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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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