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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 11, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mozart Madness: Amadeus Hits the Big 250

`I grew up learning and re-learning the piece," says Karl Herman in a

telephone interview about his upcoming performance of the Mozart

clarinet concerto, which he will play in the first week of the New

Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Mozart festival. "The piece

invites constant rethinking. It’s something that everybody is always

working on. Every time you play it, it gets harder. You keep saying,

`How did I ever miss that (he underlines the word with his voice) the

last time around?’ Most people think it’s the best concerto written

for clarinet. Just about every orchestral audition requires it. It

demonstrates more about a player’s ability than any other piece."

Kicking off the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of the

250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Herman’s performances take place

at Thursday, January 12, in New Brunswick’s State Theater; and Friday

and Sunday, January 13 and 15 in Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts

Center. Gilbert Varga conducts. The clarinet concerto is paired with

other late Mozart compositions, including his last symphony, the

"Jupiter," for a program entitled "Mozart’s Autumn Years." See below

for the full festival schedule.

Week two of the festival is devoted to "Mozart and the Voice," with

guest soloists and the choir of Westminster Choir College of Rider

University joining the NJSO in a program that includes the Mozart

Requiem. Bernard Labadie makes his conducting debut with the NJSO.

The final week of the festival is entitled "Mozart the Pianist."

Pianist-conductor Vladimir Feltsman plays Mozart’s Concert-Rondo on

both the modern piano and its forerunner, the fortepiano. He also

solos in the Piano Concert No. 24, as well as leading orchestral

compositions of Mozart.

A unique feature of this Mozart festival is a community play-in of

Mozart’s "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" at NJPAC on Saturday, January 28 at

3 p.m. The public is invited to bring their own stands and instruments

so that they can join NJSO musicians.

International, national, and local celebrations of the anniversary are

widespread. Radio station WWFM, for instance, is airing four Mozart

compositions each day in January, dubbed Mozart Month.

The appeal of the Austrian composer reaches out over the centuries to

performers and audiences of many persuasions. During his 36 years the

versatile composer produced symphonies, concerti, opera, songs, choral

music, chamber music of every sort, piano works, and sonatas for

various instruments. The richness of his output in a very short life

continues to amaze, as does the incessant freshness of what he wrote.

The technical challenges are formidable. Seemingly simple, Mozart’s

compositions require the utmost of finesse in order to avoid muddying

their transparency.

On the threshold of performing the clarinet concerto Karl Herman

expresses the awe, respect, and pleasure that Mozart repeatedly

evokes. "I’m discovering that you want to be very, very careful with

the piece," he says, cataloguing the reasons for caution. "First of

all, it’s Mozart. Then, it’s late Mozart." Herman points out that the

concerto has the number 622 in the famous Koechel’s chronological

catalog of Mozart’s work, which runs to 626 entries. He continues:

"Then it’s a supreme piece for a wind instrument; it’s absolutely one

of the best clarinet concertos. Then everybody has different ideas

about what’s good Mozart, and what’s bad.

"Everything is important in Mozart," Herman says. "Nothing," and he

stresses the word, "is insignificant in Mozart; the concept doesn’t

exist. The latest issue of `Clarinet,’ the journal of the

International Clarinet Society, has a six-page article on whether a

particular note in a run of 16th notes, should be F natural or F

sharp. It’s scholarship beyond my ability to address."

Nevertheless, Herman is sensitive to the limits of scholarship. "If

you’ve played many years and have a good understanding of Mozart’s

style, that’s more important than whether the note is sharp or

natural. I’ve heard great Mozart performances, and they didn’t depend

on whether a note was sharp or natural. The important thing is the

performer’s sense of style, the flair, discipline, musicality, and

smoothness. Everything about Mozart depends on trying to strike the

correct balance."

Addressing the question of an effective Mozart performance, Herman

emphasizes the interplay between the performer and the piece being

performed. "Everything unique about the player has to be weighed in

terms of the piece," he says. "Articulation and dynamics are left up

to the performer. It’s important to look at what works best for you.

Everybody wants to perform as well as they can."

Herman rejects the idea that a telling performance can be measured.

Instead, he turns subjective. "Whenever a good performance happens,

you know it’s a good performance," he says. "There’s no need to

quantify on a scale of 10 and say `Articulation, 6; dynamics, 4.’ You

just know when it’s good."

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Herman was born in 1953. His

mother taught English and home economics. His father sold electrical

supplies to industry. Although he says that the family was not

musical, his older sister is a music therapist. "Buying a stereo was a

big undertaking for a family like mine," Herman says. "You got one

recording with the stereo, and we got the Mozart clarinet concerto. It

was one of the first pieces that I heard a recorded performance of."

Tom Sawyer comes to mind when Herman tells how he started on clarinet.

"I was out with a buddy, flattening pennies on the street car track in

Pittsburgh," he says. "It was probably spring or summer of third

grade. We could hear a saxophone lesson going on through an open door.

