Borromeo Quartet & Richard Stoltzman

By Scott MacClelland

CLARINETIST RICHARD STOLTZMAN is no stranger to Carmel. Now 76, he returned to perform for Chamber Music Monterey Bay with the Borromeo String Quartet, together attracting a large audience at Sunset Center on Saturday. Borromeo and Stoltzman last appeared here in January, 2010. He read his part from traditional score; they read theirs on iPads and turned pages with a foot pedal. (Borromeo, named after the wealthy Italian family whose son Carlo, a 16th century counter-reformation cardinal and inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church, is well known locally for the Carmel mission that bears his name.)

At 100 minutes total performing time, this was an unusually generous program. (These days, classical concerts typically offer 60 to 70 minutes total.) Two works for string quartet alone included the well-known Quartet in G Minor by Debussy—a knockout reading indeed!—and two movements from Etudes and Lullabies by American composer Sebastian Currier. With Stoltzman on board, they performed the quintet by Jean Françaix (a local premiere I believe) and the famous and well-loved quintet by Mozart.

With the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets as looming masterpieces, Françaix knew he had to go for gold. As a Frenchman, however, he was not about to be intimidated; he composed his in 1977 as a boldly ambitious work in four movements lasting nearly half an hour. Moreover, he applied his French sensibilité that maximizes clarity laced with Gallic musical wit. That wit usually shows up in the quicker bits and movements as it did when the languid opening adagio gave way to a snarky clarinet solo that led to the cheeky allegro, à la Erik Satie and his disciples, Poulenc, Milhaud et al. The second movement, scherzando, was playful, syncopated and with much string pizzicato. The brief third movement, grave, is nothing more or less than a tender lullaby, while the rondo finale gives expanded phrasing to the clarinet against quicker chatter on the strings. It also gave the clarinet generous opportunities to go its own way, right up to and including a solo cadenza and a ripe red raspberry—that you won’t hear from other players—just before the end.

The Debussy quartet was played with such single-minded brilliance and élan that one might have thought the iPad technology was a contributing factor. Beforehand, violinist Nicholas Kitchen explained that Debussy had in mind the great Belgian violinist/composer Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858-1931), the “tsar” of the violin as Nathan Milstein described him. Ysaÿe indeed inspired virtuoso works by others of his contemporary composers.

Kitchen also told an amusing story about working with Currier, specifically as it applied to the Etude No. 6 “Velocities,” an eerie high-speed scurry composed (along with its other movements) in 2017 for Borromeo. Let’s just say that if the iPad made the quartet’s work easier, it wasn’t by much. The slow, tremulous, brittle Lullaby No. 2 “Dreaming” made you realize how hyperventilated “Velocities” was.

At last came the Mozart. Like the Françaix, the texture makes clear how different the personality of the clarinet is to the string quartet. Even with fine ensemble playing, Stoltzman asserted himself at every opportunity right from the start. The heart and soul of the piece is the melting second movement Larghetto, a tender seduction that, along with several other late Mozart masterpieces proves that that great classicist was at heart a romantic. For another thing, he shows himself to be no slave to convention; in the first of the two trios (in the minuet) he gives the clarinet nothing to do, but then chooses to remember it in the second trio. For the jovial finale, the expected rondo was in this case replaced by a theme and five variations, plus a coda which itself sounds largely like another variation.

Chamber music you say? It doesn’t get better than this.    

Grenadilla Rising

By Scott MacClelland   

IT STARTED on Friday when clarinetist Jon Manasse joined his longtime piano collaborator Jon Nakamatsu in a recital for the Distinguished Artists Series in Santa Cruz. (It will continue this Saturday when clarinetist Richard Stoltzman joins the Borromeo String Quartet at Sunset Center, and the following Saturday when clarinetist Bruce Belton joins cellist Amy Anderson and her string quartet at Unitarian Universalist on Aguajito Road in Carmel.) 

All respect for Manasse who smoothly and purely (without vibrato) navigated Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata in F Minor, Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (his “first published work”) and some shorter bits composed for the duo in this century. But as fine as were these performances Nakamatsu’s recreation of Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante was the evening’s out-of-the-park home run. (How these two totally individual pieces, the Andante and the Polonaise, came to be connected remains a mystery.) I searched for a reliable French translation of ‘cheeky,’—voici! effronté—a perfect match to Nakamatsu’s digital winks at the ‘over the top’ Polonaise. 

(Nakamatsu has developed one of the most successful long-term careers among the elite club of Cliburn medalists. He is the primary subject of a 2014 interview published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that you can read HERE)   

In his late 50s, having already announced his retirement from composing, Brahms took inspiration from the Meiningen-based clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld to compose four fabulous pieces of chamber music for the instrument: two sonatas, a trio and a quintet. (A similar stroke of fortune occurred to Mozart when the clarinetist Anton Stadler fell into his life.) In the seductive slow movement of the Brahms, the composer delivers another of his magic tricks, one of his smoothest ever elisions from a descending line on the clarinet that hooks seamlessly into its conclusion on the piano, an effect that beguilingly makes only four appearances.

The two-movement Bernstein, completed in 1942, begins as a grazioso with a theme that echoes the influence of Paul Hindemith, who was, at the time, composer-in-residence at Tanglewood. The jazzy second movement, Vivace e leggiero after a slower introduction, is rife with abrupt meter changes, the very rhythmic energy that bears such ripe fruit in later works, like Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (also for clarinet) and West Side Story. Here Manasse swallowed the good Kool-Aid to splendid effect.

That spirit ensued in the fourth movement, Big Phat Band, from Four Views for Clarinet and Piano (2012) by Gordon Goodwin, named for Goodwin’s own band. The two Jons also played the lyrical third movement. (Goodwin is probably better known for the film music he has composed and/or arranged for The Incredibles, The Majestic, Glory Road, Remember the Titans, Gone in 60 Seconds, Enemy of the State and many more.

But for encores, the program ended with John Novak’s “Full Stride Ahead” from Four Rags for Two Jons (2006), which I believe ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin would have envied.