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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Recipe for Good Music
Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman runs a tight schedule.
A familiar performer in classical, jazz, and crossover circles, it
comes to him that the ideal time for an interview is on his way home
from a rehearsal, while he drives on the Massachusetts Turnpike. He
gives me his cell phone number. By the initial indications, he is
on the cutting edge of electronic technology.
Stoltzman and the distinguished pianist Emanuel Ax, his good friend
of 30 years, are preparing for a recital at McCarter Theater on
April 7, at 8 p.m. Their program is in part a historical re-enactment.
It includes the two Johannes Brahms sonatas for clarinet and piano,
Op. 120, and Robert Schumann’s "Fantasiestucke," Op. 73,
played during a soiree at the home of Clara Schumann, Robert’s widow,
on November 13, 1894. At this first, informal, performance of the
sonatas, Brahms himself was at the piano. A performance with the
program introduced the public to the two new sonatas.
The McCarter concert goes beyond history and includes two contemporary
pieces by Boston-based composers, one of them a world premiere.
its first performance is Yehudi Wyner’s "Commedia." William
Thomas McKinley’s "Lamento," which Stoltzman describes as
a "short, beautiful, poignant piece," completes the program.
"The reason for doing the concert is the Brahms Sonatas,"
says Stoltzman, who has arrived home by the time we speak. "It’s
a cornerstone of the literature for the clarinet. Because Brahms had
already retired, it’s a miracle. Thank God for Richard Muhleld, who
made Brahms think that the clarinet is worthy of this kind of
After informing his publisher not to expect any more music from him,
Brahms heard clarinetist Muhlfeld and was captivated. Brahms invited
Muhlfeld to play the entire clarinet repertoire for him and showered
him with questions about the sonorities of the instrument and its
technique. Then, with Muhlfeld in mind, he wrote a trio, a quintet,
and the two sonatas. Muhlfeld, he said, was his nightingale. In 1897,
within three years of completing the sonatas, Brahms was dead, leaving
behind four treasures of the clarinet repertoire.
For Stoltzman and Ax playing the Brahms is a peak musical experience
steeped in the environment of a long friendship. "I wanted to
explore these pieces with a good friend," Stoltzman says.
always something about going back to a masterpiece. You’re older;
you have new experiences. Returning to a piece brings continuity to
your life. We’ve known each other for more than 30 years. We value
the friendship; the friendship can be enriched by the music. And I
have some nice dinners."
Stoltzman tries to dismiss his remark about good eating as a joke.
But I’m not convinced. In the early days of his career, Stoltzman
signed up for a course at the Cordon Bleu school in London and
to bake enthusiastically. In the early 1990s the New York Times
adaptations of his recipes for Linzer torte and cheesecake.
At any rate, the music is more important to him than
the food. "The whole thing is summarized by a tempo marking in
the last sonata, `allegro amabile,’" he says. "I never saw
that marking before. It’s very unusual: a tempo marking followed by
a feeling about the tempo. Brahms is saying you have to allow time
to let the music flow, and to let your life flow. The `amabile’ is
as important as the `allegro.’ It calls for a feeling of friendship
through the music and through time. I would use it as a slogan for
why we’re doing the concert."
Stoltzman won one of his two Grammys in 1983 for his recording of
the Brahms sonatas with pianist Richard Goode and I ask him about
the difference between playing with Goode and with Ax.
"The difference is between playing in 1983 and playing in
he says. "If I played with Richard now, the pieces wouldn’t be
the same either. That’s the great thing about being a musician. At
different times, pieces can mean different things to you. You
differently. It’s part of the wonder of music."
The wonder of music was part of Stoltzman’s life from childhood on.
Born in 1942 in Omaha, Nebraska, to a railway man, he grew up in San
Francisco and Cincinnati. He remembers that his father, an avid
saxophone player, loved big band music. "He would come home from
work, put on record, and say, `This is great music.’ He would play
Woody Herman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. OK it’s not Mozart,
but it’s great. What we listened to in the 1940s was timeless. Why
not call it classical?"
Stoltzman started on clarinet when he was in elementary school in
San Francisco. "We had an itinerant teacher who said, `Next year
if you bring an instrument to school I’ll teach you how to use it.’
My dad kept a clarinet under the bed. He thought if you play in big
band, you have to double on another instrument." Stoltzman took
his father’s clarinet to school.
Both of Stoltzman’s parents belonged to a church choir; his father
played saxophone; his mother sang. Now 86, his mother still sings.
