New Classical Tracks: From dentistry to clarinet

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
October 28, 2008
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Richard Stoltzman could have been a dentist, until a college encounter with classical music made him change his plans. On his new disc, he takes on pieces by Debussy and Weber for their musical worth, not their technical challenges -- although they are there, too.

St. Paul, Minn. — Richard Stoltzman was still an undergraduate at Ohio State University when somebody gave him tickets to hear the Juilliard String Quartet in concert.

"I was knocked out," Stoltzman recalled.

Hearing music played with such intensity and emotion inspired Stoltzman to put dentistry on the back burner, and pursue a graduate degree in classical music instead. Today, he's one of the world's leading clarinetists.

Early in his career, Stoltzman faced challenges that forced him to rethink his musical approach and his style of playing. That extra effort has earned him a reputation as an innovator who knows how to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

On his latest recording, "Phoenix in Flight," Stoltzman revives a few special works from his early days as a performer, and a few chestnuts from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The recording opens with Carl Maria von Weber's Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra. This is the first classical piece that Stoltzman actually played in public. He no longer worries about its technical challenges. Now, he focuses on the pure beauty of the piece.

In this Concertino, Stoltzman demonstrates his phenomenal ability to play extremely high notes very softly.

My personal favorite on this recording is the Duetto by Giovanni Bottesini. Bottesini was a composer and an Italian double bass virtuoso. Double-bass players everywhere have this composer to thank for transforming the way the world sees their instrument.

The hardest thing about this piece is maintaining proper balance between the double bass and the clarinet. Double bassist Richard Fredrickson and Stoltzman perform this music with graceful ease, and complete abandon.

The first piece of classical music Richard Stoltzman fell in love with was Debussy's "Premiere Rhapsodie." Stoltzman's teacher discouraged him from playing it, because it was designed as a competition piece and there were too many technical hurdles.

But Stoltzman was first attracted to the "Premiere Rhapsodie" for its simple beauty. On this recording, he reveals the true soul of the piece by focusing on its gorgeous melody.

The largest work on "Phoenix in Flight" is Weber's Clarinet Concerto No.2. Weber composed it for the principal clarinetist of the Munich Court Orchestra. Heinrich Baermann was praised for his rich, smooth tone, and his expressive romantic style.

Judging by the dramatic leaps Weber requires of the soloist, Baermann must have also been a technical acrobat. With his quick finger work, and lyrical leaps through the clarinet's vast register, Richard Stoltzman proves that this piece is just as exciting in the 21st century.

On his latest release, "Phoenix in Flight," Richard Stoltzman follows his instincts searching for the soul of each piece, and breathes new life into a few favorites from his past.

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