Feature Article

Interview: Classical Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman

September, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus


I first heard Richard Stoltzman perform a few years back in UC Berkeley's 770-seat Hertz Hall. Seated in the first row, I discovered him right before me as he began to perform. The sound was startling, so full, rounded, and glowing that I immediately understood why he has gained a reputation as the foremost American clarinetist of our era.

In a career that spans 40 years, the glories of Stoltzman's timbre, married to an impeccable technique and astounding intellect, have inspired composers to write at least 50 concertos for clarinet and orchestra and perhaps 30 other smaller scaled works for him.

This particular interview, conducted on April 5, 2007, focuses on Fantasma/Cantos, a 17-minute concerto for clarinet and orchestra composed for Stoltzman by Japanese genius Tôru Takemitsu (1930-1996). 

Our phone conversation, which I taped, began with a level test in which Richard began to extemporize on the glorious nature of Cappuccino . . . .





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Richard Stoltzman: I usually try to have some kind of bran to start the day, and I can use a fairly strong Espresso to get going. I've been able to manage with just hot water if I'm feeling meditative, but oftentimes I have to get ripped with Espresso fairly soon. Having been to Italy the past two weeks, I'm addicted again. I would like to return to no caffeine in another life, but the problem is, everything gets so gray. I'm not talking about my hair, but that's also part of it. The ups and down are all sort of leveled out with caffeine. 

Jason Victor Serinus: When I moved here from New York City in 1972, I went from 6 cups of coffee a day down to 1/2 cup. It was terrifying. Things stood still. I just didn't know what to do. 

RS: That's it. I guess there are people who can live life that way. I thought I had disconnected some vital part of my life force. That sounds too dramatic. But at any rate, I've been having a nice time drinking my daily Cappuccino.

I just went to Starbucks, so I'm ready to go. Just ask me anything and I'll give you the most emotional answer I can. 

JVS: With irony in cheek, let's abruptly segue into the meditative moments of Takemitsu's Fantasma/Cantos

RS: The whole concept of the piece is of a meditative, go round garden where you enter the garden at a specific point and then begin to move around in a circle, seeing the garden from different angles, so that you're ultimately able to observe the rock, tree, or flower from all angles through a 360 degree circle before returning to the starting point. The concept is that when you return, theoretically everything is exactly the same, but the experiences inside of you and the consciousness you've achieved enable you to see the same thing from a new perspective because you understand it from all angles. 

This understanding is something you can bring to almost every point of your life.

It's the Zen sort of beginner's thing, starting again, but also being conscious of the fact that as you grow and as you continue revolving around the sun and begin anew your life each day, you begin to appreciate what you'd normally see every day with a new feeling and respect and understanding. 

In this instance, the garden consists of a tri-tone. Are you a musician? 

JVS: I'm a whistler. Didn't I send you a CD after our last chat? 

RS: Oh, this is whom I'm talking to! Oh yes. I wouldn't even think of whistling in your presence, it would be so embarrassing. 

The piece starts in a tritone. If you go do-re-mi-fa-so, and lowered the so half a step, you get the tritone. That's the rock, the tree, the whatever you want to call it in the garden that begins to be transformed through your consciousness as you see it through it different angles, and is also transformed through Takemitsu's genius. The tritone goes up to a normal fifth and then back down to a trione and then down again to a perfect fourth. 

That's all you need to know musically about the piece. It's presaged, as if you went around a bend and saw a hint of it before you actually encountered it. You walk along, and then because of the angle or the light of the day, you start to perceive this tritone theme in all kinds of others colors. It starts to bounce off the flute or the French horn, or the entire brass section starts playing and all of a sudden it you think you're hearing a Duke Ellington piece. Then the clarinet embellishes it in big swirls of tones. 

One of the very attractive things about this piece is that Takemitsu repeats one section literally, as though you were seeing part of the garden from a 180-degree angle. When you're hearing a piece for the first time, I think an audience wonders what to listen to. The two things to hang onto, I think, are that beginning tritone that you can sing and hear all throughout the orchestra, and that moment at which the sound stops and this section which in the first time its presented Takemitsu asks be played with "Calm," with a very, slow tempo marking –slower than your heartbeat, closer to a beat every two seconds – an eighth note equals 42, "slower than desirable." But in the same repetition, he marks the same moment "Calm and Ecstatic." There' really no difference except for one very, very subtle coloration, where a harmonic in the bass takes the place of a muted French horn note. 

JVS: When you say "calm and ecstatic," I get a sense of the religious experience, where your faith is so strong that you can be ecstatic and yet absolutely calm in the surety of it all. 

RS: Yes. I'm glad you said that. Ironically, one of the things I treasure about having worked with the composer, who passed away unfortunately, is that he sent me a copy of his original writing of the store where the description "Calm and Ecstatic" is written. But when I got the printed score for the first performances, I said to composer, "Toru, what happened to ‘calm and ecstatic'? It just says ‘calm' both times." 

