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James Manheim, October 2010

Aaron Copland’s clarinet concerto of 1948, composed for Benny Goodman, is among the most popular works in the canon of clarinet music. It’s in Copland’s accessible, tonal style, and naturally enough it harks back to the composer’s jazz-influenced works of the 1920s. Although he is probably one of America’s most-loved composers, Copland’s iconic style has always been difficult for other composers of concert music (although certainly not for those of film music) to follow. There are other good recordings of the clarinet concerto (those by Richard Stoltzman are worth seeking out), but the real attraction here is the Aldridge clarinet concerto of 2004, which manages the trick of clearly referring to Copland without aping him. The jazz influence in the outer movements of both works is introduced as a contrasting element to syncopated but non-jazz material providing the basement for the movement. But Aldridge’s concerto is looser and more diverse, with hints of klezmer (and in the finale even polka) music at times. Aldridge’s slow movement is one that clarinetists are going to salivate over, and it’s completely different in conception from Copland’s rising cadenza: Aldridge offers a long, lyrical melody growing out of Ivesian nocturne material. The final wrinkle in the album is also extremely effective; Aldridge’s Samba for clarinet and string quartet (1993) picks up on the Brazilian touches in the last movement of the Copland concerto. The playing of the innovative A Far Cry Orchestra and the sound quality, from Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, are both draws, but the samba was recorded elsewhere and doesn’t fit with the overall sound environment. Recommended for anyone who loves Copland and wishes there were more contemporary music related to his style.

Lawrence A Johnson
Gramophone, October 2010

A brilliant new American clarinet concerto mingles with a classic

This present disc in the invaluable Naxos American Classics series offers two clarinet concertos, one the most famous in the national repertoire, the other a newish but excellent work by a lesser-known living composer.

Aldridge’s Clarinet Concerto, written in 2004, was inspired by and dedicated to his friend David Singer, longtime principal clarinettist of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Cast in the traditional three movements, the opening movement (“Fast and light”) immediately grabs attention with an Adamsian motoric bustle, and the soloist soon steals in with a contrasted long-limbed melody. Aldridge works his material with ingenuity and skill, though some may feel the big string tune in the centre is a bit too close to Hollywood movie music. Aldridge certainly gives Singer ample showy opportunities and the clarinettist shows impressive technique and brilliance in the virtuoso closing section.

The second movement (“With serene and steady motion”) is dominated by the opening, a long instrospective theme with sharp jazz accents, which segues into a jaunty klezmer-like passage, and a return to an inward and wistful final section. Singer’s playing is exceptional here, sensitive and expressive with a wide range of hues and dynamics.

The finale opens with a whirlwind flourish and scurrying string figures, and Singer is off once again, clearly having a great time with Aldridge’s bravura solo writing. The concerto was clearly crafted with Singer’s eclectic style and versatility in mind; the jazz influence is very much to the fore here, and Singer is clearly at home in this genre-crossing idiom, with the music ratcheted up to increasing excitement and mounting virtuosity, culminating in a blazing coda. Robert Aldridge’s Clarinet Concerto is a fine addition to a genre still lacking in worthy works by contemporary composers, and one can see this concerto entering the standard repertoire. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, of course, is the most performed American work of its kind, despite its predominantly mellow expression and brevity. Singer’s tone turns a bit sharp in the pastoral opening’s high notes, though he brings a wonderful extempore quality to the cadenza, as if he’s improvising it on the spot. In fact throughout Copland’s Concerto, the soloist approaches this music with a relaxed, loose, free style that feels just right, bringing great sass and swing to the second movement.

Aldridge’s brief Samba is a fun encore. At just 50 minutes, however, the disc is decidedly parsimonious and there are other American works crying out for renewed attention that could have filled out the programme, notably Walter Piston’s Clarinet Concerto.

Still, Singer’s Copland performance is one of the finest accounts around, and with Aldridge’s Concerto worthy of discovery, this disc can be safely recommended.

Warwick Thompson
Classic FM, October 2010

David Singer is a good soloist and the orchestra provides warm support.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, September 2010

Robert Aldridge’s Clarinet Concerto is a charming new work which should appeal to just about any listener. It is the direct contemporary descendant of romantic concertos, tuneful, well-built in the old-fashioned way and quite pleasing, but still recognizably new. A listener from the nineteenth century would recognize the form of each movement and the basically tonal language, but not the ebullient, outdoorsy adventurousness of it all.

Aldridge’s achievement here is to take a huge palette of influences and produce a satisfying new product. In describing this music, one might start by naming Aaron Copland, recalling the adventurous musical tastes of Benny Goodman, and wondering if a bit of late Brahms can be heard here and then. Add to that hints of Gershwin, a generous dollop of jazz, and, right in the middle of the slow movement, a klezmer episode, and you have the recipe for what sounds like a mess—but in fact is an almost seamless new style of Aldridge’s own.

