What’s Playing at Tonal Diversions – September 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, and thought it was time to do another.

Rarètes Romantiques

Just for Winds recently ran a promotion to receive a free CD, so I took advantage of this and ordered Rarètes Romantiques, performed by Anne A. Watson (clarinet) and Gail Novak (piano). It’s a compilation of lesser known works for clarinet and piano from the Romantic period. All of which happen to have been composed by women. This is an important recording, as women during that time period 1) weren’t encouraged to pursue composition (or music in general) as a career, and 2) societal norms at the time dictated which instruments women were and weren’t allowed to play, so there were very few female clarinet players.

I’m enjoying this CD quite a bit. I think the performers are excellent. I like the selection of pieces, and have already found the sheet music to one of the pieces (“Griechische Sonate” by Ella Adaïewsky). I need to listen to the CD a few more times to thoroughly absorb everything, and I’m looking forward to that.

2017 Tony Awards Season

Apparently this is the first year they’ve done a compilation CD, and one wonders why in the world they hadn’t done one before. But, better late than never! I liked getting a taste of what appeared on Broadway recently. I’ll probably get around to listening to all the individual cast albums, but I have more of an idea of where I want to go first. One of my favorites is the first track (“Deep Beneath the City/Not There Yet”), which was from In Transit, the first a cappella musical. It had a great energy that set the scene of the subway during a daily commute. The song from Amélie (“Times are Hard for Dreamers”) was enjoyable and I’d like to hear the rest of the songs. I liked the storytelling in “Me and the Sky” (from Come From Away). “Sincerely, Me” (from Dear Evan Hansen) was quite entertaining and I’m curious to know more of the story.

The Science of Mindfulness by Ronald D. Siegel

While it’s not music, and I’m only about 1/4 the way through, I really like this entry in the Great Courses series. Dr. Siegel is an excellent presenter and the subject is something I’ve been interested in more lately. A lot of public libraries carry these series, so you might be able to check it out from your local branch.

So, what are you listening to? I’d love to hear from you!

In High Praise of the Adult Amateur Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.



Music Appreciation: Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti

In mid-January, my thoughts inevitably turn to spring. I don’t mind winter to some extent (and this year has been so much better than last year’s Big Bucket of Suck), but spring is my favorite season. Everything is new again, the flowers are blooming, and we don’t need twelve extra layers of clothing in order to go outside.

Photo of a lovely spring landscape

Lovely spring landscape by stux (via Pixabay)

This March (2015) I’m looking forward to performing with the Winds Off the Lake woodwind quintet as substitute clarinet. Rehearsing with them has reminded me of my love of quintet music, and I’ve had a great time filling in. It’s been a while since I talked about woodwind quintets, so I thought this would be a nice time to listen to Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti.

Persichetti (1915-1987) produced an enormous amount of work over his lifetime, providing music for a wide variety of musicians. He wrote everything from symphonies to cantatas, chamber music to pieces for concert band. Pastoral is one of two pieces he composed for woodwind quintet. The term “pastoral” (var. pastorale) is much used in art and music to portray country life.

The flute and clarinet lead off with a lovely little duet, painting a bucolic image of green grass, some trees along a fence line, perhaps a bubbling brook running through the field. The bit at 0:32 reminds me of little birds fluttering about, or butterflies. The oboe enters at 0:46, adding a different tone color into the mix. The three instruments finish up as the bassoon emerges (0:56).

The bassoon’s short phrase begins to take us toward new ideas. At 1:00, the flute, oboe, and clarinet come in together on a chord, the first time we’ve heard a “vertical” chord as opposed to one that occurs when various melodic lines happen to come together. Immediately after this the horn finally appears, playing a manipulated version of the flute’s melody from the beginning of the piece (theme A). The bassoon answers with an echo (1:10).

At 1:14, we think we’re going back to the opening melody, this time with oboe, but we learn quickly that Persichetti is starting to explore the countryside. We hear snippets of the first few notes of the original theme, though they’re not always exactly the same. Notice that there’s a lot more motion here. Perhaps we’ve encountered some small animals, like squirrels and bunnies and chipmunks. Listen to the clarinet at 1:19 – you will hear echoes of that throughout this section played by different instruments. The flute and oboe hint at a new motif at 1:29, but don’t explore it further.

We continue to rustle and flutter about, passing themes between instruments, having the flute and clarinet united at 1:37, followed by the horn and bassoon. The flute starts to remind us of another bit of theme A, but goes off on a tangent (1:42, probably following a butterfly). We’ve had some buildup of volume here, the loudest we’ve heard so far (the score is marked forte). The horn and bassoon enter firmly at 1:47, with the upper winds answering. There’s a bit more conversation, then the flute and clarinet call our attention (though softly) to something new in our scene.

Persichetti introduces new thematic material at 1:55. To me it’s a scene change as well – I imagine we’ve moved through the grass and trees and come upon a hamlet. I can see a farmer with his horse-drawn cart, a woman hanging laundry out to dry, other odds and ends of country life. There’s more and more activity starting around 2:10; it reaches its climax at 2:20 with everyone hitting a chord together. Things quiet down quickly, though, with the bassoon singing a line followed by a neat-sounding bit at 2:28 (perhaps a sigh of relief?). The flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon strike a quieter chord to prepare us for the next section.

