To kick off this season’s ROCO Unchambered series, Flair will feature an instrument familiar to many – the clarinet – but have you ever heard what it can really do? We turned Saturday’s opener over to ROCO musicians and friends Nathan Williams and Maiko Sasaki to curate – which led them on an expedition of discovering new works and revisiting old pieces they learned as young clarinetists, to narrate their stories of coming-of-age through music.
Learn how the program was created, why Nathan and Maiko love performing together, plus a few fun facts about the clarinet – in this ROCOInsider!
This program has so much variety, of time periods, of composers – how did it come together?
Nathan: We first started thinking about it way back, in February! Each of us came up with a list of duos we were interested in, finding we had a lot of shared ideas, but each bringing new things to the table too, learning about other pieces that we weren’t aware of before. We spent time together playing through works around our ROCO rehearsals for In Concert in February and May, and after that had formed a shortlist.
With the next season’s theme being “Coming of Age,” we wanted this idea to be the focus, to tell our individual and collective stories, taking the listener along with us on the journey from our childhood relationships with the clarinet and music, up to our present-day. It ended up being not only our own personal journeys being told, but also a musical journey we go on around the world and through time, as the program took shape.
Maiko: When we got together, Nathan told a story that as a young clarinetist he would record himself playing one part of a duo, so he could play it back to perform the other part – as he had no one else to play duos with. And I laughed because I did the exact same thing too, in about 7th grade! (In fact, I even still do this – it’s much easier with technology now, and I’ll make MIDI recordings of each part to play with.) In Japan, my school prepared you more for being a soloist, so I didn’t have much experience playing duets or with groups, until I came to the States to study at Rice University – there everyone was playing duets and chamber music together, and it was so much fun.
In this program of duos, there is one piece by Stravinsky which is not typically a duo, it’s a solo clarinet work – but it features two different voices in the music, so we’ll call it an “imaginary” duet! This is a piece both Nathan and I studied as young musicians, and both of our teachers told us to think about it this way while we were learning it. I think this will be really interesting for the audience, and for younger musicians who may be studying his Three Pieces, to hear these two voices highlighted that Stravinsky writes.
Were there other specific older works you wanted to include, that you studied as young clarinetists? And what do you love about the contemporary selections on the program?
Nathan: The Stravinsky work and the Mendelssohn Concert Piece No. 1 are both studied by students and professionals, big pieces that you get to know early on if you’re seriously studying the clarinet. The Concert Piece is fascinating because we just did it with ROCO last spring, but with clarinet and bassoon – and it can be done with two clarinets and piano (and often is) instead of with orchestra, so we thought that would be really fun to hear how lovely it sounds with the different instruments as well.
And then I think you just can’t do a concert for two clarinets without doing Ponchielli’s Il Convegno – it’s just the absolute quintessential piece for two clarinets and piano (or orchestra, or band). It’s a real technical showcase but also features such lyrically beautiful, operatic lines.
For the contemporary works, Bela Kovacs’ Greetings from the Balkan is just great rambunctious fun, perfect to welcome everyone and kick off the program.
Marcus Maroney’s Four Preludes is an older piece of his, from 1999. The writing is brilliant, just so fantastic – he’s actually written several pieces for two clarinets, but we really fell in love with this one, and we’re so excited he’ll be there as well, to discuss his work. With this duo, it sounds like way more than two clarinets! I just love his music, his Concerto for Chamber Orchestra on our album Visions Take Flight, is one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever commissioned.
Canadian composer Michael Tenzer’s Three Island Duets was written in 1992 – we’ll play one movement here, but all the movements are wonderful. Definitely check it out. The movement Biakwords is written in the style of Balinese kotekan gamelan playing – intricate, rhythmically complex, interlocking stuff – and if you didn’t know any better, you might think Maiko and I were just improvising, doing our own thing, then suddenly we end up in unison!
Then finally, Theresa Martin’s Solar Flair – a bit of a namesake for our program. Theresa is a clarinetist, composer, and teacher who has written a ton of excellent clarinet music, influenced by her studies with clarinetist Robert Spring, who’s always pushing boundaries of contemporary techniques. Musically translating what solar flares might sound like, the energy and colors in this work make it really fun to play.
Are there any favorite pieces you wish you could have added to the program, but just didn’t have room for?
Nathan: There are so many great pieces! First comes to mind Libby Larsen’s Yellow Jersey – inspired by the Tour de France, it’s bicycle racing – for clarinets.
Maiko: Yes – also there’s a work we wished we could do by Gary Schocker, a composer and flutist from New York – his beautiful Sonata for Two Clarinets and Piano. And definitely, also the music of clarinetist and composer Eric Mandat – he has some really, really cool inventive stuff, that I just wish we had the time to include.
