Certain pieces have the ability to transform the way we think about orchestral music, creating a blend of melody and emotion that remains with the listener long after the final notes have faded. One such piece is John Corigliano‘s Clarinet Concerto, set to be performed by Principal Clarinet Jason Shafer alongside the Colorado Symphony on November 3-5, 2023.
Corigliano originally unveiled his Clarinet Concerto in 1977, showcasing his signature blend of modern techniques with classical forms, resulting in a rich and multifaceted composition that challenges both musicians and listeners alike. The concerto was composed as a dedication to Corigliano’s father, the legendary American violinist John Corigliano Sr, with the second movement serving as an emotional and moving tribute, adding a personal touch infused with themes of love, memory, and connection.
At the heart of the concerto lies a compelling interplay between the clarinet and other orchestral instruments. Throughout the piece, Corigliano masterfully employs the orchestra to engage in a dialogue with the solo clarinet, creating an intricate web of sound that highlights the instrument’s versatility.
Shafer — who joined the Colorado Symphony as Principal Clarinet at the start of the 2013-2014 season — is just the virtuoso to take on the unique challenge of the Corigliano Concerto. Now in his 11th season with the orchestra, audiences have come to relish the opportunities when Shafer steps out from the orchestra to the front of the stage. We talked to Jason about what he’s looking forward to in this performance, what audiences can expect hear, and what makes this a particularly challenging piece for the musicians of the orchestra.
Q & A with Jason Shafer
Having the opportunity to be featured as a soloist is an exciting prospect for any musician. What makes this performance particularly special for you?
- Jason Shafer: I’m so fortunate to have performed both the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and the Copland Clarinet Concerto with my wonderful colleagues in the symphony, but playing this piece is particularly special for two reasons. First, it’s my first time doing it, so it has been an exciting project; due to its difficulty, I’ve spent all of 2023 learning it! But second, it features the orchestra just as much as it features the soloist. A lot of concertos are really “soloist with accompaniment,” but this piece is truly a masterwork for a full orchestra (with lots of soloists in the orchestra, too). It’s such a privilege to have the opportunity to play this work, as not many conductors and orchestras are willing to do it!
What makes this piece especially challenging for the soloist?
- JS: The work is, in many ways, the most difficult clarinet concerto ever written – the composer himself described the piece as having a level of “unprecedented difficulty”. As I mentioned before, the piece also features many soloists in the orchestra, and that poses a special challenge for me, as I must study the score in depth to understand everything that is going on at any given moment. Corigliano described it as being like a “concerto for orchestra” and not just clarinet.
Can you recall your first experience with Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto? What was your initial impression, and how has your perception of the piece evolved over time?
- JS: I love this question, because I’ll never forget my first impression! It was actually just through listening to a recording of it. From the first few seconds, I remember thinking “woah, this ain’t Mozart.” And yet, despite its challenging and wild sounds, I was completely enraptured by listening to it. I believe that this is the most exciting element of this piece for an audience, too; it’s almost impossible to predict what happens next, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat with excitement. Over time, as I dig into the many details of this work, I’m still constantly remembering that the way I should interpret this piece is to bring out that “magic” for the audience. So even though I’ve spent a year learning it, I still return to that initial impression, and I base my musical decisions on how I can enhance that impression for an audience member.
Performing a concerto involves collaboration with the orchestra. How do you balance your individual expression with the need to balance with the ensemble?
- JS: As I mentioned before, yes – this piece features the orchestra quite a lot! My view on this is that I must interpret my solo part within the context of what is happening. I often ask myself the question of “What should an audience member be looking at and/or listening to right at this moment?” If it’s me, then I consider how I can modify my energy to draw their attention. If it’s equally me and someone else, then I learn the solo passage so that my conscious focus can actually be 100% on the person I’m playing with, not just my part. And if it’s the orchestra and not me, then I consider how I need to reduce my energy so that what I am playing doesn’t distract from them.
Are there specific techniques or passages that stand out as particularly challenging for you?
