One Basset Clarinet to rule them all

Friday’s concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra began with Composer of the Year Mason Bates’ Mothership, commissioned and premiered by the YouTube Symphony at the Sydney Opera House. Bates told the audience that his “fast-paced opener imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is ‘docked’ by several virtuosic soloists.”

My friend Robert was pleasantly surprised. He liked this new music that neither of us had heard before. It was somewhat fast paced, like an action sequence from a film, and of course I could perhaps imagine that the music would indeed be the perfect accompaniment to some science fiction movie with the same programmatic theme, a mothership landing, then taking off again.

Mr Bates himself introduced the piece. Then, and I didn’t expect this, he joined the orchestra himself, and operating with an Apple Laptop as his instrument, performed a sort of techno that blended in with the rest of the PSO. To see him tapping on whatever key or input device which gave the beat as if the heart of the mothership as it hovered, was interesting indeed.

PSO Principal Clarinet Michael Rusinek was the featured soloist this past weekend, performing Wolfgang Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Listening to WQED-FM radio a few days before, I heard an interview with PSO Music Director Manfred Honeck, and he explained that the original composition by Mozart was actually for that new instrument (at the time), the Basset Clarinet.

When Mr Rusinek entered the stage, I finally got a look at the Basset Clarinet. It was larger than the regular clarinet, and contained notes that tended to be lower toward a deeper base end of the scale. I didn’t know what to expect, having never heard this instrument before, and I was amazed at the quality of the notes, the pure tones, and the range that Mr Rusinek was able to obtain. The deep base notes were warm and wonderful. My almost immediate reaction was: Why isn’t this original version always performed, to me it was much better than with the regular clarinet.

Manfred Honeck explained in the radio interview that the Basset Clarinet was championed by Mozart’s contemporary, virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler, that he actually convinced Herr Mozart to write a concerto for this instrument.

One funny thing happened between the first and second movement. Conductor Honeck paused to allow Mr Rusinek to clean his instrument. He hands half the dismantled part to the conductor, who seems slightly befuddled. So as Mr Rusinek cleans with a large handkerchief, Mr Honeck begins to seemingly do the same with his baton. The audience laughs. He then puts it to his ear and points it toward the orchestra as if to listen, and finally uses it as telescope toward the audience. More laughter. It was one of those genuine moments.

It is without hesitation that I wholeheartedly endorse and describe Mr Rusinek’s performance as superb. As it is with the best of classical music, when it is at it’s best, it is pure, and it is beautiful, and that describes his performance perfectly, the beauty of classical music was brought forth splendidly. Along with a great performance by the orchestra, was one of the best concerto performances that I’ve heard.

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