He replied, "Yes. My publisher said that I didn't understand the English well enough. He said it's a contradiction to say calm and ecstatic." They made him erase it from the published score. And I said, "Oh, those fuckers." They didn't understand what he was getting at, which is exactly what you're saying. That moment is the only place in the piece where instead of this tritone melody [sings the music] there is a very simple, unadorned scale. It's like a slow movement of a Mozart piece, where you say, ‘My gosh, that's so simple. Why is that so touching?" That's what happens. The clarinet plays this simple ascending scale, up and back down, and it's a blissful point for me. 

There's also a wonderful cadenza for the clarinet that allows the orchestra to comment on what I'm playing. Then, at the end, it does indeed come back to the very beginning moment of the piece where it opens up and the clarinet states the theme exactly as it did in the beginning, which was about 17 minutes ago. It has been transformed. It's a beautiful musical experience. 

You don't have to know or understand any of this, of course. But I think the wise listener who has some little inkling about this will, especially on a first hearing, be able to transcend the inevitable feeling of ignorance or overwhelm. At least now they have a chance to know how it's going to turn out, and what's evolving in the piece, so they can experience it in both a visceral way and with the mind. 

JVS: I absolutely wish we were doing a radio show, because I'd play this tape as an introduction to your performance. 

Several thoughts occur. Did he write the piece in consultation with you, or did he write it and then present it? 

RS: He wrote it and gave it to me. 

JVS: Do you have the ability to hear the orchestra behind you in your head when you first look at a score, or does it first come together with you when you're actually with an orchestra or someone playing a reduction on the piano? 

RS: I can't look at a score and hear the verticality of it. I can't hear what the chords and combination will sound like. I can go through and look at lines and hum lines; I don't play the piano. 

What I did when I first got the score was to pick places in the piece where I could literally pick out the notes, hold them, and get a sense of the chords. I'd massage the chord and play it almost like a drone, just get the chord in my head, in my head, what does that sound like, what does that feel like, just let the chord sink in. I did that in a few places in the score. 

But of course, the magic of the score is the orchestration, which is so wonderfully exotic. It's full of Takemitsu's attention to detail, in these tiny little places in the harp, the celeste having a duet with the vibraphone, and one moment in which the cymbal is placed upside down on the head of a timpani and slowly vibrates. Then the timpanist moves the timpani head so the vibration starts to produce a dropping in pitch. It's an amazing sound. It's only there for two seconds, but it's one of Takemitsu's gifts. His coloration is really more analogous to some marvelous painting you'd come to again and again. You discover that what you initially thought was red is actually pink with a streak of purple and a dab of brown. It's that kind of satisfying aural experience that's so great in Takemitsu. 

I'm so happy that Michael likes his music. He gives it its proper delicacy and force, because it requires both. There's one moment in the piece when the entire orchestra resolves down to a single note – a single C – that starts as softly as possible and then builds up entire orchestra resounds with the single note. This is introduced by that singing cymbal that predicts this same phenomenon that is going to happen. 

JVS: Have you and Michael done it other places? 

RS: Takemitsu wrote it for the BBC. They commissioned him, but he never could find the time to write the piece. At the same time, I kept asking him to write a Concerto for me. Of course, I didn't have the money; I was just saying it abstractly. Finally, he said, I've got this commission for the BBC, and they said they'd take anything. So I'll write the Concerto for you, and tell them it's for you, not the first clarinetist of the BBC Orchestra. They agreed. 

That was the first performance. Then Michael and I played it at the Festival that he and Christoph Eschenbach started in Japan – I think it's called the Pacific Music Festival, I think, in Sapporo. Takemitsu came, and it was really beautiful. We played it four times. It must have been 1992. In 1991 I played the piece in Vienna. It was my mother's 75th birthday. I brought her to Vienna, Takemitsu brought his wife, it was televised in Japan, and it was a tremendous moment. I'd been invited to Vienna to celebrate to the day the first time the Mozart Clarinet Concerto was played in Vienna on October 16, 1791. The Takemitsu was on the first half, 1991, and then the Mozart in the second. Two great concertos. [The Brahms Clarinet Concerto of 1881 was also on the program]. 

Takemitsu I feel has transcended his era and is going to go on and live in the hearts of music lovers. 

JVS: Have you ever spent time in Japanese gardens? 

RS: Yes, way before this music came into being, when I didn't have the sensibility and sophistication to realize what I was experiencing. It was an enjoyable stroll, but it wasn't transcending like the music is. 

JVS: If it's any consolation, I was in Japan in 1992, and I failed the garden test as well. 

