Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Todd Levy plays Stamitz’s Clarinet Concerto

By - Mar 24th, 2011 04:00 am
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Todd Levy

Johann Wenzel Stamitz (1717-1757), as leader of the Mannheim Orchestra, made it the envy of Europe and the model for orchestras everywhere. He established the four-movement symphony as we know it, expanded the orchestra to include pairs of winds and brasses, and routinely added prominent solo and duet wind and brass parts. He wrote 58 symphonies and built on the two-theme structure of the Italian opera overture. He added the minuet and trio to the symphony. And he wrote the real first concerto for B-flat clarinet.

Todd Levy, principal clarinetist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, will play that concerto with the MSO Friday and Saturday.

“I picked it mostly for the second movement,” Levy said, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s exquisite. And the string writing in the concerto is spectacular.”

Four-key boxwood clarinet c. 1760.

The Moravian-born Stamitz made a reputation as an itinerant virtuoso string player before settling in at Mannheim around 1742. In at least one recital (Frankfurt, 1742), Stamitz played violin, viola d’amore, cello and double bass. He became first violinist at Mannheim in 1743. In 1750, he took the newly created post of director of instrumental music. His job was to compose for and oversee the greatest orchestra in Europe, and he was a smashing success. Mannheim was the best musician’s paycheck in Europe and attracted the best players, and by all accounts Stamitz raised their game when they arrived. He was also a famous teacher.

As an innovator, he laid down the foundation of the Classical period for Haydn, Mozart and the rest. (Mozart tried and failed to land a job in Mannheim.) Stamitz was among the first to see the potential of the clarinet, too.

“The instrument was so young that you had to go to Mannheim to hear it,” Levy said. “Mozart went back to Salzburg saying ‘Gee, I wish we had clarinets.'”

The clarinet of Stamitz’s day differs markedly from the modern version.

“It’s really stripped down, super-basic,” Levy said. “It’s essentially an open-hole instrument, with just a few keys. The basset clarinet that Mozart wrote for 30 years later was much more advanced.”

The prospect of playing on a Stamitz-style clarinet does not appeal to Levy.

“It looks really cool, but you couldn’t even play a chromatic scale on it,” he said. “You’d have to fudge it by half-covering holes. But you could play complex ornaments on it, and the piece is challenging. It goes very high and all over the instrument.”

Levy has been researching period playing style, especially that related to ornamentation. Concerto soloists, like opera singers, were expected to ornament the music according to established conventions. This is new to Levy, since so little clarinet music dates to that era.

“I have to remember to start trills from above,” he said, noting one convention of the early Classical age.

This will be Levy’s first time with this concerto. He took a bit of a chance with it, but now he’s glad he did.

“He really shows the lyrical aspect of the instrument,” Levy said. “I was surprised by the quality of the string writing. When people hear this, they’ll want to hear more Stamitz.”

Source: Oxford Music Online.

The Naughton twins

This program will also feature duo-pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin sisters and grown-up prodigies, in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365. The guest conductor, Christopher Seaman, is music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Seaman will conduct the Stamitz concerto from the harpsichord. The program also includes Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 (“Military”).

Concert times are 11:15 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25-26, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $25-$79 Friday and $25-$95 Saturday at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414 291-7605) and at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

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