Immersed in conversation with the very personable Alex Fiterstein at a popular hangout near Lincoln Center, I learned more than I ever knew about clarinet repertoire. “The clarinet is the last of the woodwind instruments to have joined the orchestra,” explains the renowned clarinetist, and recipient of the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant, who has since been praised by the press in impressively unique unison.
“Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K 622, from his later period of writing, opens the instrument’s exposure within the grand classical repertoire; before this piece, the clarinet appeared in more intimate Mozart chamber works, like the Kegelstatt Trio K.498, rather than in larger works, like a concerto. Mozart also uses the clarinet prominently in his wind serenades.” explains Fiterstein.
I became curious to learn more about the clarinet’s historical background, and read up on it. According to the publishers at Floricor Editions, a publishing company that specializes in reed repertoire, “the unusual combination of instruments in the Trio, which was commonly composed for violin, cello and piano, was perhaps inspired by Mozart’s fable for the instrument, by way of his Viennese friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler. He was a fluent and gifted performer of ‘Harmoniemusik,’ a genre that consisted of arrangements for a pair of oboes (or clarinets), one or two bassoons, and a pair of horns, geared to entertain during stately dinners, hunting parties and the likes. Most fashionable became the partita, a suite of three to eight short movements, ranging from very modest compositions to the Six Symphonies by J.C. Bach or the Serenades K.251-253 by Mozart.”
Fiterstein, of course, plays all clarinet music. Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No.1, written in 1811, stands out as a gem within the instrument’s repertoire. It was inspired by dedicatee Heinrich Baermann, a German virtuoso clarinettist who had a great influence on Romantic clarinet repertoire. Many composers of the time wrote for the clarinet with him in mind; numerous works of Webern, Felix Mendelsohn, and Giacomo Meyerbeer stand out among the pieces from the period. Mendelssohn’s Konzertstücke (Concert Pieces), Opp. 113 and 114, were written for Baermann and his son, Carl, to play together.
“It seems like once a composer got it, they were hooked,” says Fiterstein enthusiastically; as happens so often, suddenly music history seems very personal!
“Within the 20th century literature, Debussy, but also Messaien and Copland stand out for the clarinet and jazz influences become increasingly apparent and from there true jazz improvisations takes off, independent from classical writing,” explains Fiterstein.
Technically speaking, throughout the 19th century, the world of the clarinet split into a German/Austrian sector, and the French clarinet, each evolving with a different fingering system and a different combination of clasp and ring positions. The body of the German instrument is slightly slimmer. Apparently, the instruments and performance methods are so different that a French clarinet player (which is to say any clarinet player except for the German/Austrian players) cannot just pick up a German/Austrian clarinet and play.
Since age 8, Fiterstein had a fascination with the instrument he considers the most versatile and intimately connected to the player: “There is a strong physical connection with this instrument through one’s breathing, like with the other woodwinds. Everything happens in quite a direct way, the imagination of sound and then its transference into breathing; one can achieve quite a big volume in sound but can be super soft as well. One has to understand every note and how it fits in with everything else in a particualr piece, to really play well,” Fiterstein explains.
His choices and expertise within the clarinet repertoire are vast:“The repertoire is actually much larger than one thinks; I did not know half of what exists and the styles and moods are endlessly varied.”
His new recording of American composer Sean Hickey’s Clarinet Concerto will be released on May 28th on the Delos label, along with Hickey’s Cello Concerto, performed by Dmitry Kouzov. Recorded in St.Petersburg with teh St.Petersburg State Symphony under the baton of Vladimir Lande, this piece marks Fiterstein’s latest visit to contemporary territory, with which he feels equally at home in comparison to classical repertoire:
“It’s a beautiful and witty piece that showcases the lyrical qualities of the clarinet, in dialogue with the strings,”Fiterstein says about Hickey’s work, describing his first all-orchestral recording.