- JS: The first two movements are an interesting contrast when I consider the answer to this question. The first movement, “Cadenzas,” contains some of the most technically demanding passages that I have ever had to play. It took me months of practice just to get that particular movement at about 75% of the required tempo. But the second movement is equally as difficult: it is an emotional, lyrical, sometimes painful, and often beautiful journey, and is a tribute to the composer’s father. Having the control to pull off those emotions in a work takes a lot of practice – mostly through hearing the exact sound I want, and allowing myself to experiment with what I need to physically do on the instrument so that my focus can only be on the emotion.
Navigating nerves before a performance is something all performers must cope with. Do you have any pre-concert rituals or routines that help you find focus and calmness before stepping onto the stage?
JS: I’m actually making this topic a bigger part of my career, as I’m just finishing getting a certification in performance psychology. With my certification, I intend to spend some of my free time helping performing artists with issues such as nerves, performance anxiety, and confidence. And as I’ve struggled with it a lot myself, it has been hugely beneficial to dig into the research in this field!
For many people – including myself – one of the biggest goals in overcoming nerves is to make a conscious effort prove to yourself that you can thrive under pressure. Take giving a speech for example: many of us are terrified of public speaking. Instead of just practicing a speech by yourself over and over, one of the best things you can do is actually practice that speech in front of some friends, or even in front of some strangers. You’ll be nervous when you do it, but afterwards, you’ll likely be able to say “wow, I was nervous but I still pulled it off!” Then, when you go into the “real” public speech, you will go into it having already proven to yourself that you can do it. I think that basic concept can be applicable in many ways for performers of all kinds.
Another small thing I’d mention (I could talk about this all day!) is that acceptance of nerves is normal. A lot of people will look at me on stage and think, “Wow, he doesn’t look nervous” – but I definitely will be! However, I’ve accepted that being nervous is good, and that research shows that it actually can be super beneficial for a performance. As I practice performing over and over again, I continue to reinforce this idea for myself: that I actually want to be nervous.
For those who may have listened to this piece before but never seen it performed live, why is the live experience so captivating?
- JS: The experience of seeing it live is a spectacle, as the orchestra is gigantic. Tons of extra brass and wind players, and many of them are positioned offstage and around the hall in various places. The composer includes a map in the score of the piece, explaining where to place each musician. Boettcher’s acoustic is actually perfect for this piece, oddly enough! It’s very exciting to witness live – way cooler than a recording.
What do you hope audiences will take away from your performance of this concerto?
- JS: I hope they will have found engagement with a piece that they might have been a little scared of! Sometimes we hear a few notes of a wild piece like this and we think “oh goodness, I hope I like this.” But this piece is so exciting, varied, and ingenious that I hope that audiences will be on the edge of their seats and excited about hearing so many new sounds. Even though this concerto was composed back in 1977, it has cemented itself as a masterpiece, and I think this is because it keeps that amazing “newness” and intense energy throughout.
You had a chance to meet Mr. Corigliano this summer. What was that like?
JS: I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet with the composer in New York City this past August and to play through the concerto for him. John was so kind and thoughtful, and he gave me great suggestions on many interpretive ideas. One interesting thing that I realized from working with him was the importance of this work to his career. Even though this piece was written over 40 years ago, it still is one of his most frequently-performed and admired works, and he credits it with helping cement his compositional style. I also admired that all his interpretive ideas seemed oriented toward making his musical ideas more powerful for the audience. Whether it was an extra-dirty glissando in the first movement or a delicate phrasing adjustment in the second movement, all his comments will help me make my performances in Colorado as exciting as possible.
My husband and I met John and his husband, Mark Adamo (a renowned composer and librettist himself), for lunch after I finished playing. We had a lovely time, and it reminded me that I feel a special significance in performing the work of an openly gay composer. It’s going to be a really exciting weekend!
Are there any other interesting bits of information that audiences might find important before listening to the performance?
- JS: If you’re really new to Corigliano’s compositions, try to enjoy the process of looking around the orchestra, observing what we’re doing, and trying to figure out where sound is coming from. It’s not the kind of piece that you’ll likely be tapping your foot along to, but it can be incredibly gripping and exciting if you’re open to exploring what is being created on stage!