The oboe introduces us to our next theme at 2:33 (theme B). Remember earlier when I said the flute and oboe hinted at a theme? Here it is. We hear it on its own, with the other instruments on sustained chords. But at 2:41, the other instruments decide to liven it up, with the bassoon and horn providing a jaunty accompaniment vamp that alternates between 3/8 and 2/4 time. They settle into steady 2/4 when the flute and clarinet pick up the melody. Persichetti ends the theme a bit differently this time compared to when the oboe played it earlier, followed by a fun bounce around the group at 2:52 (Malcolm Arnold uses a similar trick in his own woodwind quintet Three Shanties).

For the second time through the theme, the flute and oboe have the melody, and the bassoon is droning at the bottom with the clarinet playing a line that’s not quite a countermelody, but it’s not a typical accompaniment pattern, either. On top of all that, the horn has a true countermelody. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s very much based on theme A. I would gladly listen to more of this, but Persichetti cuts us off with a bouncy statement from the flute and clarinet (3:02). The group (minus flute) answers with a unified statement (in rhythm, not in pitch). While that sounds somewhat solemn, we’re back with our 3/8 and 2/4 right away at 3:07.

At first, we think we’re just going to repeat what we heard earlier, but Persichetti plays with our expectations. He turns part of the accompaniment into its own melody. Listen to the horn here – isn’t that fun? The clarinet answers at 3:14, beginning our transition into the next section. The flute then enters with a line that harkens back to an earlier mood, closing with a slower version of theme B, while the bassoon and clarinet drone underneath.

Slow chords lead us into a more solemn, hymn-like section, the flute playing a melody that has elements of theme A. The other instruments have long, beautifully squishy chords underneath. The bassoon gives a sort of “amen” after the flute finishes its hymn, then both of them jump to life. The flute starts a recap of theme B (4:10) then flies away, the oboe and clarinet hopping along afterward. The flute-as-bird returns briefly with the bassoon trotting underneath. Then we hear statements from the clarinet and oboe; things are getting more cacophonous when the horn has its say (4:23).

At 4:27, we hear what I feel is the most unusual part of this piece, as it’s just different from anything we’ve really heard so far. For some reason, what comes to mind for me here is an odd game of “ring around the rosie.” The game is over quickly, however, and we start to calm down. At 4:33, I get the impression of chimes, first from the oboe and clarinet, immediately followed by the horn and bassoon. They settle into slow-moving chords as the flute still dances about, but then the oboe takes over the melody, slowing things down even more. The horn makes a statement that’s similar to what the bassoon has done before to lead us into the final section of the piece.

Here we come full circle. The flute and clarinet reprise the duet that we’d heard at the beginning (4:55), this time with the horn and bassoon playing sustained tones underneath. We don’t get a full repeat; the duet slows and quiets down, the day fading away. We hear one last word from the oboe, a breath, then a gentle, quiet major chord.

Did you enjoy your trip through the idyllic countryside? Can you feel spring approaching? Stay warm through this last bit of winter, the flowers will be here before we know it.

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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. III by Francis Poulenc

(Third in a three-part series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

From the melancholy of the previous movement, we fly into the third movement with exuberance! It’s a tough call which of these two movements I enjoy more, as I love them for very different reasons. The second movement is achingly beautiful, while this one is wild and fun.

We don’t waste any time with an introduction here – we’re immediately off to the races! Theme A starts right at the beginning of the piece. It is essentially in two halves, the first from 0:04-0:14 and the second from 0:15-0:22. The themes in this piece aren’t quite like what we’ve heard in other pieces, in that they don’t always sound like a statement that finishes with a period. A piece like the Sousa march we discussed earlier has very definite themes that have a beginning, middle, and end. Poulenc? Not so much.

At 0:07, listen to the “rips” up to the high notes. We get three of those rips before hitting a peak and coming back down. A common trick in music is to build it up in a series of three repeated phrases then finish the statement. The phrases aren’t necessarily repeated note-for-note; they often alter something about it (pitch, volume, etc.) to keep the momentum going. As you listen to other pieces, see if you notice any “three and finish” situations*.

Theme B begins at 0:22. Does it sound familiar? It should – it’s the light, “bird” theme from the first movement, though altered a little bit. The piano even gets a quick shot at it at 0:28.

We immediately jump into the next theme (C) at 0:30. Really listen from 0:30-0:35. Imagine this bit played much slower and smoother. Do you hear the resemblance to the B theme of the second movement (aka the luscious theme)? I love how Poulenc reuses and modifies that idea and gives it a completely different mood from the last time we heard it. We get to spend a little more time with this theme than the bird theme.

Beginning at 0:51, we start to transition away from the C theme into our next theme (D). We get some new melodic material, but theme C reminds us it’s still there at 0:59. There’s a brief ritard (slowing down) from the piano to usher in the D theme, but it doesn’t stay slow, as the new theme suddenly (subito) launches forward in the original tempo (1:07).

