The Italian Job

KSO's principal clarinetist Gary Sperl plans a busy summer playing abroad

Career revelations can often come at unexpected times... and in unexpected places. Clarinetist Gary Sperl's moment of clarity came in a college swimming pool in Wisconsin.

"I was on the swimming team," says Sperl. "I was swimming back and forth, and I wasn't very good. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be good at something, and I wasn't. And I started thinking—all this time I'm putting in swimming back and forth, getting water up my nose, if I were to put that into practicing clarinet, I could probably get pretty good. I went home and practiced for three hours, which I had never done in my life. I've never looked back after that."

After that life-altering decision, all indications are that Sperl did get pretty good. In 1977, he joined both the University of Tennessee Music Department faculty and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, becoming KSO principal clarinetist in 1980. Since that time, he has been one of the bedrock talents on which the KSO has developed and matured.

For some, obtaining a university teaching position and an orchestra's Principal chair might be the end of the line—a chance to take things easy with a little less competition—and a chance to enjoy a concert-free summer off. For Sperl, though, that has never even been contemplated. For the fourth year, he will be performing at the summer Assisi Music Festival in Italy. But this summer, Sperl will be joined in Assisi by his fiancé, KSO harpist Cindy Hicks. Together, they will be performing a sonata for clarinet and harp by contemporary French composer, Jean-Michel Damase. They have plans to repeat the performance this September in Knoxville in a faculty recital at UT.

Musical summers in the Italian countryside, replete with great scenery and great food, seem to be a tradition with Sperl: "I used to do the Spoleto Festival. I did that for 18 summers in Italy. That was lots of opera, symphonic music... but it fizzled out back in the late '90s. And then I got invited back to do this. Assisi is right up the road from Spoleto."

Perhaps to balance out the Italian caloric intake, Sperl's summer plans take him from Assisi to the healthy elevation of Bear Valley, Calif. and the Bear Valley Music Festival, a gig he has had for the past 22 years. On the performance schedule for this year's festival is George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with its famous opening clarinet glissando. "Rhapsody in Blue always puts a little shudder in me," says Sperl. "That opening, there's nobody else... and everybody knows it... you either get it or you don't, and the whole world knows it if you don't! So far, knock on wood, I've always gotten it." And there will be more Gershwin clarinet work for Sperl in September with a performance of the Piano Concerto in F at the KSO's opening concert of the 2008-2009 season.

Last November, the KSO Chamber Series featured one of the repertoire's most important (and beautiful) works for clarinet, the Brahms Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, performed by Sperl and the KSO Principal String Quartet. "The Brahms was a really, really great experience," says Sperl. "I've played the Mozart [Quintet for Clarinet and Strings] probably a dozen times. The Brahms, this was only my second time. Ensemble-wise, it is much more complex. I played the Mozart twice last summer, once in Italy at the Assisi Festival, and then we did it in Bear Valley. Right after that, we started rehearsing for the [KSO] Brahms performance. So I got to play the two great ones last year."

Undoubtedly, modern sound recording and the modern virtuosity have altered how the audience perceives the clarinet sound through solo artists like Richard Stoltzman and David Shifrin. "Stoltzman opened up the clarinet sound to colors that were taboo before. Vibrato is one," says Sperl. "Now we all do it." Although he easily could have, Sperl hasn't sought out a solo career in the same way: "I love to teach. I love orchestral playing. With the playing schedule with the symphony, a solo recital at UT every year, it keeps me busy."