Boston, 1931, contract not renewed, and what followed

In 1931, Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony did not renew the contract of Gaston Hamelin, one of the great clarinetists, founding the so-called American School of clarinet playing.Reason: he played on a metal Selmer Clarinet. “THIS WAS CAUSED BY HAMELIN WAVING HIS CLARINET WHEN GIVEN A SPECIAL BOW BY KOUSSEVITSKY, AND THE PICTURE WHICH WAS SEEN”
The real story of profound changes in clarinets in a large and important musical city, Boston, and the actual people who brought about the changes which ultimately changed the clarinet that many many students play on in their lessons, indeed, their lives. It is also about the profound change caused by the recording industry as it made recorded music compete with itself and lead to the ultimate and slow demise of the American Orchestra, to say nothing of the many aspiring clarinetists who inhabit this changng world.

This is a true story from the 60s, which relates to my own experiences, my knowledge of the scene at the time, and an eyewitness to both the audition, for both Second and Principal clarinet with the Boston Orchestra, as well as the musical demise of Gino Cioffi, still one of the great natural clarinetists of all time. The very first audition was for second clarinet of the orchestra. I auditioned and failed. There were many at that audition, many fine players, and there was a special room, upstairs from the audutions where someone was warming up. Nobody at the time knew, but it was Harold Wright. Of course, he was offered that second job, which he turned down, insisting he wanted the principal which he was awarded during the next year or years. I know what happened with Gino, because a very dear friend was a member of the BSO and a member of the audition committee for the Principal position.
When Gino Cioffi first came to the Boston Orchestra, he came as a replacement for Victor Polatschek, who had been a respected principal clairnetist for several years. He was more of a great musician than a great carinetst, and his sound was criticized, but was a wonderful musician and wote a couple of great study books for the clarinet: one, being a basic, the second,a wonderfully musical book of etudes based o some of the standard orchestral repertoir ; there is even one etude based upon Pierrot Lunaire, by Arnold Schoenberg, one of the great works of chamber music of the 20th century.

When CIoffi replaced Polatschek ,it was really a clarinet epiphony. This man had the most beautiful,liquid sound I had every heard, even including at that time Harold Wright, whom I had heard in the National Smphony which played in Consistutional Hall in DC, not unlike Symphony Hall in Boston. Cioffi played with double lip embouchure as did Wright, but Coffi had crystel, a slight sifference, a beter material than rubber, dangerous, because it can shatter, but more stable. It was also his playing demeanor which was extremely relaxed and in that hall, certainly the sound just floated above that orchestra. His trip was sound and it was unmatched, I thought, and still now, while, as he grow older he began to change. He began to play on the lower side of the pitch, and then, it was just plain flat. I have heard that his errant pitch was actually caused by the very high pitch of the strings, which, reported to me, was in the area of 446-448, very high for any clarinetist. And he became more set in his ways, never being that pleasant, to begin with. As the story, again ,told to me by a member of the orchestra at the time, goes, there was a confrontation between Mr Cioffi and Erich Leinsdorf, the conductor at the time. Mr Leinsdorf posted a message on the bulletin board: “Gino Cioffi will no longer record with the Boston Symphony Orchestra”
After seeing the message Mr. Cioffi prepared for rehearsal and came in a new suit, completely ready for anything. When Leinsdorf arrived, Cioffi was standing, and remained that way until he was noticed by the conductor.
Cioffi told him that if he was good enough for Toscanini, why was he not good enough for Leinsdorf? I really don’t know the length of the episode, but soon after, Gino Cioffi left the Orchestra. It was near that time that auditions were annonced for the Principal Clarinet position. Harold Wright again auditioned for the position of Principal Clarinet. at the time the best clarinet position in the world.

Now, back to my story of the good friend who ws on the audition panel, having signed his name because it paid a few dollars more than other available extra chores. That was his reason, Again, I shall not divulge his name, but will tell the reader that this is a great player, but also the most sarcastic human being one can meet and totally unafraid to say virtually anything to anybody. Knowing him as I do, he could have been high at the time. He asked Mr Wright to “play a C major scale” There was a hush around the table. The words nervy and arrogant were floated about. As we all know, Harold Wright was awarded the position and he went on to a 23 year long tenure with the orchestra, playing with his usual perfection in every aspect of his playing. One of the qualities that Harold Wright possessed was a total respect for the written dynamics. Forte was forte, but his pianissimo was directly from heaven or so it seems to those who play the clarinet. He changed the entire sound of the woodwind section and so, the orchestra. His playing was supported by every member of the wiinds and the orchestra. The pitch improved throughout and one other thing happened as well as many of you know. The clarinets of the Boston Symphony had been Selmer for a number of years. When Harold came, it changed to Buffet, and has remain so ever since.

Of course Gino Cioffi played during a time of great change in the sound of any orchestra. Due to recording procedures and the ability to edit digitally, people were used to hearing a recording with whatever instrument that was playing, sounded almost as if in the room, all due to the subtle competition that was set up by the recording technic and what one wished for in his or her living room. Going to a live concert involved driving, parking, waiting and being quiet. Not like the sound in your own living room, dressed as you will, eating or drinking, or whatever, and just listening to extraordinary playing. Yes , all those who ae able to be placed in an orchestra play very well indeed, but therecording technics have surpassed any kind of live sound. No mistakes of any kind are tolerated or can be, and are certainly fixed in the recording. And so it goes. I believe that this inexorable march toward recording perfection has resulted in the long slow death of the symophony orchestra in the western hemisphere.The competition is increcdbly stifling and only perfection is tolerated.

So, keep practicing , for the love of music and for your self and your colleagues. Strive for beauty, always

stay well, sherman


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