[ General Interviews ]
A Chat with Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman
By Janet Reynolds
Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman is well known to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival-goers. He started as a student there in the 1960s and has returned to perform many summers since.
This time around Stoltzman is mixing the old with the new, performing in a Beethoven trio and a piece by contemporary composer Martin Bresnick. (Bresnick directs Norfolk’s New Music Workshop. You can read an interview with him here.)
While Stoltzman is excited to revisit the Beethoven trio, he’s particularly intrigued by the Bresnick trio, which is enigmatically titled * * * . “I have minimal knowledge of this,” he says on the phone from a restaurant. “I don’t even know what the three asterisks are for. This is a mystery piece for me.”
That lack of knowledge, Stoltzman says, is liberating in a way. “Because there are no words to tell you this or that about how to feel about the piece, it leaves the piece more open to individual performances and the audience, too, to make this music their own,” he says.
Some composers, he continues, write extensive notes about how to play a particular piece — “How to actually feel in a piece and how to interpret it,” he says. “This piece is not that way. I find that more intriguing. I’m really having to take the music notes at the Bach-like level where there’s just the notes themselves that exist.”
Determining how to perform * * *, which features viola, clarinet and piano, will come from the rehearsals. Stoltzman has spent time looking at the score since he received it about a month ago.
“It seems a very expressive use of all the instruments,” he says. “The clarinet especially looks like it has some long melodic lines with a middle part that is kind of mysterious how it’s going to sound because it looks so complex on the page.” In one section, for instance, Stoltzman explains that the part is written in three beats per measure but with each beat divided into five. “At this place each measure contains 15 points,” he says. “It looks very seriously intricate.”
“We will come with some goal and then the composer will maybe surprise us all,” he adds.
Stoltzman has plenty of experience working with living composers — Olivier Messiaen, William Thomas McKinley to name a couple. “Once the music is written on pages and pages of notes, then the composer is kind of secondary to the living performance,” he says. “I’ve played enough music of living composers that I know composers have different attitudes of how involved they should be. Some give it over; it’s our music now, and it has to live through the notes. Others are more determined to get a specific thing. Each time it’s a different experience.”
While returning to a familiar piece, such as Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat Major, Opus 11, might seem ho-hum in comparison, Stoltzman says each performance is new to him. “In pieces like the Beethoven the performers of the 21st century are looking forward to a fresh collaboration.”
“Beethoven doesn’t give you a lot of his own opinions of how to play it,” Stoltzman says, noting that the allegro in the beginning simply says allegro. “There are no other descriptions. It’s up to you to find where these notes are taking you and why.”
The key is making Beethoven — or any other familiar, dead composer — relevant for the time you’re performing in. “We rehearse day after day not to get the notes perfect but to find out what else the music is trying to do,” Stoltzman says. “This is what I look forward to in 2016 — to play this piece from the early part of the 1800s with two other people I don’t usually play with every day and using Beethoven to find out about ourselves.”