Eighteen months ago in a program planning session, this sentence filled me with dread:
“How about a clarinet concerto?”
Don’t get me wrong- I love the clarinet as much as the next guy, but, in my experience, nobody ever really means “how about a clarinet concerto?”
They almost always mean “how about the clarinet concerto?”
And which, you may ask, is “the” clarinet concerto?
Well, although the first piece I conducted with a good orchestra was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, for most music lovers, and certainly, and more worryingly, most program committees, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is the only one worth thinking about.
Let me be perfectly clear- the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is everything people say it is. Sublime. Moving. Magical.
At least on the page.
I love the Mozart, but how many times have I heard it played like muzak? How many times has the slow movement ground to a halt? How often do you sit through an entire performance wondering how the clarinetist never seems to notice that he’s just a little flat or a little sharp on every note?
And yet, it seems like every time people hear the second movement of this wonderful piece, they manage to convince themselves they’ve experienced a revelation, been touched to their core, been elevated, been cleansed. It is certainly touching testimony as to how much people love Mozart’s music, but I’m sure there is often a huge “Emperor’s New Clothes” factor. Well, call me the cheeky boy in the story, but I’ve sat through, played and even conducted too many gahdaffel performances of the Mozart Clarinet concerto, practically chewing my own arms off to forget the mixture of extreme boredom and frustration. Hearing it is not always the transformative experience it should be.
A special piece ought to deserve a special performance. The very qualities that make the Mozart, well-played, so special- it’s intimacy and fragility- ought to seriously mitigate against it being hacked through or loved to death, but its status as one of the tried-and-true “bums on seats” safe choices of the repertoire means that it has become cannon fodder for far too many dodgy freelance outfits putting it together in 30 minutes of half-hearted rehearsal, or student and amateur groups who might spend 10 weeks learning to play it with a horrible sound. My sister, also a conductor, once explained to the board of one of her orchestras why she wouldn’t let them play Mozart in her first season; “Mozart” she said, “is the string bikini of composers, and I just think that we, as an orchestra, don’t have the body to pull it off yet.” The worst Mozart Clarinet Concerto I ever heard, was not well-meaning-but-technically-limited players, nor an ad hoc freelance outfit, but a TV broadcast by one of the most famous London orchestras several years ago. I still get cranky when I think about it. Was anyone on stage that night listening?
Sometimes the slow movement is played so slowly and over-reverentially that it makes the last movement of Mahler 9 sound like The Flight of the Bumblebee. Sometimes the whole piece just sits there like an uneaten bowl of oatmeal, smooth and creamy, sure, but becoming less appetizing by the second.
Frankly, for me, most performances of this delicate masterpiece seem to evoke the image of a beautiful young girl (the piece) being pawed by a sweaty, hairy and creepy middle-aged man (the performers). Pawed and pawed and pawed- slowly and getting slower, and always out of tune….
Anyway, I’ve conducted it quite a few times and played it gazillions, and there have been some good nights, but also some long ones. Funnily, the best and worst performances I’ve done were with the same clarinetist, which ought to underline how difficult the piece really is. At this stage, I’d like to do it with a clarinet player I have some rapport with, which wouldn’t have been the case in this instance, and in a situation where we could spend a bit of extra time on the orchestra part. In the meantime, the thought of another contribution to the world supply of sleepy and sloppy Mozart doesn’t appeal.
Fortunately, there are other clarinet concertos out there. I do love the Copland, but it is for string orchestra, and we wanted to keep the winds involved. There’s the Nielsen, but it’s a little weird and wasn’t going to fit very elegantly on a program of Haydn and Mozart. Likewise the fantastic Corigliano.
What about Weber?
At first glance, the thought of conducting a Weber wind concerto might get me chewing my arms off even faster than the Mozart. In fact, although they’re supposed to be standard repertoire, I’ve never heard, conducted or played in a live professional performance of a Weber wind concerto. What I have heard is a lot of students fumbling their way through single movements of the various concertos for their juries and concerto competitions. Most of the time, they’re not quite up to it technically, and they tend to always play the last movements, which are never the most interesting parts of the pieces, with the kind of “passion and commitment” that makes it clear to everyone that they can’t begin to understand why their teacher wouldn’t let them play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto “instead of this shitty Weber rondo.” It’s not the sort of thing that makes you think “wow- I’ve really got to find a chance to conduct that piece!” For me, Weber+Rondo+Student= -KW
But I’ve been re-thinking Weber in the last year. I’ve always loved the Der Freischutz Overture, and Oberon and conduct them often- they’re wonderful, delightful works. Then, last summer, Radio 3 gave Weber a slot on “Composer of the Week” and I was surprised and really impressed at some of the pieces I didn’t know. It turns out Weber was, in the best sense of the word, completely nuts. You’ve got to love any contemporary of Schubert who writes horn multi-phonics. It was great at the end of that week to hear John Elliot Gardiner’s Proms performance of the “French” version of Der Freischutz. Weber was one of the most original and eccentric orchestrators of all time, and this really comes across on period instruments, at least when played so well.
In the end, we managed to entice Michael Collins to join the orchestra for Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto last week, and I’m so glad we did. The first movement is full of Sturm und Drang intensity- not so far from the Wolf’s Glen scene. I even thought of bellowing out “Samiel!!!! Samiel!!!!” a few times in rehearsal, then realized I would appear insane.
The Wolf’s Glen Scene from Der Freischutz. Check out the rabbit. Or maybe don’t…
The operatic mood continues in the lovely second movement, which starts very much in the mood of the horn theme from the overture to Der Freischutz, but with the solo clarinet substituting a beautiful soprano aria for the familiar horn quartet, but then, in the second half of the slow movement, Weber introduces a third horn player for a stunning passage for horn trio and solo clarinet. It’s a passage that is audacious and deeply moving. Yes, the Finale is a little silly compared to what precedes it, but in the hands of someone like Michael Collins, it’s pretty thrilling, and the unmediated juxtaposition profundity and banality ought to be familiar to anyone who knows Weber’s operas. The trick with Weber is to not let the silly bits lessen your regard for the great, weird, original and moving music that usually precedes them.
So- it was great to learn the piece, and wonderful to hear what Michael could do with it. I’m quite sure nobody was missing Mozart in the slow movement, and maybe wasn’t the only one relieved not be thinking “oh god, as slow as it is sharp” again.
The better piece? Mozart, of course.
But which would I rather conduct? Weber. No doubt about it. Better to do a good piece well than to massacre a masterpiece.
And next time your orchestra is thinking about programming the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, strip yourselves down, stand in front a four-way mirror and ask yourselves honestly….
“Do we really have the body for it?”
What do you think? Are there any great pieces out there you can’t hear one more bad performance of? Any good pieces you’d rather hear more often? Am I being unfair? Do you think we need more slow and stodgy Mozart?
Share your comments!!!!