What has changed since 1960 in clarinet performance

Dear Mr. Friedland
I hope you don’t mind me sending you my question via your email rather than through your website. I couldn’t get the email address for your website to work.

First of all I would like to thank you very much for your wonderful clarinet blog Clarinet Corner. This is full of fascinating and amusing stories, interesting anecdotes, very helpful advice and memoirs which bring to life the many amazing musical people that you have met and known through your longevity in music professionalism. Your Clarinet Corner has and remains to be a very valuable resource to me as a young clarinettist hoping to one day take music to a professional career.

My question concerns the clarinet playing that I have heard in recordings of well known clarinettists before 1960. Though my travels listening to clarinet recordings for inspiration and enjoyment I have stumbled across the playing of Louis Cahuzac, Jack Brymer and others. I have also listened to the videos of Gino Cioffi that you have posted. It seems to me that these clarinettists have a special liquidity and sweetness of tone and legato to their playing that is not found to the same degree in the playing of clarinettists today. I have also found that a similar sound is present in the playing of such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

As a person who would have experienced first hand the playing of many of these artists I wondered whether you would be able to tell me whether this different quality of legato and of sound was actually present back in pre 1960’s clarinet playing, or whether it is a result of the recording process. It might even just be my ears misleading me.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration,

J. from Sydney

 Nothing has changed, even is we think it has.The letter is evocative because it reflects what has changed since 1960 in the realm of clarinet performance.  Perhaps the bggest change has been in recording, since we have gone through many technological advances in the process.

I remember vividly Benny Goodman coming to the first reharsal he had with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. It was around 1960 or so. The program was a typical POPS  style program and he was playing the Weber Concertino and the Debussy Rhapsody during the first half of the concert. We were to have only one rehearsal with the soloist and I had to play both works for the rehearsals prior to his appearance.
The seond half of he concert was devoted to POPS style pieces with Benny playing with a “pickup” group of local musicians. I have already recounted that part of the appearance, and as some will remember, he didn’t like the pianist at all, an   d, at one point said to me, “hey kid, he whispered. “Where can I get a good pianist”. He berated her for” trying to sound like Teddy Wllson” and then said to her, “a little pepper”. Anyway, you’ve heard that story. It’s here, somewhere.
What I want to mention which is pertinent is his sound. We played the concert in the Civic Auditorium of Milwaukee, which held 3500. He came out onstage and said, “playing here is like spitting in the ocean”. He played a few notes with the most beautiful sound I ever heard. (Yes, this was my idol), contained, round ,small and really present. He did not and would not force the sound, as if to “fill the hall”. Of course, I was impressed, but it was with utter indifference to the huge cavernous auditorium. He was in contriol of all his tonal facilities and knew to NOT force. That was my lesson. And it was a great lesson and  pertiinent to the current topic.
But, orchestras have changed and recording has changed exponentially. Some orchestras will use variable types of technics in recording, and others will just blast away. In simple words, they are attempting to have the presence of sound that is on the recordings that proliferate the industry. These electrically manufactured sounds are recorded in ways that make the recording of the clarinet solo as prevalent as it is in the hall.
But the clarinet never sounds exactly as does that nice recording you have in your home. It is slightly distant, exactly as it is when your hear it in the hall itself. Everyone has seen films of reording sessions: microphones all over the place. Sometimes, audiencechairs are removed and the players themselves are sitting in small groups of like instruments, covered by many microphones, and of course, you have all seen those “mixing boards”, loaded with hundreds of sliders, each of which can make you sound more present or not.
But, we hear moslty through recodings, which are readily available, rather than actual concerts, which are not.
When we do attend a live concert, we hear the players as they are in a hall, without the benefit of the enhancements possible in the studio.
Are we competing with our recorded sounds?
Most definitely; and we do it in different ways. There are many clarinetists and other solo woodwinds who simply play as loud as they can  all the time. Many do.
On the other hand, there was Harold Wright, and many others like him, who played what was written , regardless of the recording competition. He was able to get the entire section of the winds in the Boston Symphony to play the written dynamics, a special and unique time in the history of recorded music.
The clarinet can only be played as loudly as it can. After that, it begins to sound forced, and that is the dividing line. Some are conditioned to try to ply eveything they have as loludly and fuly as possible, producing very uneven results.
And this is what J from Sydney is asking about. A clarinet sound is as it was. Some simply play everything as loudly as they can. More do, than don’t.
stay well, and keep practcing with the most beautiful quality of which you are capable.
Stay well,
sherman
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