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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 3 November 2007

Aaron Copland and Benny Goodman: Reinventing the Clarinet Repertoire

by Graham Lord / November 19, 2007

Opportunities to perform concerti with orchestra are understandably far less common for clarinetists than for violinists, pianists, or cellists. The reasons for this are evident enough: a much shorter history of the instrument, a lesser-developed solo repertoire, and a smaller number of performers in the top-flight talent pool. However, a great deal of the instrument’s development over the 20th century came from someone who many would consider as an unlikely source: Benny Goodman. It may astonish those who are unaware of the King of Swing’s contributions to the classical mainstream to see the list of composers and conductors with whom Goodman collaborated and from whom he commissioned some of the instrument’s most cherished masterworks: Stravinsky, Bartók, Bernstein, Arnold, and of course, Aaron Copland. The concerto that Goodman commissioned from Copland (premiered in 1950 with Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra) immediately took its rightful place as one of the standards in the repertoire, and its legacy has unquestionably grown exponentially over these last 57 years: today, it is an absolute must in the repertoire of any serious clarinetist.

Perhaps the main appeal for clarinetists and audiences alike lies in Copland’s remarkable ability to blend jazz and orchestral sensibilities in such an entertaining fashion. This kind of fusion of styles brings Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American In Paris readily to mind (there is certainly a striking resemblance between the infamous clarinet smear that starts the Gershwin Rhapsody and the exhilarating glissando that finishes Copland’s concerto). The section marked “with humor”, featuring the bass section playing slap-style, has even succeeded in making audiences chuckle audibly during concerts! The cadenza, which connects the two movements, interpolates a number of popular and jazz elements, ranging from Brazilian folk tunes to the Charleston.

In spite of these influences, along with the fact that the concerto was written for one of the greatest swing bandleaders in history, Copland shows no explicit evidence in the score of any actual swing material (Goodman’s recording stays true to this practice). However, this hasn’t stopped a great number of clarinetists from tampering with rhythms in certain passages in order to accommodate a swing feel; indeed, in a general sense, something about straddling the line between classical and jazz has created a remarkably wide scope of interpretational choices for this work over the last half-century. Even far removed from the question of swing, there are still many elements of jazz style to consider for soloists, who often have to ask of themselves: to what extent should a classically trained performer with little jazz experience attempt to “cross over”? Is this truly a mainstream concerto with mere elements of jazz, or can we see Copland, like Gershwin, “dressing up” a jazz chart by orchestrating it for a symphonic ensemble? Those are some of the important aspects to consider when tackling this baffling, if not dazzling, staple of the clarinet repertoire.

Graham Lord is one of two winners of the 2007 CBC/McGill concerto competition and will perform the Copland concerto with the McGill Symphony Orchestra in Pollack Hall on November 2 and 3 at 8:00 PM. n

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