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Richard Stoltzman: Have Reed, Will Travel

March 9, 2010

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman dates his professional career from his first performance as a student in San Francisco’s Douglass Elementary School. Six decades, over 50 recordings, and two Grammys later, he performs at Herbst Theatre on March 13 in the august company of pianist Robert Levin and cellist Lynn Harrell. Under the auspices of Chamber Music San Francisco (see Web site), the newly founded Stoltzman-Harrell-Levin Trio performs Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A Minor, Op. 114, and the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize–winner Yehudi Wyner’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano. In between the trios, the great Harrell will play J.S. Bach’s Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, No. 3 in C Major.

I have spoken with Stoltzman by phone several times before, so this time we chatted intimately about his life and career.

You were born and raised in San Francisco?

I was born in Omaha. But when I was 2 or 3, my dad got promoted to San Francisco. I went to Douglass Elementary, then Thomas Edison, then James Lick Junior High. I was hoping to go to high school here, but my parents moved to Cincinnati just as I was about to be sworn in as president of my junior high student body. That was kind of sad, but I got over it [chuckles].

It was in high school in Cincinnati that I got deeply involved in whatever you would say the profession of music might mean. The Midwest is all marching bands. Whatever that Music Man phrase is — “There were more than 1,000 reeds springing up like weeds” — that’s what the Midwest was like. I felt like I was surrounded by people who either played the clarinet or probably had one in their closet. So I went to high school and played in the band.

When I went to Ohio State, they didn’t have a clarinet in the marching band, so I ended up in the concert band. It was quite professional, not for getting paid, but for the discipline and the terrific but terrifying conductor who took it super-serious. His name was Dr. Donald McGinnis and he’s still alive, There’s something about maestros and the aerobics that enables them to keep going on and on. He was the kind of maestro who ruled. You didn’t offer an opinion about how you thought something ought to go. He not only knew more, but he knew that we knew less.

Did you like the music you were playing in concert band?

What gave me the biggest thrill was joining with other forces, with other voices, with other energies, and creating something that you couldn’t do by yourself.

At that time, I knew my dad loved big bands, so I went to them. What I loved is that the leader, like Woody Herman or Les Brown or Duke Ellington, would come out on the stage and start snapping his fingers looking cool, and suddenly the band would unleash this huge unified power of sound. It was so exciting, especially to experience with my dad. The feeling that was produced in the audience by a group of people called “musicians” was so thrilling that I thought, perhaps not consciously, that if I were to be in music, I would want to do it with this kind of enthusiasm and energy.

Your enthusiasm is clearly undimmed at this point in your life. You’re on the road two to three weeks every month. Do you still love it?

You know, I was at a point, four or five years ago, when I wasn’t that enthused. I remember going to some national park in Maine where there was a chamber music festival. We had a passel of people in the car, and the ranger said it was either so much per person or —– he looked me and said, “How old are you?” And I said, “It’s my birthday today, it’s July 12, and I’m 60, or 62, or maybe 59.” And he said, “Well, you qualify for the Golden Age, or the Golden something card. If you buy it now for $25, you get to bring you and whoever’s in your car into the park for free for the rest of your life.”

I thought, “Wow. This is a whole new thing. I could think of myself as semiretired and go around to parks.” I hadn’t even thought about the rest of my life; I just sort of go day to day to day. So I started to think, “Well, maybe I’ll stop all this, or cool it and not do so much of it.” Here was this guy opening this Golden Door or whatever it was ...

I can hear the soundtrack for this scene in the forthcoming movie of your life ...

But then my wife of 30 years found some other guy and had an affair. For about six or eight months, I knew something was a little strange, but I travel a lot, and I’m in and out, and I figured she had her life, and the kids are grown up, and blah blah blah, and then she just said, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m not taking care of you anymore and I’ve found love” and whatever. That dropped me into a black hole for about a year. The people I sought out to help me out of it were musicians, especially my clarinet teacher who just had his 90th birthday. The wisdom that came out of that was pretty simple: Go get drunk or whatever, then go to the basement, get out your clarinet, and practice [laughs]. My teacher was especially concise and didn’t hold back anything. He said, “This will be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

So here I am now, back in the saddle, so to speak, doing concerts all the time.