It's especially wonderful to talk to you about the piece because I was sent a CD burn of your out-of-print BMG recording of the work. I can't tell if the problem is early digital sound or the burn or both, but what I hear from the burn is so harsh and monochromatic that I couldn't relax into it. 

RS: The CD isn't as bad as what you've got, but it can't capture the live performance. I'm really excited to play it in the ambience of Davies Symphony Hall. 

JVS: I remember the first time I heard you, seated in the first row in Davies Symphony Hall. You begin to play, and I was overwhelmed by the round beauty of your sound. "Oh my God," I said to myself, "this is why Richard Stoltzman is so famous. This is just the most amazing sound." 

Did Takemitsu confer with you while composing, so he could be sure what you could play and couldn't play? 

RS: While Takemitsu wrote the piece for me without consulting me, he built on a 20-year relationship that began with very late night drinking parties and forays into the dark side of Tokyo. I'd even find him well known in the weirdest transvestite corner of some alley. "Oh Toru, who's your friend?" So I had a great experience, having hung out with him a bunch. He listened to my sound a lot when I was playing with the Tashi group and in later performances. He had also written a piece for me before this called Waves. I therefore felt he didn't have to ask me anything about the clarinet because he heard me in many contexts. 

When I got the piece, I felt, "Oh, he's written this for me. This is what I do." 

JVS: You say in the liner notes for the RCA/BMG release, "The piece is nothing less than a summation of 20th-century clarinet techniques, yet it never loses sight of the instrument's eloquence and tonal range." Did you invent some of those techniques? 

RS: No. What Takemitsu did was to find out what the clarinet could do. Some of those techniques he had asked me about in the past – can you play this soft, can you make two tones at once, can you trill this way, etc? 

I had also studied shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) a little bit, and he introduced me to a great friend of his who was a master of the instrument. We didn't understand each other's language, but we exchanged sounds and spoke to each other through our instruments. I realized that when Takemitsu was asking for certain things from the clarinet, he was thinking of the clarinet in terms of the shakuhachi. What we may think of as a new technique for the clarinet is probably a technique that has been in existence for several hundred years and was developed by shakuhachi players in order to give a note a certain kind of quality. 

For instance, koro koro is a way of changing fingers very quickly on the same note so that the note doesn't change pitch but it changes timbre. It's something that's done on the shakuhachi. Takemitsu asks the clarinet to do the same technique in one part of the cadenza. 

JVS: There are so few singers who can do that. It's so hard to do vocally. I know what the change is like. 

How many pieces have been written for you? 

RS: I'd say close to 50 concerti. In terms of unaccompanied pieces or pieces with string quartet, maybe 25 or 30. 

JVS: You're in your 60s. How are you doing? I know how my whistling has shifted with the passage of time, and we know what happens to singers when they pass 50. How are you doing? 

RS: In terms of an instrument, I've always said that the voice is the ultimate instrument. Whenever I give Master Classes, I tell people to emulate the voice. 

The downside of that is that the voice in inside the body, and the body is never forever. The good side of playing the clarinet is that while you may try to make it sound like a voice, it's still external to you, and in a way is always renewable. 

The breath is good, and I definitely do exercises. Emotionally, this is a tough time for me because my wife of over 30 years found some other man and is divorcing me. I've found the emotional heaviness of that has a profound affect on me when I play the instrument. I'm trying to look at it as a necessary and probably positive thing for me. At any rate, the heaviness of carrying that around makes for a breathing heaviness. 

I on purpose re-recorded my outgoing message on my answering machine because people were very concerned. They would call and leave messages like, "Are you alright? Please call." They knew I was being divorced, and they heard a new darkness in my voice. So I practiced a little bit and making my voice sound very positive, and saying [imitating the new, overly cheery voice on his answering machine}: "HELLO. THIS IS RICHARD STOLTZMAN. You've just reached…. You have to do that with your instrument too. I've chosen the clarinet. I can easily sit down in the basement and play tones and have a very melancholic and dark and morose sound. Honestly, some of that is okay in certain music, and I draw on it. 

I'm doing fine is the short answer. 

JVS: I have the same experience with my whistling; the sound changes according to my emotional state. I also know that the voices of two of the singers I revere the most, Lehmann and Schumann, both of whom married Jewish men and had to deal with the realities of getting everyone out alive from Nazi Germany, changed every year depending upon the strain they were under. 

RS: It's revealing. It really shows you how we as human beings relate to each other through tone. Our stories are in our timbres. 

JVS: Richard. This is so wonderful. I look forward to seeing you after your concert. 

RS: Give me a hug when you see me. I'm happy to say hello and shake hands, but at this moment, my highest priority is hugging. 

JVS: I'd be delighted. When an artist invites me in the way you have, music becomes even more vibrant and alive. Thank you so much.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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