We hung around and watched the lesson. The teacher told the two of us

to talk to our parents if we were interested in studying music. I

didn’t know anything about the clarinet, but I fell into it. My buddy

ended up playing sax."

Herman became serious about playing clarinet early in his college

career at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University. Originally

interested in chemistry, as well as music, he applied to colleges

where both departments were excellent. Staying in Pittsburgh, he

continued with his pre-college teacher when he decided to abandon

chemistry.

In addition to performing with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra since

1979, where he is principal clarinetist and holder of the Roy and

Diana Vagelos Chair, Herman has played in New York and Princeton for

Broadway shows, for opera, for ballet, and as a chamber music

performer. "One of the best things about living in this part of the

country is the opportunity to do a lot of different things," he says.

In addition to performing, Herman taught at Princeton University and

at William Paterson College during the 1990s.

In recent years Herman has been cutting down on both travel and

teaching. His last tour was with the New York Philharmonic about six

years ago. His wife, Erika Nickrenz, is the pianist with the Eroica

Trio, which has a formidable touring schedule. The couple’s son,

Zachary, is four years old.

"My wife tours a lot, and I stopped teaching to take care of Zach,"

Herman says. "It’s not so much a matter of child-rearing philosophy,"

he says. "When you have a kid, it’s clear what the kid needs. You have

to be practical and solve problems. Hugh Wolff (a former NJSO artistic

director) once said, `Don’t plan too much.’"

Asked about the biggest problem in playing clarinet, he says: "Reeds.

I make my own. When I was in school very few clarinetists made their

own reeds. Now more do. The cane that we use is the same raw material

as for oboe reeds, and it has to be dried properly. It’s like trying

to buy stuff for a home improvement project. Nobody will tell you

where it comes from – it might be France or Australia or Argentina;

they don’t want you to go to their source.

"The clarinet is a single-reed instrument, and its reeds are bigger

than oboe reeds, so they’re not as touchy. But they are still plenty

of a problem. Weather and humidity affect the reed, and saliva does,

too. Everybody’s saliva is different; it has a different acidity. For

me, it’s not that often that a reed plays optimally well. Once you get

a good reed going, it lasts one or two days. It might be good for a

week of performance. Sometimes it’s OK for practice for several

weeks."

Herman plays an instrument made by Guy Chadash, who has a shop in New

York City near the Lincoln Tunnel. It takes about a month to make a

clarinet, he says. The instrument is made of wood, either ebony or

granadilla. Seventeen metal keys have to be individually fitted to the

instrument. The material of the keys is what Herman calls

"proprietary," consisting of special alloys, whose composition is

worked out between the instrument maker and the manufacturer of the

alloy. Chadash builds keys from rough blanks, Herman says, cutting the

keys from the blanks, soldering them, and then fitting them to the

instrument.

Herman finds inspiration for his playing not only in his own

instrument but in the historic string instruments, called the Golden

Age collection, at the NJSO. "There’s something about being around

these instruments," he says. "When you’re around them you understand

that you’re in the presence of history. They’re hundreds of years old,

they’re the best of their kind, they’re works of art, and they have

everyday utility. If that doesn’t give you pause to think what you can

do to elevate your playing, there’s got to be something wrong with

you. Five years ago, I played the Mozart clarinet quintet with good

string instruments. About two years ago I played the Brahms quintet

with Golden Age instruments. It was a very, very heady thing. You’d

have to be stone deaf not to hear the difference." As he refines his

mastery of Mozart’s clarinet concerto, Herman can be sure that the

vintage strings will provide willing support for anything he can

discover in the piece.

Mozart’s Autumn Years, Many Faces of Mozart Festival, Thursday,

January 12, 8 p.m., New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, State Theater, New

Brunswick; Friday, January 13, 8 p.m., and Sunday, January 15, 3 p.m.

NJPAC, Newark. Neeme Jarvi conducts full Mozart program. Featured

musician is Karl Herman on clarinet. 800-ALLEGRO.

Also, Mozart and the Voice, Many Faces of Mozart: Mozart and the

Voice, Friday, January 20, 8 p.m., and Sunday, January 22, at 3 p.m.,

NJPAC, Newark; and Saturday, January 21, 8 p.m., Patriots Theater, War

Memorial, Trenton. Bernard Labadie conducts a full Mozart program.

Featured singers include Karina Gauvin, soprano; Christine Abraham,

mezzo soprano; Nathan Berg, bass-baritone; and Westminster Choir.

800-ALLEGRO.

Also, Mozart the Pianist, Friday, January 27, 8 p.m., Richardson

Auditorium, Princeton University; Sunday, January 29, 3 p.m., State

Theater, New Brunswick; and Saturday, January 28, 8 p.m., NJPAC,

NewarkMozart program conducted by Vladimir Feltsman, who is also the

featured pianist. 800-ALLEGRO.


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