There is little I treasure more or find more important than my friendship with the great composer Elliott Carter. I always look forward with great anticipation to our conversations about music, literature, history, and the world, and always come away with new knowledge, new understanding, and a new perspective. As a musician, I find it a wonderful privilege to be able to look (at least, a little) into the mind of one of the great personages of classical music. In the years I’ve known Elliott, he has written some of the most important works for clarinet in our repertoire, and I’m proud to say that I have played a role in all of them.
Our close friendship really began in 1993, with the first of those pieces: his work for solo clarinet—which he dedicated to his longtime friend, the Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski—titled Gra (Polish for “play”). I was to do the premiere recording of the work for Bridge Records. Elliott sent me, in fairly quick succession, three preliminary versions and one final version, which gave me a fascinating glimpse into how he was able to refine his notation to guide the performer ever more precisely to find the correct expression for the piece. I came to his summer home in Southbury, Conn., to play the piece for him and he refined it still further. I found it to be one of the best-written works ever for the clarinet, down to his choice of the multiphonic (double stop) he used at the end.
After Gra came the Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by Pierre Boulez for the Ensemble Intercontemporain. As he was writing it, Elliott periodically showed me the clarinet part and asked my advice concerning clarinet technique. I encouraged him to break the conventional barriers of clarinet writing: to extend the clarinet’s lyrical range upward, not to worry about writing passages requiring extreme virtuosity, not to be concerned with limits of articulation speed. And he did that with tremendous success. In 1998, I gave the New York premiere of the work in Carnegie Hall with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Next, came a surprise. My wife, Ayako Oshima, a wonderful clarinetist herself, and I returned home late in August 2001 to find a package from Carter. When we opened it, we found a duet, written for us. Elliott mentioned to Ayako that he thought a Japanese title would make sense, and she suggested Hiyoku, meaning two wings forever flying together. With Hiyoku, Carter elevated the clarinet duet from a casual genre to a serious art form. Ayako and I gave the world premiere at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the American premiere at Weill Hall in one of the first of Carnegie Hall’s composer showcases. Steep Steps for bass clarinet came at the same time. A wonderful work for what is often a neglected instrument, Elliott wrote it for the excellent bass clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, and I gave the European premiere in the Concertgebouw.
All that was left was for Carter to write a major chamber work for clarinet and string quartet. I had been thinking about that ever since he wrote the concerto, but in the last decade, Carter has been incredibly prolific. Every time I would see him, he would be working on a new work—an opera, or a huge symphonic statement. Finally, last year I gained the courage to begin asking, politely but with greater tenacity, whether he would be interested in writing a quintet for clarinet and string quartet. It was at a dinner last spring when Elliott at last told me that he would be interested in writing the work for me. After a long time of hoping for a work from Elliott Carter for clarinetists to stand alongside the great quintets of Mozart and Brahms, it now seemed like it was actually going to happen!
Elliott asked me about ensembles, and I immediately mentioned the Juilliard String Quartet. Of all the quartets I have played with, I have always found the Juilliard to be special—more flexible and compelling. Whenever I play with them, I can play with both greater freedom and greater attention to detail—and of all the quartets, they have had the longest relationship with Elliott and his music. Of course, he thought they would make an ideal match, and it only remained for me to ask the ensemble members and find a way to commission the work. I had hoped that The Juilliard School would like to commission it, and when the Juilliard String Quartet presented the idea to President Joseph Polisi, he immediately recognized the significance for classical music and enthusiastically endorsed the project.
With the project officially sanctioned, we had only to wait for Carter to compose the work, which he did with his usual passion and furious pace. In the beginning, I found him studying the Mozart Quintet and looking over his other clarinet works. He even asked to see some of my own compositions.
Then, within a few months, I found a copy of the manuscript in my mailbox. As with everything Carter writes, it is very different from any other quintet in the clarinet repertoire and, like so much of Carter, it also charts a new direction in his own composition. The Quintet is in five contrasting and connected movements and, in typical Carterian fashion, it is a union of opposites. It begins with a rhythmic figure in the strings, which returns in various guises throughout the piece, almost a leitmotif, à la Wagner. At unexpected moments, Carter has put in “snap” pizzicato (à la Bartok)—as he explained to me, “like a little splash of brightly colored paint found sometimes in abstract paintings.” While I don’t want to give a “blow by blow” description of the work here before its premiere, I can point out one more of its most original features: It begins with the clarinet moving at a furious pace and the strings fairly still, and ends with the strings playing virtuosic music while the clarinet plays an incredibly long, beautiful, slow line. I am not sure whether I have ever seen as long an unbroken lyrical line as Carter has written.
I know that the members of the Juilliard Quartet are very excited about the Quintet, and I am sure that the premiere on April 29 will be one of the most exciting and meaningful performances of my life.