Just a few months ago, patrons of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra heard a concerto for saxophone and orchestra, which is a fairly uncommon pairing. This time around, they will experience something even rarer, a piece in which the bass clarinet is the featured instrument. On top of that, this bass clarinet concerto was written by the orchestra’s maestro, Salvador Brotons, who is internationally acclaimed for his music.
Although some concertgoers might be unfamiliar with the bass clarinet, they have certainly seen and heard its unique, deep and sometimes woody sound. The bass clarinet became a more prominent instrument after Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner effectively used it in their works. Its sound is now considered a staple of many modern composers.
Brotons’ Bass Clarinet Concerto, which receives its world premiere this weekend, will bring David Gould to the spotlight as the featured soloist. Gould is the bass clarinetist of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra. Based in New York City, he maintains a busy freelance schedule with many of the world’s best orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony, L’Orchestre National de France, the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony.
Yet the genesis of Brotons’ work began with a random thought caused by social media.
“I was having a cup of coffee and sitting on the couch scrolling through Facebook,” Gould said. “I ran across a friend of mine, who had just posted a picture of himself in rehearsal with Salvador Brotons conducting. This made me recall a clarinet quartet by Brotons that I had played. I remember really liking the piece. It was challenging rhythmically and it was beautiful. So I quickly sent a text message to my friend asking if he thought Brotons would do a commission for bass clarinet. My friend checked his messages and then missed an entrance during that rehearsal and got yelled at by Brotons. But he quickly got redemption when the prospect of a commission came up with the maestro after the rehearsal ended.”
Okay, that was a close call!
“My friend gave me maestro Brotons’ contact information, and I called him the next day at his hotel,” Gould continued. “We talked about the possibility of a piece for bass clarinet and piano. I told him that I wanted something that would sing and dance. I didn’t want the cerebral new music stuff. So, he wrote a piece that requires some extended techniques like slap notes and flutter tonguing, but generally, it is more in old school tradition and absolutely lovely.”
Gould then premiered the one-movement work in the summer of 2018 at an international clarinet convention in Belgium.
“Players love Brotons’ music because it is a language that we can understand easily in terms of notes, rhythms and context,” Gould said. “The audience at the convention loved the piece. Brotons mentioned that he wanted to turn it into a concerto and would do so gratis. That was an unbelievable gift!”
Brotons came to New York City and discussed his ideas with Gould, who was playing with the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera during the summer season when operas are not performed. Brotons then finished the concerto in September of 2018.
“Now I have a gorgeous, slow movement and a final movement that is rhythmically fun and exciting,” said Gould. “The piece is awesome and I am thrilled to play it.”
Brotons has strong feelings about his latest concerto and can see the upside.
“I love the bass clarinet,” said Brotons. “There is a limited repertoire for bass clarinet concertos, and the reality is that progressively there are more clarinet players that specialize in this instrument. That probably is a reason that this concert can get performed quite often.”
The concerto has three movements and spans about 18 minutes.
“I think the audience will be fascinated by the great technical possibilities of the bass clarinet,” said Brotons. “It has a broad range and pleasant tone that is easy on the ears.”
The concert kicks off with “Celebration for Orchestra” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. In 1983, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The piece that the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will play has a melodic and upbeat style that will get the audience’s toes tapping.
After intermission, the orchestra will play “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. This symphonic-length tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name. The opening sequence, using massive triads to depict the birth of the world, was made popular by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Under the baton of Brotons, the piece might transport listeners to parts unknown.