The event in St. Petersburg was Fiterstein’s first time performing and recording in Russia. Hickey and Fiterstein spent a substantial amount of down time together, roaming the Eremitage as tourists, and bonding over dinner at the elegant Hotel Europa, across the street where their concert took place. Both composer and soloist describe the experience as extremely pleasant, despite the lack of adequate heating at the Melodyia recording studio, which exists within a small church; Fiterstein remembers that some of the musicians kept on their coats while performing.
In 2001, Fiterstein won the Carl Nielsen Competition in Denmark with a performance of Carl Nielsen’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra,” op. 57, and he performed the concerto again last season with St.Paul’s Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Thomas Dausgaard. Next year, Fiterstein will bring the concerto back with Isaac Stern’s son, the conductor Michael Stern, performing with the Iris orchestra in Memphis, Tennessee.
This summer, Fiterstein, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota, will spend some time with Mozart’s clarinet quartets at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, performing with the Pacifica Quartet.
Growing up with listening to music ranging from Beethoven to Jazz and Klezmer, Fiterstein was exposed to how much fun one can have with music. When he started playing the clarinet, he was often accompanied by his father on the accordion in the family’s living room at home in Israel. Later, his classical training at Juilliard and the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, initially supported by an AICF sponsorship, allowed him to pursue his extraordinarily successful career in the United States and abroad.
In 2002, Fiterstein became familiar with the music of Iswaldo Goligov, Jewish-Argentinean composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, which Fiterstein attended. Many years later, Fiterstein picked up his “The dreams and prayers of Isaac the blind,” written with a strong Klezmer influence and Fiterstein began to approach other Ethnic Jewish music, “where different styles come together,” like in Ronn Yedidia’s contemporary-ethnic compositions. In 2011, Fiterstein recorded works by Yedidia with the composer for the Naxos label, released in March of 2012.
The nineties music scene, particularly in New York, highlighted the clarinet within differing parallel movements of Jewish Art Music. Composers like André Hajdu (b. 1932), Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), Robert Starer (1924–2002) and Ofer Ben-Amots (1955 b.) experimented with new improvisations inspired by Klezmer style.
The roots of these works date back to the so-called “School of St.Petersburg” of the turn of the 20th century, which became a form of national Jewish emergence, brought about by Zionism. Through this movement, several pupils of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov aimed to find a new expression of their Jewish identity, based on traditional Klezmer, Folk, and Cantorial musical materials.
The Zimro Ensemble, a sextet founded in 1919 consisting of Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet, focused on these works under the leadership of its clarinetist Simeon Bellison (1881–1953). Zimro’s goal had been to collect funds during a European concert tour in order to establish a center for Jewish Music in Palestine. One of the most famous works written for the Zimro Ensemble is Prokoviev’s Overture on Jewish Themes, Op.34, which was commissioned by the ensemble in 1919.
Bellison, who later became first clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, never made it to Palestine; instead he became one of the most influential figures of the clarinet in the United States. “Most every clarinetist of the time had something to do with him,” says Fiterstein, and yet he tells me that: “[Bellison] never forgot his dream: he left his entire music collection to the Rubin Academy in Israel.” In conjunction with the research that explores this material, Fiterstein will partake in a concert, supported byPro Musica Hebraica: “The idea is to bring Jewish experience, feeling, and history ‘Jewish soul,’ if you like, as expressed through classical music,” says Charles Krauthammer, co-founder of Pro Musica Hebraica, which was established in 2004. In conjunction with Washington’s Kennedy Center, the organization brings neglected works by Jewish composers to the concert hall.
This December, Fiterstein will perform together with The Zimro Project, a chamber music group he started, at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The concert will feature Russian Jewish chamber music , some of which has not been performed in public for close to 100 years.
Also named Co-Artistic Director of the new Sedona Winter Musicfest, taking place in January in Carefree, Arizona, New Yorker’s will be able to hear him, upon his return to New York in April, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.