I remember hearing you with the San Francisco Symphony a year or two ago, and some grittiness came into the sound. I couldn’t help wondering at the time if what you’d gone through emotionally had affected your playing.

Yes. The simple answer is yes. I’ve had the good fortune to be around at least a few honest musicians who say to your face what it is that other people won’t say behind you. So I trust what they say. My sense is that my sound has changed; and my approach, maybe not to everything, has as well. It’s complicated. Well, it should be, shouldn’t it?

Emotionally, it sounds like you’re doing fine now.

I feel that way. That energy transfers into your sound with the clarinet by your breath, of course. Also, I’m enjoying the fact that I’m old enough that I don’t have to pay attention to anybody anymore [laughs]. You know, this is how I want to do it. When I work with maestros or colleagues, I don’t say, “This is how I want to ...” But I feel like I can contribute from experience. It’s a nice feeling. It’s a comforting feeling that music nourishes you in such a way that you become more useful.

I keep getting all these recordings of new clarinet music by composers I’ve never heard of, all played by Richard Stoltzman. You’ve certainly not slowed down exploring new works.

No, not at all. Why should I?

Well, duh, I read in a book somewhere that, at 67, you should be growing conservative in your old age!

Because of my age, something’s a little more precious about picking up the clarinet each day. I’m benefitting a lot from that. And let’s be honest. You look at an audience, and you think, “These people are my people. They’re my age!” I think it does an audience good to see someone their own age out there doing something.

What’s it like to work with Robert Levin?

He’s a genius. We should call him Dr. Herr Professor Über-All Meister or something like that. He’s a genius guy.

And you guys are all friends?

Yeah. Well, so far ...

Have you made music with Lynn [Harrell] and Bob [Levin] a lot?

Individually, I’ve made music with Bob a lot, and I’ve made music with Lynn. Not a lot, but that’s what happens when people either do concerto-type careers, or just get one quartet or trio and play with them forever and forever. The other people, you don’t get chances to hang with and meet. But Lynn knew Yehudi [Wyner]’s music, and he’d heard Yehudi’s cello concerto. And Bob is a great spokesman for Yehudi’s music. He plays on the Piano Concerto recording on Bridge that was nominated for a Grammy and won the Pulitzer Prize.

We all had Chinese food together after Lynn played with the Boston Symphony, and Yehudi was there. Bob said, “We’re having fun here. Why don’t we get this guy across the table to write something for us?”

Working on a piece that has never been played before is a big advantage for musicians, because tradition binds you so much when you’re working in the Grand Master literature. You’re aware of how it’s been done and how it should be done and so forth, and you respect that. But if the piece has been written for you, and no one has figured it out yet, you can kind of live your dreams. You do what you think you should do, and nobody can say you shouldn’t, or you can’t. We’re it.

It’s a nice way to bond. Through this piece, I think we’ll probably grow into people who want to try to rearrange their schedules to play together. I’m hoping we can all do more together. We all like wine, and I’m hoping that we can work out some concerts in Napa Valley.

Where does Brahms’ trio take you? And where does Wyner’s trio take you?

I think Brahms takes you back to tables laden with too many desserts, and lots of schlag, and good cigars, overstuffed chairs, and women with palpitating bosoms. And Yehudi’s music brings you, I think, right into the longings and the realities that are in our lives today. He creates a music for today. There’s even a marking in the score: with a little bebop thinking. Then there are moments that come from Yehudi’s background in the Jewish tradition of cantors and singing from the soul.

Also, I think, because Yehudi was for a long time the harpsichordist with the Bach Aria Group, and also a marvelous teacher — he was my teacher at Yale when I studied opera in graduate school — he’s really good at making the music sing and make sense, but not in a corny way like Broadway shows or something.

He has also taken my personality into his composition. I go and visit him every so often, sometimes two or three times a week, and we like a lot of the same kinds of sounds, and the same kinds of food too, for that matter. I think knowing a composer invites that composer and the performer to make music that’s going to appeal to audiences. That’s all there is to it.

I always tell Yehudi that my ears tell me that his music is real. It’s not artificial; it comes from your soul, and your beliefs. Therefore, when I play it, I’m always able to communicate from my own heart.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.