Saturday, April 12, 2014

Britten Movements for a Clarinet Concerto

Last year, I won the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Crain-Maling Foundation Youth Concerto Competition, granting me the opportunity to perform with the CSO this year.  I played the Mozart clarinet concerto at the competition and I thought that I would probably be playing the Mozart with the CSO, but a few months ago they emailed me to tell me that they wanted me to play Movements for a Clarinet Concerto by Benjamin Britten.  I had know idea that Britten wrote a clarinet concerto!

I did some research on the piece, and it turns out that Britten didn't ever complete it.  It was originally  commissioned  by Benny Goodman in 1943, and Britten enthusiastically agreed to write it.  He finished a good amount of the first movement before returning to England in the same year.

During his journey back home, his manuscript was seized by U.S. customs because they thought that it could be some sort of code holding military secrets.  Unfortunately, even though Britten quickly retrieved his music, Goodman informed him that he should put the project on hold because Goodman was about to go on a tour with his band and would not be able to prepare the music for a while.  Britten returned to England and sadly never finished the piece.

The Movements for a Clarinet Concerto was finished by recently by Collin Matthews and was first performed in 2008 by Michael Collins.  Collins is a wonderful British clarinet soloist and conductor.  You can find a copy of his performance on the 2009 album Unknown Britten.  Matthews does a wonderful job playing the concerto with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Zehetmair.

I am really excited to be playing this piece.  I have listened to the recording of Michael Collins playing it many times.  This is the only recording I have been able to find.  My favorite movement is the second because of the gorgeous duet between the solo clarinet and the bass clarinet.  Unfortunately, I was only asked to perform the final movement of the piece.  I really love this piece and wish that I could perform the whole composition.

Perhaps this is best, because the Britten is a difficult concerto!  I am having trouble just learning the last movement, let alone the whole piece.  The hardest parts about the last movement are probably playing the high notes (this piece uses the highest practical notes on the clarinet).  It is not easy to hit these notes and keep the style of the piece cute and exciting.  It is easy to lose the musical line when you are trying to control those high notes.

Still, I shouldn't complain, because it is an incredible honor getting to perform such an amazing piece of music with a world class orchestra.

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