Having never previously attended a clarinet masterclass, it was somewhat to my surprise that I found myself in Aberystwyth for MusicFest, an annual eight day festival of music courses and international performances. Directed by one of Britain’s best clarinettists, David Campbell, the course is a clear draw for clarinettists but also runs a whole range of courses for singers, composers and other instrumentalists all led by renowned international practitioners and performers. Although more than a little rusty, I was encouraged by MusicFest’s website which advertised the course as ‘designed to raise your game, whether you are still at school, a music college or university student or a keen older amateur’. As it turned out I was the only older amateur, the other five clarinettists being outstanding 14-17 year olds at music schools and junior colleges but they were marvellously tolerant of me.
The week was challenging and inspiring in equal measure, and the series of concerts and recitals alongside the teaching superb and truly world-class. It has been a real privilege to perform for David Campbell and Anthony Friend, the clarinet course tutors, and over the course of the week they have both offered ample encouragement, constructive criticism and insightful performance tips.
I focussed on Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano and its tricky final movement. This Sonatina was written for Gervase de Peyer, a legendary player and former principal clarinet of the London Symphony Orchestra, and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1981. I heard Michael Collins perform this piece with pianist Michael McHale in Huddersfield two years ago. Michael introduced the piece saying Gervase de Peyer had asked for something flashy and virtuosic but not too challenging. The Horovitz is certainly flashy and virtuosic but it is, for me at least, very difficult!
Blithely, I introduced the piece to David Campbell very much as I have introduced it to you here. David responded that he and many other clarinettists keen to get their hands on the piece were at the premiere in 1981 and that he had been taught by Horovitz when at music college. In fact, David performed the Sonatina a few years ago at his 60th birthday party, where Joseph and Anna Horovitz were both in attendance (the piece is dedicated to Anna). This meant David was able to offer unarguable insight and commentary into the performance of the Sonatina which I benefitted from over the week. For example, although there are clear jazz influences on the piece, David said Horovitz was adamant the quavers should not be swung so I spent much of my rehearsal time over the week trying to straighten out the quavers and especially the quaver rests. I was supported in my efforts by an absolutely wonderful pianist, Catherine Milledge, who covered my tracks admirably as I meandered in and out of triplet passages, rushing here, slowing down there, misinterpreting rhythms and clumsily missing and adding in beats (sorry again Catherine!). Playing with such a perfect accompanist gives one the magical illusion that you are playing with poise and grace and just as the composer intended the piece.
We also had the opportunity to perform clarinet quintet repertoire with the marvellous Manchester string quartet, the Solem Quartet. It is much harder to play seamlessly with five players but the Quartet, like Catherine, were completely supportive and helped us all raise the level of our playing through their own musical mastery. I performed the Forlana from Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, and Aberystwyth photographer Keith Morris was kind enough to take the photo featured on this post. Keith provided a lovely image diary of the week via his Twitter feed, @KeithMorrisAber. Playing with strings is such a lovely experience, as the depth and richness of sound they bring intertwines beautifully with the darkness and brilliantness of the clarinet.
With over 40 concerts and recitals this week, the festival component of MusicFest is a real draw and much appreciated by the local audience members who loyally turned up for each and every performance. David Campbell and the Solem Quartet set us off with a dizzying performance of Weber’s virtuosic Clarinet Quintet, with David showing off the full range and potential of the clarinet. For the second evening’s concert, the young and dynamic Magnard Ensemble joined the Solem Quartet for a programme of Shostakovich and Mendelssohn String Quartets interspersed with music for wind quintet, with rising star Joseph Shiner on clarinet.
On Monday evening, the evening programme concluded with a hilarious piece by Bohuslav Martinů about romance between kitchen utensils (yes, really). Originally a one act jazz ballet, it tells the story of the marriage of Pot and Lid which is threatened in turn by Pot’s dalliance with the Twirling Stick, and Lid’s flirtation with Dishcloth. All ends happily, you will be relieved to know.
David Campbell treated us to contemporary clarinet quintets by Gareth Churchill and Richard Blackford at the Old College in Aberystwyth on Tuesday lunchtime, and it was great to have both composers in attendance.
Wednesday’s concert featured the Orion Orchestra with pianist Tom Poster and soprano Raphaela Papadakis and we heard the gorgeous Finzi Eclogue for piano and orchestra, with Tom bringing out all its colour and poignancy, alongside Mozart arias. There was a particularly fun piece for soprano, orchestra and obligato piano called ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te’ which Mozart wrote for one of his favourite singers and we think played the piano himself, and Tom and Raphaela were a wonderful team.
On Wednesday evening, we heard the beautiful Kegelstatt trio for clarinet, viola and piano by Mozart, performed by Joseph Shiner and virtuoso Icelandic viola player Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir. The fluidity and ease of Joseph Shiner’s playing was remarkable as notes seemed to pour forth effortlessly and beautifully. Legend has it the trio was written just as effortlessly as the German ‘Kegelstatt’ means a skittle alley and it was said to have been written while he was playing a game of skittles. (Frank Bott’s programme note for this rubbishes this entirely as there is nothing to indicate the trio was written in this circumstance, but it seems rather to have been a sales pitch of a later publisher.) The programme included a new piece by Kaare Dyvik Husby and closed with the Brahms piano quartet no. 3 in C minor.
A real highlight of the week was a Bach-themed recital from Guy Johnston, Tom Poster and Magnus Johnston on Thursday evening. Opening with Bach’s cello sonata in G major (originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord) we then heard the little-known Six Canonic Studies by Robert Schumann, arranged for piano trio by Schumann’s student Theodor Kirchner. There is apparently also an arrangement by Debussy of this for four hands which is more commonly performed, but it worked wonderfully for piano trio. This concert finished with Mendelssohn’s second piano trio, in C minor, which is a tempestuous and energetic work which sweeps you along with its emotion and vitality.
For our final evening concert, we heard from Guy Johnston who performed Respighi’s Adagio con variazioni for cello and orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, both with the Orion Orchestra conducted by Toby Purser. It was a great finale to the week.
Thank you, everyone at MusicFest, for a wonderful week!