Clarinets for Conservation

C for C

By Scott MacClelland

LAST FRIDAY evening, at the home of Dionys and Jonathan Briggs in Carmel, the founder of Clarinets for Conservation, Michele von Haugg, introduced her charity to a gathering ready to both learn and pony up. Von Haugg was joined by Gary Sperl, who is principal clarinet for the Knoxville Symphony, Bear Valley Music Festival and Assisi Chamber Music Festival in Italy.

Having retired from a career as a clarinetist in US Air Force bands, von Haugg now divides her time between fundraising events in this country and a major teaching project in Tanzania, the impoverished Eastern Africa nation with little fresh water and few paved roads. Why Tanzania? It’s where Dalbergia melanoxylon (African blackwood, grenadilla, or mpingo) grows; it is the most valuable wood from which clarinets and oboes are made, and is also used for fingerboards, pegs and tailpieces of string instruments. Indeed, mpingo is under siege by the demand for these purposes, while, ironically, its value to the natives of Tanzania is almost purely decorative. (The hosts of the event showed off some beautiful carvings preserving some of the light outer bark but focusing in the black, dense interior.)

In 2010, von Haugg took a trunk full of clarinets to a small village in Tanzania to introduce children to the very instruments made from the trees growing around them and to cultivate planting and nurturing mpingo seedlings. Her extraordinary vision has since attracted a growing “team” of teachers and staff who travel there each summer.

At Friday’s presentation, von Haugg projected a slide show of images of the students, teachers and staff, and spoke about the wood, circulating rough-cut samples, and about the program itself. She and Sperl (pictured above teaching a Tanzanian student) surrounded the inspirational portion with music, starting out with a cheeky, virtuosic sonata for the two instruments composed in 1918 by Francis Poulenc.

During the presentation von Haugg explained that mpingo was used as ballast in sailing ships, but only began to be exported to Europe in the 1880s. Before that, Sperl added, boxwood was the common choice for clarinets and oboes. But, von Haugg said, the dense mpingo held up much better when lathed into instrument joints (sections.)

To conclude the formal part of the program the two gave “only the second performance” of a new piece by the young American composer Sarah Hersh, with words from Diane Muldrow’s We Planted a Tree, narrated by Dionys Briggs. The last piece was the delightful Views of the Blues by Gordon Lewin. (I imagine all these works were likely local premieres.)

To learn more about Clarinets for Conservation, click HERE