[ General Interviews ]

A Chat with An Unlikely Muse Creator Harry Clark

July 20, 2016

By Janet Reynolds


Johannes Brahms

Cellist Harry Clark calls himself a “doubler.” But unlike other musicians who play two instruments professionally — itself fairly rare— Clark is a professional cellist and playwright.

As he notes in his website biography, “I know of one banjoist-playwright doubler — Steve Martin.” (Who, some might suggest, is actually a tripler since he’s also a comedian.)

Specifically, Clark has expanded his interest in music to create a series of musical portraits, or staged readings with live music, that portray moments in musical history. He has written nearly 50 of these staged performances since he started, featuring everyone from Tchaikovksy, Dvořák and Satie to Liszt and Astor Piazzolla. His latest portrait, An Unlikely Muse, will be performed at Norfolk on Aug. 13.

The focus of An Unlikely Muse is Johannes Brahms. He is nearing his 60th birthday and has announced he’s finished composing. Then he meets and hears clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and decides to write for this instrument, creating what Clark and others feel is some of the seminal work for that woodwind.

“[Mühlfeld] is Brahms’ last and most unlikely muse,” Clark says from his home in Tucson, Arizona. “Over a couple of years, he wrote four of the greatest pieces for clarinet ever — two sonatas, a trio, and a quintet. He almost literally put the clarinet back on the map singlehandedly.”

Richard MühlfeldFinding information on Mühlfeld was tricky, Clark says. “There’s not a lot of research on him.” He was an orchestral musician, “one of the few artists,” Clark says, “who survived being in both the Brahms and Wagner camp. This was almost unheard of at the time. It’s like being in the Trump and Clinton camp. Your allegiance would be to one or the other. But he was so valued as a player he did well with both,” Clark adds.

Clark got interested in these portraits through Chamber Music PLUS, the chamber music producing company he had with his wife, pianist Sanda Schuldmann, in Hartford, CT, for decades before moving their home base to Arizona. “It was a time when I felt like a new approach to concert-going seemed right to me,” he says.

They had been doing concerts that involved the written word all over New England with then WGBH Morning Pro Musica host Robert J. Lurtsema. “It was my first time sitting on stage taking on spoken word with music,” Clark says of the family concerts.

They decided to create a series as an experiment. The first portrait was Song Without Words, a stage musical portrait about the last remaining Mendelssohn brother, Paul, who tells the story of Felix and Fanny. The actor Theodore Bikel did the premiere.

The Clark’s stage musical play features Connecticut actor Jack Gilpin (Madame SecretaryAdventureland, Kate & Allie, One Life to Live)  pianist Melvin Chen, clarinetist David Shifrin,  cellist Mihai Marica and the Argus Quartet.