Briefly take us through your own coming-of-age stories as musicians – why clarinet, and when did you know you wanted to pursue a musical career?
Maiko: I do love the clarinet, but to me, it’s that music is music – the clarinet is just one way of expressing the music inside me. As a child, I signed up for band, and my teacher actually wanted me to play bassoon! At 7 years old, I couldn’t reach all the keys, so he said okay, let’s put you on the clarinet, and it was just a great fit.
I always knew I wanted to be a musician since I was very little. But my parents were not rich, they said no way, we can’t afford it – unless I was able to get into national school, which my sister had, and I was also able to. I went on to attend Tokyo University of the Arts, where I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I made my way finally to Texas after visiting to play with one of my pianist friends in her recital at Rice University, where I met and performed for professor Michael Webster, who invited me to study in their doctoral program.
Nathan: When I was really little, my older brother was a musician who had made the All-County Band, and our family attended the concert, where I remember thinking there were so many clarinets, and a lot of clarinet solos – I was just captivated by the sound. It was so vocal, so expressive and warm, but it could sparkle, and I thought – wow, that’s my voice. I remember that moment so vividly. Then I started playing the piano before I started the clarinet later in band, and was in love with that for a while, thinking I might focus on piano instead.
Then the summer after 8th grade, I went to Cannon Music Camp – where you could go for a whole month for a wind or string instrument, but only two weeks for piano – so I chose to go for clarinet. It really changed my life. At my school in Weaverville, North Carolina, only a few students were as into music as I was, but at camp, everyone was. I got to do so much there – playing in band, orchestra, chamber music, and even a solo recital – it was a wonderland of possibility, and that summer I truly fell in love with the clarinet. There was no turning back. Later I went on to study at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts for undergrad, then on to Eastman School of Music for my master’s and The Juilliard School for my doctorate.
Once you each made your way to Texas, how did you become involved with ROCO?
Nathan: It was a job that brought me here originally, to teach clarinet in Austin at the University of Texas. At the time ROCO was looking for another clarinetist, and that’s when I first met Maiko, and we instantly clicked. Even at the first rehearsal, it couldn’t have been more natural playing together, and with ROCO – that feeling of, where have you been all my life! I feel very lucky, and I absolutely love playing with Maiko in every way.
Maiko: And I feel the same! I have been with ROCO from the very beginning. I was a student at Rice at the time Alecia Lawyer was forming ROCO, when she got in touch and told me about her new ensemble, and invited me to play. I really loved it, and have been here ever since!
The clarinet is familiar to many – but what’s a fun or crazy fact about the instrument we may not know? And also, why does a clarinet have so many extra keys?
Nathan: During the evolution of the clarinet, there was amusingly a time in the 1800s when it was played with the reed on top! So the mouthpiece would be upside-down from how it is played now. It sounded very different – really edgy and brassy.
Also, the clarinet is technically the most imperfectly built woodwind instrument, it has a lot of inherent problems – but when you try to fix those, the instrument starts to lose its unique, beautiful properties and sound.
Even though you might hear a clarinetist squeak at times – there is really, no such thing as a squeak! These are real overblown harmonics (or partials), and you have to learn to control them.
And for all the keys, they really allow you to have and control that incredible range, and to properly use the full length of the clarinet.
Maiko: I have played a historic clarinet, made during Mozart’s time – and it only had 5 keys! It used to be a much simpler instrument but couldn’t do nearly as much musically. So the clarinet itself has really come of age too.
What advice would you have for young clarinetists who would like to explore new repertoire, but don’t know where to start?
Nathan: Try everything! Believe in yourself, ask everyone you know for recommendations, and don’t dismiss a piece before you’ve actually spent some time with it, and learned and played it.
One of my teachers said – it doesn’t matter if you like a piece or not, because there will be times when you have to perform pieces you don’t like. An important part of your job as a performer is to play it like you love it more than anything and make the audience love it too, rather than imposing your opinion. Often you can end up loving the piece yourself – or not – but the important thing is that you represent the composer’s wishes, and make it about that, rather than about yourself. Really perform it – and give it a chance.
Maiko: I believe that as a performer, it is our job to make the music come to life off the page. There are stories of pieces which had disastrous premieres, but then another musician picks it up – and it becomes a beloved piece through their interpretation. As a musician, we have the power to kill the music or make it come alive. Always look for the music inside whatever piece you’re playing, find that – and let the audience hear it.
Hear clarinetists Nathan Williams and Maiko Sasaki, in ROCO Unchambered: Flair, Saturday, October 19, 2019, 5:00 pm, at MATCH. Tickets available online, or at the door.