation-seeking’ members of the Viennese public (who would often attend concerts with the express intention of whistling derisively at ‘modern’ works by blowing across their house-keys) as well as keep out hostile critics who would attack such music in their publications: a sign displayed on the door – in the manner of a police notice – would state that Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (‘Critics are forbidden entry’). Applause was not permitted after the performance of any work on the program”.

Stop, but for a moment.

How many of you have ever been involved with such an organization? Or, how many have wished for such an organization?

I was and I did, and that was perhaps the most fortunate years of performance I enjoyed, even though it was very difficult. Difficult to find he performers, choose the composers and mostly ,to rehearse and perform that music, which was almost always chamber music.

Think of it. The time to find the best players, to find the best music, or what one thought was the best, finding a hall in which to perform, remunerating the women and men who played, and how much, and yes, getting a recording of the performance, and sometimes, a review, even though in Schoenbergs Verein, critics were not permitted to attend. (a perfect and honest idea. But man does not live by bread alone.)

I had the honor and privilege of doing this in Tangleweood at the Concerts of New Music, sponsored by the Fromm Foundation, at The Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Buffalo, and with my own group, The Concordia Chamber Players of Montreal. (And yes, Le Conservatoire Americain at Fontainebleau)

Now, before this turns into another bragging game of “my resume is longer than yours”, let us go back to poor Max Reger, a gifted composer, quite so, especially in polyphonic music. He said, “most  compose fugues. I live in them”.

Also, he practically never received a good review, this most quoted is from Mr. Reger. “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house.Your review is in front of me, Soon , it shall be behind me.”  Have you ever wished you could say something similar to a (so-called) music critic? Perhaps.

What makes this posting interesting is that the clarinet music of Mr Reger, while being similar to the style of Brahms quite frequently, does not work anywhere near as well.

I first expored the three Sonatas with the gifted pianist, Dale Bartlett of McGill.While he was always prepared and never said anything criticalabout any of the many works of a contemporary nature, he had a special name for these sonatas, difficult and with wormy counterpoint crawling about everywhere, in every key imaginable. Dale called them The Ronald Reagan Sonatas. 

(Those were the years of the presidency of Mr. Reagan).
The Clarinet Quintet, Regers last work, and called by many his best, is startlingly similar to the Quintet of Brahms. Beautiful themes and phrases, written very well for all, in A for the clarinet, but contained in an seemingly unintelligle labrynth of counterapuntal devices.
And like other of his works, has an arch form, beginning and ending pianissimo.
And, when the choice comes to your program, you would never put the Reger on the same progeram with Brahms. Nobody knows it, it is longer and takes more rehearsal time. On a clarinet concert , the two will not fit.
Schonberg did indeed perform the works of Max Reger in his private Performance Club. And  we have all wished for as much time that is needed in order to perform new works perfectly, but alas, the end of that story is in the time, the schedules of the players, their “other work”, which pays the bills, and…one is left with frustration in the filling of the duties one thinks carry importance for the performance of new works. We seem to be repeating ourselves, with organizations of all kinds falling by the wayside in the wake of many expenses  and new technics.
Keep practicing, no mater what.
and it is the duty of every musician to perform new works.