Saturday, September 15, 2012

Julian Bliss in Chicago!

Yesterday, I saw Julian Bliss perform live for the first time!  He was appearing at the International Beethoven ProjectJulian Bliss is a 23 year old clarinet prodigy from the United Kingdom.  He began playing the clarinet at age 4, and since then he has built an amazing career.  He is a world class soloist, and he has collaborated with some of the greatest musicians in the world in chamber music projects.  He is also famous for designing a clarinet for LeBlanc which has become quite popular.
Julian Bliss (and me).  Great clarinetist, really cool guy.

It was a wonderful concert!  Bliss played the Mihaud Sonata, Penderecki's Three Miniatures, and the Brahms Sonata (#1) in the first half.  After Intermission, he played Piazolla's Oblivion, Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie and the Prokofiev flute sonata which he had arranged for clarinet.  Throughout the concert Mr. Bliss joked and commented about the music he was playing.  He had a really warm stage presence and a lot of confidence.  At one point, he said that he had worked on a piece with a composer a long long time ago.  This made me laugh, because at 23, it can't have been that long ago.  Maybe long long ago doesn't mean what Mr. Bliss thinks it means!

I was really surprised at the beginning of the concert.  Mr. Bliss came out, and he played the Milhaud and the Penderecki quite well technically and musically, but he didn't grab me the way that I expected him to.  Then he played the Brahms, and something about it wasn't quite right.  He was kind of careless with the Brahms Sonata and he didn't play with the emotional depth that the Brahms demands.  I didn't dislike his playing, of course, he was very proficient, but I didn't hear the virtuoso sound that I have come to expect from a performer as renowned as Julian Bliss.  I thought to myself, why do people find Julian Bliss so amazing?

A cool mobile at the National Pastime Theater.
After the intermission, my question was answered with an exclamation point.  Bliss came back on stage and played Oblivion by Piazolla.  His performance was hauntingly beautiful, and I loved his tone and his expression throughout the performance.  He commanded the rapt attention of every person in the room at that moment.  He connected with the music and he connected with the audience perfectly.  I think the best part of his playing the Piazolla was his vibrato.  Vibrato on the clarinet is a tricky prospect.  Bliss used it sparingly, but when he used it it was flawless, and made his sound take flight.  Mozart is famous for comparing the clarinet to the human voice.  Bliss showed us just what Mozart must have been talking about.  His vibrato was smooth and silky, and put in the mind the picture of a cat purring lazily on a warm summer's day.

Then, he played the Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie.  Before this night, I had come to the conclusion that this was not the greatest piece of clarinet literature, and I kind of dreaded when I would have to learn it -- which will be soon.  This is a song I have heard played many times by many people, famous and not so famous, and, while I have like many of them,  none of the performances have truly impressed me.  Bliss's performance completely blew me away!  I loved everything he did.  He brought the music to life.  His tone was clean and clear.  His phrasing was phenomenal.  His articulations were different than anyone I've ever heard before him, and I found his performance stronger and more vibrant than any I've heard.   I thought to myself as I listened, "THIS is why Julian Bliss is a world class performer!  I get it."  After he finished, I was sad that the music had stopped, as I wanted it to go on and on for hours.

The theater space at the National Pastime Theater in Chicago
Then, he began to play the final piece of his program.  The closing number was the Prokofiev Flute Sonata, Opus 94.  Julian Bliss had arranged it himself for clarinet.  It was a very interesting piece!  It didn't have the dissonance that I have come to expect from Prokofiev, and yet the feel was very distinctly Prokofiev.  I loved the way it sounded on clarinet.  This should never have been a flute or a violin sonata.  I think Prokofiev made a mistake by scoring it for the wrong instrument.  A mistake that Mr. Bliss fixed in one beautiful performance.  His interpretation and playing was simply fantastic!

After the concert, I hung around to see if I could meet Julian Bliss.  He was very willing to hang around and chat with anyone who came up to him after the concert, and he greeted everyone like they were old friends.  What a great guy!  He even let my mom take a picture of the two of us.  You know, Julian Bliss is quite short!  It seems that many famous clarinetists tend to be on the small side:  Wenzel Fuchs, Anthony McGill and now Julian Bliss are all around my height.  And I'm only 5'5" (and probably almost done growing).  I have a theory:  maybe playing the clarinet stunts your growth.

