The Story Behind the Performance of
Elena Kats-Chernin’s ‘Ornamental Air’
by Andrew Doyle
Principal Clarinet of
Throughout my career to date as a modern clarinettist, I have always had a fascination with the clarinet of the 18th century and the music composed for it, going so far as studying a Masters Degree specialising in historical clarinets. Of course, when examining late 18th century clarinet repertoire, the first famous work that springs to mind is Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K622.
When considering this concerto, the most important fact to remember is that Mozart composed this work for his close friend, the clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler. Stadler had developed a basset clarinet, and Mozart wrote him a concerto to perform on this new instrument.
Modern reproductions of the original basset clarinet have been made from a sketch in a concert program (above), resulting in a Clarinet in A with an extended range to low C. By applying the concept of extending an existing A clarinet to the modern clarinet, modern makers have been able to produce basset clarinets in A, with a variety of key configurations to suit the performer’s preferences.
In September 2015, I was fortunate enough to borrow a basset clarinet to perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K622 with a symphony orchestra. As an accomplished clarinettist herself, Maestra Sarah-Grace Williams was intrigued by this particular instrument and how well it played, as bassets have a sinister reputation for unreliability, owing to the extensive key work. It was a lovely instrument, and we began to discuss opportunities to present this rare clarinet to as many people as possible.
I must acknowledge the generosity of my friend and fellow clarinettist, John Mete, for loaning me his basset for that performance, and the inspiration that it provided, leading me to investigate acquiring my own. It was also John who mentioned Elena Kats-Chernin’s work, ‘Ornamental Air’ for basset clarinet and orchestra.
Further discussions with Maestra Sarah-Grace took place, and her passion for supporting Australian music led her to programming Elena’s work into The Metropolitan Orchestra’s 2016 Met Series. I proposed to Sarah-Grace that rather than borrowing an instrument, I would commission my own to be made, and to facilitate the build time, she kindly programmed the ‘Ornamental Air’ for performance later in the year.
The orchestration of Elena’s work is identical to Mozart’s, with the same, rare instrument acting as the soloist. It is hard not to be inspired by Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and the basset clarinet, and it is obvious that Elena was clearly as smitten with the instrument when she composed this work as I am with learning it.
The challenge of obtaining my own basset became all-consuming, and led to many late nights spent liaising with a clarinet maker in Canada named Steven Fox (www.sfoxclarinets.com).
Steven’s advice was to attempt to obtain a ‘donor’ clarinet, onto which a graft could be added, extending the range to low C (or in this case, low B with the supplied extension!). Of course he could have made me a complete instrument from scratch, but owing to time constraints of learning the concerto and adjusting to this new creature, the grafting option was definitely preferable. The search for an A clarinet that was willing to undergo extensive surgery began.
After a stressful five months of searching the internet, and asking every clarinet player that I knew for a suitable A clarinet for sale, I finally found an instrument. The clarinet was originally made by Romeo Orsi, a clarinet maker from Milan. Coincidentally, the very first historical reproduction classical clarinet that I purchased was an Orsi instrument.
Once I received the instrument in the post, it was immediately forwarded to Steven Fox’s workshop in Canada. Steven began work immediately, and the projected completion date of August looked readily achievable. An early photo in February only fuelled my excitement, seeing the graft and the early completed key work. The separate piece in the picture is the optional extension to low B.
A basset clarinet is born – first photo
Obviously this was only an early photo, however the graft is clearly visible. The workmanship required to graft the extra blackwood, and to add all of the extra keys is exceptionally difficult, and my limited wood and metal working skills provided me with full appreciation of Steven’s work.
During this time, Elena kindly provided me with the music to begin the extensive practice that is required to learn the ‘Ornamental Air’. Elena has composed for the full range of the instrument, with every note in between, often in rapid succession! The technical requirements are extremely high, as every effort has been made to show off what this rare clarinet (and clarinettist) is capable of.
Further email correspondence took place between clarinettist and maker, and in early June, I received the email that I had been waiting for. Needless to say, I was EXTREMELY surprised by the advice that the basset was completed so early! A big thank you to Lance Doyle from the Doyle Consulting Group for his financial support, enabling timely delivery of this beautiful instrument.
An initial playing of the basset proved what I had hoped all along, that it was free-blowing, with a clear tone throughout the range, and extremely accurate intonation. It was immediately clear that the extra time and effort to commission a custom, hand-made instrument was worth it.
Whilst music inspires every musician, and provides us with the nutrition for our souls, without an inspiring instrument to perform on, it is easy to become despondent and frustrated. Steven Fox and Elena Kats-Chernin have provided me with the most significant musical inspiration of my modern clarinet playing career.
The performances of the ‘Ornamental Air’ on 12th November 2016 in the Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Ultimo, and on the 19th November 2016 at the Hydro Majestic, Blue Mountains, are guaranteed to inspire audiences to want to hear more from this rare instrument, and have already inspired me to greater heights of my music making. (Yes, there will definitely be an encore!)
The completed basset clarinet meeting Elena Kats-Chernin’s ‘Ornamental Air’ for the first time.
See you at the concert!
Principal Clarinet –