While the new theme reverts back to the original tempo (a tempo), Poulenc changes the mood. This melody is smoother and more lyrical than what we’ve heard so far in this movement. Notice, however, that there’s still some intensity in the piano accompaniment. This section is the longest in this movement (1:07-1:46), with the piano getting a chance to play the melodic line at 1:21 over a low clarinet trill.

At 1:47, Poulenc brings some of the wildness back into the piece. This starts a longish transition/development section that will eventually lead us into the last hurrah of the piece. He inserts some new melodic content during this time, interspersed with motifs we heard earlier. At 2:03, we think we’re going to get a recap of the opening theme of this movement, but we’re wrong. We get just a brief glimpse of it before jumping suddenly to theme C, in which Poulenc repeats the motif but truncates it each time (2:06-2:15). Listen to 2:16-2:18 – Poulenc inserts a bit from the second movement (I even suggested that you remember that bit (3:20-3:26) for later!)

Continuing on, we hear a portion of the D theme (2:21) before returning to the motif we heard at the beginning of this section (2:31). But Poulenc, once again, shows us that everything is related when we reach 2:37 – do you remember that motif from waaaaay back at the beginning of the first movement? I just love how he ties all this together. It’s like when a book or TV series intertwines characters or bits of plot from episodes past.

Done teasing us, Poulenc finally gives us our recap of theme A at 2:40, complete with the three rips. There’s a brief bit of the “bird” theme (B; 2:49), and another shout out to the bit from the second movement that I had you remember (2:50-2:53). From there, we move into the coda section. Poulenc introduces new melodic material to help close the movement (2:54). We get a bit more tension and buildup in the melodic line before getting another “three and finish” trick at 3:04. There’s a very short breath, then a final push to end the piece.

I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring Poulenc’s clarinet sonata. If you’d like to hear the piece in its entirety, please visit the Tonal Diversions playlist on YouTube.

Looking for the sheet music? Visit my link at Sheet Music Plus!

*To be honest, I have no idea if there’s an official musical term for this effect. If anyone knows, please leave a comment!

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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. II by Francis Poulenc

(Second in a three-part series. For part one, click here, for part three, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

The second movement in Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is titled “Romanza” (romance). According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (compiled by Don Michael Randel, ©1978), a romanza is a “short instrumental composition of a lyrical character”. That definition is spot on for this movement. The tempo marking here is très calme (very calm), which should sound familiar as it’s the same marking from the slow section of the first movement.

I love this movement; I think it is absolutely gorgeous. It is so full of emotion: melancholy, hope, heartbreak, peace.



The intro starts with a soft solo statement from the clarinet, followed by “wailing” that’s underscored by a strong piano chord. The clarinet recollects itself, and continues with the soft melodic lines (0:24), this time with the piano providing accompaniment. The piano continues on its own, briefly, ending the introduction.

We first hear the main theme (A) at 0:52; the clarinet has a lyrical line with the piano playing a calm, steady series of chords underneath (similar to what we heard in the first movement). Poulenc is so effective with this theme – we hear the first bit get repeated (0:52-1:01 & 1:01-1:09), building up tension. We think we’re going to hear it repeated a third time, but Poulenc shifts to a higher note this time at the apex (1:14) giving things a bit more tension. The volume has also increased at this point.

The clarinet shows some power in the second part of the theme (1:28). Poulenc uses repetition again with the run and the notes immediately after, then modifies the last note so it leads into the close of the theme. The volume comes back down and we hear a slight mood shift in the piano’s chords (1:49-1:52).

The piano starts the B theme for us at 1:54. It continues with the steady accompaniment in the bass and middle ranges, but gets the new melody in the high range. Listen for a brief bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds (aka some major chords). This theme is luscious. I just want to wrap myself in it and stay a while.

Okay, I’m back.

An interesting thing to listen for during the B theme (1:54-2:45) is how Poulenc moves the melody between piano and clarinet. It’s not a cut-and-dry “you play the first time, I play the second time” type of interchange. For me, these types of details can add so much more interest to a piece.

At 2:47, we think we’re going back to theme A. But we’re not. We start it, but only get the first bit before quoting from theme B (3:04). We don’t get much of that theme, either, for Poulenc inserts some completely new melodic material at this point (3:20-3:26). (Hint: you may want to remember this new motif)

We do come back to a fuller statement of theme A at 3:29, though in a different key than we’d heard before. We hear the entire first half of that theme before going into more of theme B at 4:02. It’s kept short, though; Poulenc finishes this statement with a nod back to our intro (4:19) as we move into the final section of the piece.

We’re treated to a final recap of theme A at 4:36. But instead of building up like we did when we first heard the theme, he keeps it quiet. When we reach the highest note this time, we get a wonderful major chord – a bit of sweetness (4:58) which we’re treated to a second time at 5:06. The happiness does not last long, however, as we fall back into despair and wailing before finishing the piece with a somber, somewhat unsettling statement.

Don’t miss part 3!

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