Classical music is just chock full of little gems. Like the sparkly kind, they can be rare and unusual, or just delightful and familiar. Some of these gems have drifted into obscurity through changing tastes, while others have been forgotten or misplaced when their composers die. Some reappear from the past and become so well known that we wonder how they possibly could have been otherwise. And still others have been here all along, in plain sight, but pushed aside for a variety of reasons. While not rare at all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is still truly a gem, and one with a curious and unusual history—a history that the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra intends on illuminating in its upcoming “Orchestral Romance” concert on Valentine’s Day.
Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, just a few weeks before his death in 1791, under the encouragement of Anton Paul Stadler, a Viennese clarinet virtuoso. In addition to being a performer, Stadler also experimented with the design and construction of instruments in the clarinet family. Mozart wrote the concerto for Stadler’s own basset clarinet, an instrument with a longer bell, more keys, and a range down to a low C. After Mozart’s death, however, the publisher André had the concerto arranged with the low notes transposed into the range of the conventional clarinet of the day. It is this version that is almost always heard in modern performances.
Although Mozart’s original score was lost to history, restored versions of the concerto do exist. It is one of these that will be performed by the UT Symphony. UT clarinet faculty member Gary Sperl will join Maestro James Fellenbaum and the orchestra as soloist in the concerto, using a rare extended-range basset clarinet that he has obtained on loan from its maker, the Buffet Crampon Company of Paris.
“What you’ll hear is the clarinet going down into what sounds like a bass clarinet register,” Fellenbaum says. “There are these special moments when the clarinet produces these big, deep, rich bass sounds that you’re just not used to hearing from a clarinet. And it has been a challenge, I know, for Gary to almost completely relearn the concerto on this new instrument.”
Joining the Mozart concerto on the program is another true gem, this one of the Romantic era—Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17. Oddly, though Tchaikovsky is today considered a primary example of 19th-century Russian music, he was often derided by his jealous contemporaries for being too European—too non-Russian. The Symphony No. 2, though, is often called the “Little Russian” and is filled with Russian folk melodies which, at least temporarily, quieted the criticisms of the Russian nationalists.
For the performance of the Tchaikovsky, Fellenbaum will turn the baton over to Rachel Grubb, a graduating senior in the prestigious College Scholars Program. Grubb, who is also a violinist with the Knoxville Symphony as well as music director of the Oak Ridge Youth Symphony Orchestra, is earning her undergraduate degree with a double major in orchestral conducting and violin performance.
“I was initially wondering why we weren’t playing one of the Tchaikovsky ‘standards’—Symphonies 4, 5, or 6,” Grubb says. “But this second symphony really has a lot going for it, too. One of my favorite parts in this symphony is the whole second movement. It’s beautiful, creative, and has a very perky tempo.”
That second movement (Andantino marziale, quasi moderato) is, in fact, another of those unusual musical gems. Tchaikovsky went with a march, instead of a slow movement, that he lifted from his unpublished opera Undine that had been turned down for production by the St. Petersburg Opera.
Tchaikovsky was reportedly unhappy with his original version that premiered in 1873, despite it being a public and critical success. After the premiere, he set about revising it, changing substantially the first movement and shortening the fourth. The fourth movement (Moderato assai—Allegro vivo), which Grubb terms full of “grandeur and sonic force,” has as the basis of its theme the Russian folk song “The Crane.” And that sonic force shows up in an energetic and exhilarating conclusion.
Fellenbaum has also included on the program Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”)—no doubt a symbolic choice for a Valentine’s Day gem.