Richard Stoltzman & Michelle Schumann (Austin Chamber Music Fest)
By Luke Quinton
Monday July 2, 2012
Why did a packed house come out Sunday night to hear a clarinetist? Because in the average classical CD collection, if there’s a track with solo clarinet, there’s a very good chance it’s been played by Richard Stoltzman.
Stoltzman’s won two Grammys, played the first ever clarinet recital in Carnegie Hall, and is widely credited with expanding the popular idea of what a clarinet player’s repertoire can be.
So his performance at this year’s Austin Chamber Music Festival brought a little of everything; classics, minimalism and jazz.
The Gershwin finale was the most fun of those — with its jazzy wails and swinging rhythms. When the festival’s director, the pianist Michelle Schumann, introduced some Gershwin arrangements (from the songbook Stoltzman published, no less), she mused out loud how nice the piano’s bass part would sound with a double bass, and how nice it would be to have a real drum beat. So, out come Jessica Valls on double bass and Graeme Francis on snare: instant jazz combo.
“I hope that’s okay with you,” Schumann said to an apparently in-the-dark Stoltzman. Well, it was more than okay. The clarinetist really let loose fronting the jazz ensemble, teasing out beautiful strands of Gershwin and walking about the stage in unselfconscious joy.
No doubt the entirety of the crowd left singing “I’ve got rhythm.”
The path that took us to this merry ending was equally worth the trip. The entire first half was long and loaded with masters: Bach, Brahms and Robert Schumann.
The Bach “Sonata in G Major” was originally written for the Viola da Gamba, a progenitor of the cello, and its mercilessly nimble notes were a little too taxing for Stoltzman’s tongue out of the gate. But the Brahms and Schumann showed off his big, warm tone, often with a tinge of melancholy.
Michelle Schumann was a typically generous accompanist, both accurate and emotive.
Until he spoke at the start of the second half, Stoltzman gave the impression of being comically awkward, giving Schumann a nerdy thumbs up after one piece. But when he did speak, we discovered that Stoltzman is a genuinely funny storyteller.
After stretching out a yard or two of Steve Reich’s sheet music across two stands, the audience laughed. “I know,” Stoltzman quipped, “Everybody says he’s a minimalist composer.”
He went on to describe Reich’s “New York Counterpoint” as “a clarinet sandwich.” Which must be a double-decker, because he plays solo clarinet in the center of ten other parts — all his recordings — stacked on top of one another.
“I hope you like it,” Stoltzman said. Before adding earnestly, “I didn’t like it at first — now I love it.”
And that was the audience’s reaction as well. The pulse and echoes play off the brilliant solo parts, which Stoltzman stuck precisely.
Charles Ives’ music was an ideal transition, with the warm “In the Mornin’” and the stark “Serenity,” hinting at the jazz to come. By the end, the only thing missing was the big brass band and a Dixieland jam.
Austin Chamber Music Festival continues through July 15. www.austinchambermusic.org
Luke Quinton is an American-Statesman freelance arts critic.