By Robert Croan
The spectacular virtuosity of clarinetist Julian Milkis, the only student of the venerable Benny Goodman, was showcased on Chameleon Musicians’ Jan. 29 concert in the Josephine S. Leiser Opera Center in Fort Lauderdale.
It was a program that exploited the instrument as much as the performer, however. As always in this enterprising series, Chameleon’s founder-director Iris Van Eck, who was also the excellent cellist in each work, uncovered rarely heard music that makes each concert unique and enlightening.
In this case, all but one of the items were from the time when the clarinet was new and experimental. The clarinet was essentially “invented” around 1700, when the German musician Johann Christoph Denner added a register key to the then-popular single-reed wind instrument called a chalumeau. Clarinets were used only occasionally in the early 18th century, until in 1749, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau introduced the instrument into the orchestra of his opera Zoroastre. With the elimination of the Baroque device known as basso continuo (a low string instrument and keyboard forming the musical foundation of almost all musical structure), the chordal instruments were replaced by woodwinds and the clarinet became an intriguing new tool for classical symphony composers.
Even so, Haydn included clarinets only in a few of his late symphonies. He did, however write occasional chamber music that included the new instrument, and Chameleon opened with two pleasantly quaint trios for clarinet, violin and cello. The first of these — with violinist Aleksandr Zhuk — was the simpler, a warm-up that established Milkis’ big, penetrating sound and astonishing breath control.
By the second of the trios — a more developed piece — the group was solidly together and Milkis was in full show-off mode, offering a particularly lovely twist and turn in the last measures of the opening movement. It’s significant that Milkis is also a jazz player, which may account for an improvisatory feel, even though he was in fact following the written notes.
Despite Haydn’s familiar epithet as “father of the symphony,” Mannheim composer Karl Stamitz (1745-1807) was the real pioneer of what developed into the modern symphonic form. He was also more adventurous in the early use of the clarinet, and his Quartet in E-flat major (in which the above mentioned players were joined by violist Carl Larson) was the most significant work on the first half. Here, the clarinet took the leading role usually assigned to first violin in the standard string quartet, and Milkis’s playing illustrated one reason that the instrument quickly gained the popularity it enjoys today: a similarity to the timbre of the human voice with a wider range than that of any singer or of the other woodwinds.
The format was that of the incipient Mannheim symphonies — a fast sonata-style opening, a contrasting slow movement capped by a lively finale that featured real or emulated folk tunes. It was only later that a fourth movement (minuet or scherzo) was inserted. The present performers gave this unfamiliar music a good run.
In between the 18th-century works, the group interspersed two waltzes for clarinet and strings by Ukranian-born composer Alexey Shor — easy-to-listen-to works without a strong profile or stamp of individuality.
The most compelling opus, taking up the second half, was the half-hour long Quartet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. A contemporary of Beethoven but more forward-looking in the manner of Schubert and Mendelssohn, Hummel was greatly respected (and wealthy) in his own time, although his music subsequently fell into an underserved oblivion. Composed in 1808, this work is in the fully developed sequence of a sonata allegro opening, followed by a scherzo, a slow movement and a rondo-finale.
Hummel paid homage to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet — the iconic chamber work for this instrument — with small quotes from that and other Mozart pieces, but the borrowings are so subtly used that they went by mostly unnoticed. More significant was the seriousness of purpose with which the Chameleon musicians approached Hummel’s quartet. Milkis’s virtuosity was by this time in the program a given, but the contributions of his colleagues here were no less praiseworthy. The first movement allowed the clarinetist to exploit his ability to take long phrases on a single breath, while collaborating in a meaningful statement of the composer’s strong themes and their development.
The glories of this work, however, were the inner movements: a whirlwind, rhythmically intricate tarantella called in the score “La Seccatura,” which means “the nuisance” — a joke, perhaps, being that it’s so difficult to perform. The Andante provided a welcome balance, with placid, drawn-out melodic lines (again a Milkis specialty), while the jaunty tunes of the finale assured an overall feeling of satisfaction when the concert came to its close.