In any case, the concert was a GREAT experience, and I was very happy to have finally heard an interpretation of the Premiere Rhapsodie that was truly amazing.  I hope that I will get to hear Mr. Bliss again.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Master Class with Jessica Phillips Rieske

A few hours after the ICA High School Solo Competition, I was scheduled to play for a masterclass with Jessica Phillips Rieske, Acting Principal Clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  She is also on the faculties at Rutgers and Columbia Universities, and she teaches E-Flat clarinet at The Juilliard School.

Ms. Phillips Rieske with the clarinets from the masterclass.
I was pretty wiped out emotionally after the competition earlier that morning.  It didn't help that one of the teachers of one of the others students in the competition, a student who, like me, also did not place, came to me afterwards to tell me exactly what I had done wrong.  He kept harping on my Legere Reeds and telling me that I played poorly.  His comments did not agree with the judges comments, and I didn't know him, so it was very odd that he would come to me at that moment with such strong statements.  At that point I was trying to shake hands with the winners and congratulate them on their performances and to get my own comments from the judges.

In any case, I went to the dealer's room to try out the new Buffet Divine clarinet and I got some lunch, and then I took a deep breth and went to the masterclass.  I was playing the exposition of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in front of a room full of clarinet professionals, enthusiasts, and students.  It's funny.  I wasn't nervous.  I figured, I would do my best and not worry too much about it.  Unlike the competition, this time, I didn't have much to lose.  Also, I don't think I had enough energy left after the competition to get too worked up about anything.

I think I played quite well considering everything -- although since I have been working on the Mozart since then, I could play better today, but that doesn't really matter.  The important thing was that Ms. Phillips Rieske was a FANTASTIC teacher.  Like Mr. Manassee, she focused first on what she liked about my playing, which is something I think all teachers should do.  It makes it much easier to hear the criticisms, especially in a room full of people you don't know.  I'm not going to go into specifics about her comments this time, like I usually do, but suffice it to say that the master class was a great experience.  I hope that I have the privilege to meet Ms. Phillips Rieske again as a teacher or as the amazing performer that she is.

Clarinetfest 2012 - High School Solo Competition

With Diane Barger, Artistic Director of Clarinetfest 2012

At the beginning of August, I played in the International Clarinet Association (ICA) High School Solo Competition.  We were to play the Martinu Clarinet Sonata and Kovac's Homage a Debussy.  It was a great experience!  Although I didn't place or perhaps because I didn't place, I learned a lot from the competition.  I was very nervous during the compeition, because the other players were really great players.  The judges sat less than 10 feet from me, which really kind of terrified me.  This anxiety caused me to make mistakes, that I don't think I would have made otherwise.

The other clarinets in the competition were quite good, but I feel that I would have done better if I had played at the level that I wanted to.  Still, it was a good experience for several reasons.  First, it taught me that playing without music can cause me to make more mistakes.  When there is nothing between me and the audience, the experience is more intense.  Playing without the music was not required, but I chose to anyway, because it seemed like the right thing to do.  It does make it a little harder though to have to stare at the judges and watch every move of their pen as they write their criticisms.

Still, I think playing from memory should be done as much as possible.  I think this, because it allows you to detach yourself from the notes and concentrate of the musicality of the piece of music you are interpreting.  Also, without a music stand, you can communicate more with the audience and with your pianist as you perform.

The second thing I learned from the competition is what I do when I feel I am not quite prepared and I get very nervous.  I tend to shake, and I hold notes longer or shorter than their printed value.  My tone and rhythm suffer from these things a lot.  That is a problem.  I really could have used an extra month on these pieces to prepare them properly.

The 2012 ICA High School Soloist Competition Finalists.
The last thing I learned, and the most important thing is that I still have a long way to go in clarinet playing.  Some of the players whom I heard at the competition were amazing.  But I think they play at levels I can reach if I keep a rigorous and effective practice schedule.  I loved playing at the ICA High School Competition, and I hope I can go and try again next year in Italy.  I think I have a shot at winning if I work really hard in between now and then.

I should add that it was an honor and a privilege to be in a competition with such talented young clarinetists.