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.