Sunday, November 09, 2008

Paul Cummings: Better Late Than Never for the Clarinet

Concertgoers—not to mention jazz fans—are used to the clarinet as a standard musical instrument…but it wasn’t always so.

“There was no clarinet in the Renaissance or the Baroque period,” HSU professor Paul Cummings points out. “In something like three hundred years of western music, there was basically nothing written for the clarinet.”

But a lot of great music has been written for it since, and clarinetist Paul Cummings will play three works—one acknowledged masterpiece, one well-regarded piece and one that is seldom performed—on Sunday, November 9 in Fulkerson Recital Hall.

It was only at the turn of the 18th century that technology allowed the modern clarinet to be adapted from an earlier instrument. Fortunately, that was just in time to catch the ear of a composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who thought the clarinet best approximated the qualities of the human voice.

“Mozart took a liking to it, and he wrote some of his greatest works for this instrument,” Cummings said, “including his clarinet concerto, a beautiful clarinet quintet, and the clarinet trio we will perform.”

Together with pianist John Chernoff (who accompanies him on all three pieces) and Karen Davy on viola, Cummings plays Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano.

“This piece has three movements but it’s a little unusual in that it has no slow movement,” Cummings explained. “It’s also interesting because it is balanced equally among the three instruments. It is so much fun to play this piece—you can tell why it is a masterpiece.”

Cummings and Chernoff combine on another familiar work in the clarinet repertoire, the Grand Duo Concertant by German composer Karl Maria von Weber.

“Weber was known first of all as a composer of German opera,” Cummings explained. “His music is very dramatic. So in this piece there are some really wild contrasts, as you might hear in an opera. There are very loud and very soft parts, tempo changes—all very intense. It’s kind of a clarinet showpiece. That’s partly because Weber, like Mozart, understands the strengths of the instrument. Not every composer understands what the clarinet can do.”

Another composer who did is not as famous for it. “Charles Villiers Stanford was known mostly as a teacher,” Cummings said. His students at the Royal College of Music and Cambridge University included composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Though he taught during the musical ferment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Stanford’s predilections as a composer favored a slightly earlier age.

“He reminded a lot of people of Brahms. So his work is not part of the standard repertoire—maybe because people consider his work a Brahms knock-off. But the piece we’re doing--Stanford’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano—has its original features.”

“It has three movement, with a fascinating slow movement based on an Irish folk song,” Cummings said. “Stanford was born in Dublin. It’s a kind of lullaby—very tender, simple at times, but with clarinet passages that decorate the melody. For me that beautiful second movement is a highlight.”

Music professor Paul Cummings is also the conductor of the Humboldt Symphony and director of the HSU Symphonic Band. His clarinet concert begins at 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 9 in the Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus. Tickets are $8 general, $3 students/seniors from the HSU Box Office (826-3928) or at the door. A Faculty Artists Series concert produced by the HSU Department of Music.

Media: Humboldt State Now

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