"The first times I ever played clarinet were in church,"
told a Tacoma, Washington, reporter. "I was too young to read
the notes, but I picked out the alto or tenor line by ear, to help
out the choir. I tried to breathe like they breathed and sound like
they sounded. I played like a singer."
As a clarinetist, Stoltzman advocates using vibrato, the controlled
fluctuations in pitch that singers and string players use generously
to warm up a sound. "There is an opinion in the clarinet world
that claims that a true clarinet tone has no vibrato," he says.
"But the idea of talking about no vibration is almost unmusical.
It’s not a hot issue to me. The idea of music without vibration is
impossible. The tone must vibrate for you to hear it."
"With a clarinet the tone starts by vibrating a piece of bamboo,
the reed, in your mouth. It’s not like plugging a clarinet into a
vacuum cleaner. There’s a very subtle vibration above and below the
exact pitch, a pitch vibrato. There’s also a pulse vibrato occasioned
by the beat as you move the air faster or slower." Stoltzman
by puffing at differing speeds. "With the reed inside your mouth,
as you move your tongue to change the vowel sound, you change the
resonance cavity in your mouth. All this is used in combination.
what makes a tone personal instead of machine-like."
Stoltzman graduated from Ohio State University in 1964
with a double major in music and mathematics. "There’s a little
kinship," he says. "Both math and music use symbols —
formulas or notes on page. Both are a kind of shorthand from the mind
to express something more profound. They’re both are after a kind
of unattainable perfection. Both have a hard-to-describe beauty that’s
not necessarily pretty."
After Ohio State, Stoltzman studied for a master’s degree at Yale
with Keith Wilson, and a doctoral degree at Columbia with Kalmen
"I thought I didn’t have the knowledge of chamber music that I
wanted," he says. "As you study you realize how much you don’t
"My real education was at Marlboro," Stoltzman says, referring
to the Vermont music festival founded by Rudolf Serkin where he spent
10 successive summers beginning in 1967.
"Degrees don’t mean anything for the performer. At Marlboro you
study and rehearse day and night. I was never immersed in music to
that extent before. I met Richard [Goode], Manny [Ax], and Peter
there. I met my wife there."
In 1973, along with other Marlboro alumni, Stoltzman founded Tashi
, the innovative chamber group devoted to contemporary music with
founding members violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry, and
pianist Peter Serkin. The group, whose name means "good
in Tibetan, derived from the instrumentation required to play Olivier
Messiaen’s mystical "Quartet for the End of Time." The group
celebrated its 25th anniversary in the late ’90s with tours in Asia,
Europe, and the United States.
Stoltzman has been instrumental in promoting new music for clarinet.
He has premiered more than 40 new works. In the four-year period
he recorded 22 new concertos written for him. His discography of some
50 albums is laden with contemporary music.
Does Stoltzman consider himself a classical musician? "I think
of myself as a musician, period," he says. "I make a living
playing music. I play Mozart, Brahms, and Bartok. The word `classical’
is great to use if you’re talking about music that’s timeless and
transcends a period. Composers alive at any time must have said, `This
is contemporary. It’s not a period. It’s my life.’"
In the 1970s Stoltzman was the first to play jazz at Bayreuth. "We
weren’t trying to make a statement," he says. "We played
Brahms, and other classics. Thelonius Monk was on the program. Now
there’s a classical composer. His music has transcended periods of
time and is unique. We attracted many young people. There was a little
bit of tension in the audience. The uninitiated were happily
And the informed were elated. We had to do four or five encores."
Stoltzman’s performances include appearances with his family. His
wife, Lucy Chapman Stoltzman, is a violinist; son Peter, 25, is a
jazz pianist; and daughter Margaret, 19, is a pianist. "Everybody
in the family has their own life," he says. "It’s not easy
to get them together. At the New England Conservatory of Music, wife
Lucy is head of the String Department and the Chamber Music
Son Peter, who just finished a Midwest tour with his father, is
for a degree in composing at the New England Conservatory. Daughter
Margaret is unreachable in Patagonia at the moment, as part of a
offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which promotes
Though he solidly commands the cell phone, Stoltzman turns over
management to his wife. "I haven’t learned to use a computer."
He says. "I don’t want to use it. My wife knows it well. But
I see the horrible, suffering look on people’s faces when their
has crashed. I don’t think I could stand it. Besides I have to
— Elaine Strauss
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman with
six-time Grammy-winner Emanuel Ax on piano. $31 & $34. Monday,
April 7, 8 p.m.<
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