Musician Spotlight: Jason Shafer
"The Colorado Symphony has an incredible feeling of community. I've played with many other orchestras, and never felt the sense of camaraderie that I've felt here."
This spring, Colorado Symphony Principal Clarinetist Jason Shafer takes on Mozart's enchanting—and thoroughly demanding—Clarinet Concerto in A major. In this interview, Jason tells us about the concerto's challenges, his adjustment to life in Denver from Miami and the New World Symphony, and his hunt for the perfect pie recipe.
This spring, you'll be performing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major the weekend of April 7-9. What can you tell us about it?
Mozart's Clarinet Concerto is the most well-known piece written for the clarinet, and for good reason! Written near the end of the composer's life, the concerto shows the height of Mozart's compositional abilities, and is considered one of his greatest works. I have performed it many times, and it still feels fresh, new, and ingenious; I think that's a sign of a true masterwork.
What are the most challenging aspects of this concerto?
There are many, but two stick out to me. First, the length: at almost 30 minutes, it takes a lot of physical and mental stamina, plus the challenge of maintaining comfort with the memorization.
But perhaps more importantly, this concerto requires the soloist to strike a very difficult musical balance. If the clarinetist focuses too much on refinement, the interpretation will come across as bland—but with too much exaggeration, it can seem grotesque.
My goal is always to strive for huge contrasts in mood and energy while still staying within the "world" of Mozart, and that takes a lot of thoughtful practice.
What drew you to the clarinet? Tell us about your early music education.
School band! I loved the sound of the clarinet, and I was grateful to grow up in Maryland, where the public school music programs are very strong. I believe supporting the arts in our schools is the most pressing need for our educational system.
Now you're an educator on the faculty of University of Northern Colorado. What do you enjoy most about teaching clarinet at the college level?
I feel that my most important role as a clarinet teacher at this level is to help my students reach their full potential. It's challenging to determine the best approach to take with each student, but that challenge is one of my favorite things about working with college students.
You were with the New World Symphony in Miami before coming to Denver. What was that transition like?
Living on Miami Beach was kind of like living on Mars! You see the strangest things there, from the wild vacationers to the unexpected, odd behavior from the locals. (I won't go into more detail than that.)
While I'm grateful for the incredible experiences I had with the New World Symphony, Denver's culture is wonderful, and there's so much to see in this fantastic city and in the mountains. I feel so lucky that I get to live in such a beautiful place!
One other adjustment that I have to mention: many people don't know that moving to altitude affects woodwind players' reeds tremendously. This is my fourth season with the Colorado Symphony, and I think my reeds are still trying to adjust!
What drew you to the Colorado Symphony?
First, the artistic quality of this orchestra is remarkable; it truly is one of the best in the country. But also, the Colorado Symphony has an incredible feeling of community. I've played with many other orchestras, and never felt the sense of camaraderie that I've felt here. It's amazing to feel that both the musicians and the staff are all on the same page and working towards our combined success.
Finally, what do you do when not performing? Any hobbies or side projects worth noting?
I'm just now moving to a new home, and I imagine that will bring endless projects with it! But I've also always loved exploring the many excellent hiking trails in this area, and expanding my baking skills—I've gotten excited lately about making awesome pies. So if you see me backstage sometime, hand me your favorite pie recipe!