Anyone who has attended a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert in the past 13 years knows that principal clarinetist Gregory Raden is one of the greatest players around. Many of his fans talk about his remarkable intonation while others speak highly of his technical ability. But everyone mentions his ability to grab a note, like a bel canto singer, from the nether realms of the barely audible and bring it into focus. He is, it seems, most impressive when he is barely there.
This vocal singing style of playing the clarinet comes naturally to Raden.
"My teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, Donald Montanaro, approached everything from a vocal starting point," Raden says. "It was ingrained in me. Then when I spent some time playing in the Kennedy Center (now Washington) Opera orchestra, the song approach to playing the clarinet solidified."
He will have plenty of opportunity to make his clarinet sing when he appears with the DSO playing Mozart's divine Clarinet Concerto this weekend (the performance also features Schubert's Symphony No. 9, The Great, C Major). It is a combination that fits both player and composer. Mozart approached his instrumental music from a vocal standpoint and similarities between this concerto and the composer's operas are easy to draw. The glorious slow movement is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and its spinning melody is right out of Mozart's finest operatic style.
"I never studied voice, but I always thought that I would," Raden says. "Somehow, I never did it, but I listen to vocal music all the time. Lately, it has been more in the recital and song category than opera, but that is still my favorite.
When asked about his preferred singers, he said "I am listening to Fritz Wunderlich and Tito Schipa these days."
This is not really a surprising answer. Both singers were lighter voices, lyric tenors, of the past generation. One was German and the other Italian, but both demonstrated that same ability to take a note from nowhere to somewhere, or vice versa, that Raden has perfected on the clarinet.
"Like singers, the clarinet has different registers, low and high notes sound very different, and distinctive breaks between them that have to be smoothed out," he says. "This is what I learned from singers; how to match up the sound from top to bottom."
One big factor in Raden's ability to recreate the voice is his dependence on a single item that is worthless in itself. This is the clarinet reed, a piece of cane that has been shaved down to a very fine edge. When placed on the mouthpiece, it is this vibrating reed that makes the sound. Obviously, this is both a fragile and critical element to fine playing. It has to be wet to be played, which is why you see clarinetists keeping the reed in their mouth or in a small glass of water nearby. This little bit of physics creates its own special problems. Too wet is as bad as too dry.
"I use Vandoren reeds. They are a French company and make the highest quality reed," he says. "Even so, they really aren't a finished product when they arrive in the box. Although clarinetists don't face the same difficulty as the double reed players (oboe and bassoon) do in making reeds that work, we still spend a lot of time working on them. You shave a little off and then you try it. You keep doing this, over and over, until you have something that works for you. Of course, that doesn't mean it will work tomorrow."
"Cane is affected by climate and even air conditioning," he adds. "They also wear, which is a process that starts the first time you play on it. Reeds are just a problem you live with. Some days you win and some days you lose."
Reeds are also expensive. This is not because they are so costly individually. They are expensive because they come in a box of 10 and most clarinetists say they are lucky to get one or two good ones out of the box. The rest are trashed. Raden gives them to students because it saves them money, but also because a reed that won't work for him might be good for another player. "I went through 10 boxes in the last three weeks," he said. "More are always on their way from France."
Does he have a "magic" reed that he keeps locked away for special occasions?
"Not really," he says. "If I have a reed that feels really good and I set it aside, it is different when I pull it out again. Maybe the weather is dryer or colder or warmer than it was when the reed worked so well. Maybe it dried out wrong. Who knows? It is just not the same. Now that I am preparing for the Mozart concerto, I am putting aside what I call 'candidates', but I won't make a final choice until the last minute."
In hearing him talk about reeds, the similarities to the voice is striking. Singers always talk about being in "good" voice, when everything goes perfectly. They also talk about being in "bad" voice, when everything is a struggle. Singers are just echoing what Raden said about his reeds in that some days you win and some days you lose. A great singer can overcome being in bad voice, as a fine clarinetist can deal with a recalcitrant reed, but it ain't pretty.
Whichever reed gets the honors, there is one thing that Dallas audiences can be sure of when Raden takes the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday. You will hear what is arguably one of Mozart's finest creations played by one of the world's foremost clarinetists. This concert will also allow us to welcome back Maestro Jaap van Zweden (newly named Conductor of the Year by Musical America) to the podium, which will add to the celebratory nature of the concert. More importantly, the combination of great conductor, great clarinetist and great composer—all at the height of their abilities—should make for a glorious performance.
Not to set expectations too high, of course.