Beethoven and Mendelssohn back to back

Boy, what a chamber music party that would be to have those two guys in the same room! Well I didn't have them visit me at exactly the same time, but back to back days, close enough to wear me out.

I'm recovering from the musical events and technical bureaucratic machinations required to prepare for a weekend of concerts which contained two delicate and complicated pieces: Beethoven's 8th Symphony and Mendelssohn's Concert Pieces for double clarinets and piano.

Beethoven's delightful and humorous 8th Symphony in F Major has no slow movement, a significant indication of it's lightness. In place of a slow 2nd movement is a Scherzando Allegretto, which contains some dicey staccato ostinato parts for the winds.

But it's the Trio of the Menutetto third movement which contains probably the most dicey of all clarinet excerpts. The "trio" of instruments playing this happy little devil music is two horns and one very lonely clarinet, accompanied by some disgruntled chortling from the cellos throughout. (and from what I've recently learned, also a dicey part for the cellos)

Our conductor this past weekend was Edwin Outwater, who brought a fresh and elegantly dancelike interpretation to the piece, asked us to play the Trio "languidly".

What I felt was anything but languid as I played this delightful music.

I don't think I've ever heard a recording of this movement where the clarinet sounds completely at ease. The player almost always conveys a sense of practiced (meaning somewhat forced) mellowness. In other words, about as mellow as a secret service agent at the beach in a bathing suit.

The reason it's so difficult to relax during this solo is that the range and dynamics are contradictory to any comfort. Beethoven asks the player to play extremely soft AND very, very high. In fact, Beethoven saved the best, meaning the worst part, for last. The trio ends on a high G in pianissimo. UGH!

About 6 years ago I bought a "C" clarinet, to have in case we play certain pieces which almost require its use, namely Ginastera's Danses Concertantes, and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

On a whim I decided to try the solo of Beethoven's 8th symphony using the C clarinet. Beethoven wrote the piece for "Bb" clarinet. Played on the C, the solo in the Trio would be a full step lower, in F instead of G, making the high note easier to reach at the end.

I took my C to rehearsal and got through it fine. But I couldn't get the scale to line up as it had a few years back when using the same instrument for the same piece. I was playing on different mouthpieces then, so it's hard to say what was different. It didn't matter. I had to play it now with what I had.

The day of the performance, I worked for at least 4 hours, playing the solo over and over and over. (my housemates must have struggled not to go postal) I tried different reeds, different mouthpieces, different ligatures, over and over and over. I couldn't seem to get the soft high notes out consistently in tune. Sometimes they blew sharp, sometimes flat. I tried different fingerings. I invented new fingerings. (VERY dangerous, like "inventing" a new dish the night your boss and his wife are coming to dinner) Nothing seemed to work.

I got to the performance with the best set-up I had found. It went fine, but the urgency in my playing was far from languid! After the concert, our principal cellist came up to me and politely asked if I intended to move the tempo that much the next performance. I said no, I would try to lay back and smoke a cigarette while playing it. (let's see that on YouTube)

Before I packed up to go home that night, I popped my mouthpiece on my Bb (which I play for the rest of the symphony) and played the solo as written, with the notorious pianissimo high G. It popped right out. Was fate (Beethoven) trying to tell me something?

I spoke to the conductor about it the before the next concert and told him I'd play it much more languidly, and on Bb. He looked relieved. It went beautifully. I could have blown smoke rings if I could smoke and play at the same time. (on my list, after double tonguing and circular breathing) I still felt a bit like a Secret Service Agent at the beach, but at least I had a bathing suit and shades to cover my shifty eyes!

So for all you clarinetists who quiver at having to play Beethoven 8th, I say, play it on a funky C clarinet a few times and it will cure you of any fear. (In defense of playing it on C, it's actually quite appropriate, if your C had been properly overhauled and fine tuned, which I plan to have done to mine now for the next time)

The next day, I got up at 6:30 to drive 1.5 hours to teach 7.5 hours, then drive back in time for an 8 PM concert which opened with my colleague Woody Jones and I playing the delightfully (and equally possessed as Beethoven's 8th) Concert Pieces, Opus 113 and 114, for two clarinets and piano, originally for clarinet and Basset Horn (alto clarinet in F).

Let me put it this way. Those cute little pieces are easier and easier the less and less you play them!

Though stressful and tricky to play well, I thoroughly enjoyed performing them with Woody and Caroline Hong, who teaches piano and OSU and who organized this unique collaboration between OSU faculty and CSO musicians. My hat comes off to Caroline. I hope we do many more of these in the future.

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4 comments for “Beethoven and Mendelssohn back to back

  1. February 6, 2009 at

    @Bob Pfeifer: Definitely! (to post about Cat) and about Beeth 8 on C, it’s actually a positive experience, if the instrument is in good shape, something I will have done before the next time I play it.

  2. Bob Pfeifer
    February 5, 2009 at

    Yes! Please write about Peter and the Cat. I have to play it in March, and I could use any insight you have!

    And Beethoven 8 on a C-clarinet…that’s just downright scary! I thoroughly enjoyed you and Woody on Monday evening. Those concertpieces are a bit cheesy, but a blast to play. The two of you sounded great. You should do one of them at a CSO concert sometime.

  3. February 5, 2009 at

    @Soo Goh: Thanks for the story. I need to write about Peter’s devil cat! We did that a few weeks ago, and I wore my fingers out running up the tree over and over. It went fine, just a bit sloppy. Next time I’ll let the cat rest before performing!

  4. Soo Goh
    February 5, 2009 at

    That high G is indeed the fear of all clarinetists! Thanks for sharing your two days of adventure. It was nice to feel that I’m not alone whenever the stress builds up to a concert. I had to do Peter and the Wolf 4 times this past weekend on two separate days and it was as if I was relieving my nightmare over and over again. During the first rehearsal, I completely fell apart. I was so tired from driving and going to 3 middle schools during the day to do pre-concert talks. I was exhausted and tense that evening rehearsal, and my fingers were determined not to climb the tree that evening. The concerts went well, but not as ‘perfect’ as I would like for my part. I didn’t fall apart and the cat didn’t fall down the tree. But then we are our worst critics. I bet the kids didn’t even know the difference or care about my quest for perfection…

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