Polovtsian Dances (AlexanderBorodin): these dances are from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, completed by Rimsky-Korsakov after the composer’s death. Several of the dances are typically used as orchestral excerpts, particularly Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens, the Introduction to the Polovtsian Dance with Chorus, and the Wild Dance of the Men.

Overture to Semiramide (Gioachino Rossini): this two-act opera is based on a work by Voltaire, itself from a Greek/Babylonian legend, and was completed in 1823. This was Rossini’s final opera seria; he is better known for comic operas like The Barber of Seville, which inspired Beethoven to remark that “any other style would do violence to your nature”. Unlike many contemporary overtures, this one borrows musical motifs from the opera. Listen and learn.

Symphony No. 5 (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky): composed in 1888, this symphony has four movements, each of which incorporates a recurring march-like theme that changes in emotional character over the course of the work. Perhaps because of this shift from tragic to triumphant (coupled of course with its Russian origins), the piece was among those performed in the besieged Leningrad during World War II. The first movement is largely in e minor and sonata form.

Sinfonietta (Ingolf Dahl): while not technically orchestral, this concert band work occasionally appears on clarinet excerpt lists. Dahl was a German-born composer and pianist who emigrated first to Switzerland and later to the US to avoid Nazi rule. There he became noted for his versatility: in addition to composition, he played piano for several film soundtracks, arranged works for Tommy Dorsey, and gave private lessons to Benny Goodman. Sinfonietta reflects this diversity, incorporating such disparate influences as serialism and marching-band motifs. There is a prominent clarinet soli in the first movement.

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The concert chosen for review was Bach and Beyond, given by Julian Milkis (clarinet) and Fiona Wu (piano) on 19 January 2013 as part of the Serenata Music Series. As the concert title suggests, the program included both traditional works (mostly arrangements of Baroque pieces) and more modern and contemporary selections. This programming was consistent with Milkis’ billing as a cross-over artist: the program included a 1.5-page biography establishing his credentials in both jazz and classical clarinet playing. The program notes were also well written and informative. The concert included eleven pieces and two encores (although most were short), with a ten-minute intermission. Particular highlights included the two Pocket-Size Sonatas by Templeton and a Tango and Intermezzo by Tsfasman, both of which were jazzy and employed great tonal flexibility. Perhaps less interesting for a clarinetist listener was the first piece after the intermission: a very long Bach partita performed by the pianist alone. The pianist also began the second encore by singing loudly, drawing laughter from the audience.
Milkis spoke briefly between pieces but did not tune on stage. Throughout the program, Milkis tended towards quiet and restrained playing, employing a pure tone yet with a consistent vibrato. Indeed, at times his sound approached that of a saxophone rather than a clarinet. He had particular facility with quiet entries and sustained morendo exits. However, during three of the more energetic pieces he ended with a raised instrument and dramatic final note, reminiscent of the style of Benny Goodman (with whom Milkis studied). His lyrical playing throughout the performance was highly expressive and variable in mood; he employed minimal articulation, but it was not missed.

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4 Short Pieces by Howard Ferguson

Ferguson (1908-1999) was an Irish composer and musicologist. He studied with Vaughan Williams and published works in the chamber, solo, and choral genres. He retired from composition in 1960 to pursue musicology, publishing such references as a volume on keyboard interpretation and an edited anthology of Schubert’s piano music, and to tour as a pianist (Grove Music Online). The 4 Short Pieces for clarinet or viola were published in 1936 and reflect his diatonic and conservative compositional style. The “Prelude” adopts a lyrical melodic line with intermittent echos in the accompaniment. The “Scherzo” is lively but very short. The “Pastoral”, the longest of the four movements, is reminiscent of a Finzi melody, with two lyrical chalumeau sections separated by a brighter clarion line. The final “Burlesque” is highly rhythmic and playful.

Recordings: Philip Jenkins (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=CHAN9079); Vic Chiodo (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=5385-MCD); Thea King (MCD12361)

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Rhapsody by Willson Osborne

Osborne (1906-1979) was an American composer who studied with Hindemith at Yale. His Rhapsody is his best known piece and the most frequently performed work for unaccompanied bassoon. It was originally written in 1952 for a radio broadcast of new American music, and was published for both clarinet and bassoon in 1958. The piece is characterized by its use of the Phrygian mode and octatonic scales in the opening theme, and what Osborne calls the “Oriental technique of variation, in which short song-like fragments are each in turn developed…to be rhapsodic and improvisational in character” (Solos for unaccompanied clarinet 50, ML128.C58G54).

Recordings: Paul Drushler (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=4869-MCD); David Schorr (http://www.clarinetinstitute.com/Recordings.htm – partial)

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Rossini Introduction, Theme and Variations

Introduction, Theme and Variations by Gioachino Rossini

Rossini (1792-1868) was an Italian composer best known for his comic operas, particularly Barber of Seville. Despite a warning from Beethoven that any other style “would do violence to your nature” and his own incredible laziness (Opera Offstage 36-38, ML1700.B73), he was able to compose a few works for clarinet before retiring to become a chef and a “hippopotamus in trousers” (The Merry-go-round 168-169). The Introduction, Theme, and Variations was written around 1812, while Rossini was still quite young, and uses themes from his operas La Donna del lago and Mose in Egitto. The virtuosic piece includes five variations and incorporates elements of the Italian bel canto tradition.

Recordings: Sabine Meyer (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=5099909480254); Philippe Berrod (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=INDE030); John Finucane (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=RTECD124); Martin Frost (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=BIS-CD-1053); Francois Benda (http://uwolib.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=GEN88128); Bob Spring (MCD9662)

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