Clarinet on Fire

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Tonight’s performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra offered Holiday treats for everyone: a rarely-heard English masterwork (Elgar’s Cockaigne Op. 40 “In London Town”), a world-premiere (Wlad Marhulets’ Klezmer Concerto for clarinet and orchestra) and an audience favorite (Holst’s symphonic suite The Planets). Maestro Andrew Litton was at the helm this evening in Maestro Slatkin’s absence.

The first work on the program, Sir Edward Elgar’s concert overture Cockaigne, Op. 40, was a real treat. Detroit audiences haven’t heard this turn-of-the-last-century gem since 1995, when it was performed under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov. Maestro Litton and the DSOians gave it a stirring performance, with Litton’s fine attention to detail allowing the individual vignettes to emerge nicely from the overall framework. My favorite moment: when the big, sparkling, parade-like sequence first arrives on the scene (about six minutes or so into the work), Litton relaxes the tempo ever-so-slightly, allowing players and audience alike to really luxuriate in the moment–a very nice touch.

Next on the program was the world-premiere performance of Wlad Marhulets’ Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet, with David Krakauer as soloist. There’s an interesting story here, as the [now] 23 year-old Marhulets was inspired to become a musician (a clarinetist, no less!) through listening to recordings of Krakauer, who later commissioned this work from Marhulets.

As for the Concerto itself, it is a virtuoso work; a high-energy, rollicking romp thru all things possible (and [thought to be] impossible) for the instrument. The soloist leads us into this wild, exciting new landscape from the opening bar and plays almost continuously with only short breaks. Stylistically, the work is kaleidoscopic, fusing klezmer elements with classical, rock, funk, [simulated] electronics and big sweeping sequences that are truly cinematic in nature. Krakauer and his clarinet seemed to be as one and sounded as though possessed; whether the clarinet was possessed, or the performer, or both, I could not tell. Suffice it to say I expected to see smoke emanating from the instrument when he was done. The audience reacted enthusiastically after the final note had sounded and their response was well-deserved. In all, the concerto was a fun, exciting, thrilling ride and I look forward to hearing it again on Sunday.

The evening was rounded out by a superb performance of Gustav Holst’s masterpiece for orchestra, The Planets. There were too many good moments to list individually, so I’ll only highlight a couple of them. The third movement (Mercury, the Winged Messenger) offered an amazing display of the DSO’s dexterity as Mercury flitted around the sections of the orchestra. During Uranus, The Magician, the DSO’s amazing brass and percussion sections threatened to lift the roof off Orchestra Hall. However, Maestro Litton’s reading of the opening movement (Mars: Bringer of War) was simply outstanding, possibly the best reading I have ever heard. Litton must have been the one possessed here, only the spirit was one far more sinister in nature. I have never heard this movement played with the driving, crushing, breathless ferocity that I heard in Orchestra Hall tonight.

I’d single out a soloist or section from within the Orchestra, if that were only possible; everyone played with such unity of purpose that I myself felt breathless. The delivery of the final, excruciating chords, separated by slightly-longer-than-I’m-used-to pauses of absolute silence, made the delivery of the last note all the more devastating. An absolutely unforgettable experience.

I know the Holidays are upon us all, but catch this one while you can: Friday at 8:00, Saturday at 8:30 or Sunday at 3:00.

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