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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 5 February 2008

New Backun / Leblanc Clarinets Make a Big Splash

by Graham Lord / February 12, 2008

For about a decade now, a woodwind mecca has been establishing itself on the west coast. The Backun Musical Servies shop in Burnaby, BC, just a 20-minute Skytrain from downtown Vancouver, began by carving a niche for itself as one of the world’s most respected woodwind repair centres. Initially, founder and president Morrie Backun introduced custom handcrafted barrels and bells. Not limiting himself to grenadilla (by far the industry’s standard wood), Morrie experimented with cocobolo, tulipwood, and others; these accessories received great acclaim for their warm and refined sound, as well as their stunning visual beauty. More recently, Morrie teamed up with Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, regarded as one of the finest woodwind artists of our time, to create a new series of mouthpieces.

Now, Backun has answered the call from Leblanc and joined them as director of product development for their new line of professional clarinets. This can only be good news for Leblanc, since the Backun client list generally reads as a who’s who of today’s top clarinetists: Ricardo Morales, David Shifrin, Sabine Meyer, British prodigy Julian Bliss, Larry Combs, James Campbell, and jazz legend Eddie Daniels, among others.

The end result? The new Backun/Leblanc line features three new clarinets that will represent a formidable challenge to the competition: the flagship Legacy, the “tribute to tradition” model, entitled Symphonie, and a step-up model for students becoming more serious about performance, Cadenza. Appropriately, the Cadenza is only available in Bb, while the Legacy and Symphonie models are offered in either Bb or A. As a nod to the distinct stylistic tastes of a wide variety of players, all three models offer two styles of Backun Ringless barrels (cocobolo and grenadilla) along with the clarinet, while the Legacy and Symphonie give a similar choice of bells; students using the Cadenza will have to do without. Other features include acoustic foam on several keys (designed to eliminate unwanted vibrations), a voicing pin for the octave vent (to enhance performance for register shifts and tone production in the upper register), post pivot locking screws…it seems as though they’ve thought of everything.

While the masterful acoustic design, high quality of wood, and keywork (including 24K gold-plated register and thumb tubes) are enough to impress, there’s something else noteworthy here: the price tag. If necessary, performers who are serious about their craft are willing to pay exorbitant amounts, so it’s a surprise to see such highly-touted instruments be reasonably affordable. At $5895, the Legacy is on par with other, more traditional pro models. The Symphonie is a fair bargain at $3895, but the big story for value here is the quasi-student model Cadenza, which runs at $1895. Marketed as “ideal for college-bound musicians”, it may not feature all the bells and whistles of the two higher end models, yet it is still made from a fine grade of wood, comes equipped with the barrels (if not bells), and has the same silver-plated keywork and high-grade Valentino pads as the Legacy and Symphonie. Without doubt, it will give developing students a taste of the professional sound for a very modest price.

Trying out new instruments is highly dependent upon each player’s particular needs and tastes, so I am somewhat apprehensive about writing too much about my own experience in testing out the new clarinets. Still, I must heartily recommend these instruments: the sheer ease of the usually-dreaded register shift will shock you, and the ergonomic nature of the keywork is outstanding. That same warm, rich sound that made Backun’s barrels and bells famous is present more than ever: if you were impressed by his gadgets before, you simply must check out the complete package. If not, these may not be the right instruments for you. For those that have not yet had the pleasure of trying these accessories, particularly students looking to upgrade, take note: this may be your next clarinet. n

For more information, check out the Backun home page at www.backunmusical.com

(c) La Scena Musicale