The concerto begins with an insistent sense of motion among strings and timpani; this gives way to the solo clarinet, which intones the mellow main theme. The tune sounds like a lonesome jazz ballad which has left home and struck out for new musical territory. As the orchestra picks up the theme, the clarinet loops and weaves around it to wonderful effect. The second subject is lyrical, providing the clarinetist opportunity to feel a little blue. In terms of formal structure and development, and in its mixture of virtuosic note-spinning and pure bluesy gorgeousness, this first movement has a great deal in common with that of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G.

The slow movement, also the longest and best, is still and (as the composer directs) “serene” for the most part, but occasionally gets interrupted by klezmer outbursts. I have no problem with klezmer outbursts, and quite enjoyed this one, but it did occur to me that this moment sounds an awful lot like the corresponding one in Mahler’s First. It also struck me that the clarinet is such a great klezmer instrument, but for the most part Aldridge entrusts the main tune to the brass, especially at the end. Never mind: the rest of the slow movement is in the hands of the clarinet and muted strings, who together unfold a gorgeous late-night love song. The last few seconds are pricelessly beautiful.

After this the finale explodes with excitement. Again the klezmer influence is present, for a perpetuum mobile in which the clarinet triumphs against an all-out assault from the orchestra. At the fourth minute the double basses drop their bows and begin to pluck out a jazzy new beat, but as the concerto ends the music’s energy is stirring up trouble once again. This concerto is consistently tonal, highly accessible, recognizably “American” in its vibrancy and eclecticism, and above all very fun, and I am very happy to report that it gets better on each successive listen.

Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is the coupling. It is just seventeen minutes to Aldridge’s less concise twenty-seven. Within seconds the clarinetist is singing the gentle main theme, and the first movement is so beautiful that it seems to end as suddenly as it began. A jazzy cadenza, with hints of tunes that might do Benny Goodman proud (it was written for him), leads seamlessly into the quick finale. Robert Aldridge makes a return appearance as composer of the encore, a Samba for clarinet and string quartet. This one’s another delight, with vigorous strings and joe-cool clarinet a happy example of opposites attracting. At around 1:40 the violins introduce a beautiful dance tune which offers contrast, and a sneak preview of what the Brazilian version of West Side Story might sound like.

David Singer, longtime clarinetist for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is the excellent soloist. The Aldridge concerto was written for him, and his love for it shows at all times. He plays tenderly when needed, with the sort of beautiful simplicity that is anything but simple to bring off. I thought more than once how much I would like to hear his work in the clarinet solo from Appalachian Spring—then realized that, since I own the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording of that work, I already have heard him play it!

Singer also deserves praise for this performance of the Copland: listen especially to how he handles the transition from the opening nocturne to the jazzy climax of the cadenza, and into the finale. This work has been recorded before, many times, most obviously by Goodman himself, a recording which I am a bit ashamed not to own. One contemporary clarinet star to have tackled the work is Martin Fröst, alongside the Malmo Symphony on BIS; they indulge in a first movement a full minute longer than this one. It is a philosophical difference: Fröst is playing a nocturne, while Singer evokes the kind of “western” Americana Copland one hears in Appalachian Spring. And Singer’s cadenza wins hands down: jazzier, peppier, and with the best transition into the finale I’ve heard.

The Shanghai Quartet have really mastered the difficult Samba, and A Far Cry Orchestra excels in the two concertos. I had never heard of this group before, but the biography (which lists every musician on the album) explains that it is a self-conducted Boston-based ensemble of just thirteen string players. For the concertos (Aldridge calls for woodwinds and a timpani, Copland for a piano) the A Far Cry musicians have invited a few friends along. In the Copland first movement, A Far Cry does not provide the sort of lyrical support one finds on full-orchestra recordings with glowing violin sections, but they are more incisive and clearer in the finale, so it is a matter of taste.

The booklet notes, by Aldridge and Singer themselves with a note from producer Donald Palma, are helpful and descriptive, and if the composer and clarinetist are a little congratulatory to each other (Aldridge calls this “the best recording of the [Copland] that I have ever heard” ), I cannot blame them. Indeed, I cannot help but agree. This disc is, as Singer writes, “a labor of love” and the product of years of collaboration. I feel glad composer and players have shared their labor of love with us. The program, the compositions, the performances, and the sound are outstanding.

Joshua Meggitt
Cyclic Defrost, August 2010

Most of Australia’s sports-watching beer-swilling couch potatoes could unwittingly hum Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, the theme tune to Channel 9’s ‘Wide World of Sport’, but there’s more to the American composer than that catchy ditty. Copland featured prominently in Alex Ross’s thrilling history of twentieth century music ‘The Rest Is Noise’, and his ‘Clarinet Concerto’ is one of the staples of the genre. Along with Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Copland’s Concerto helped give the instrument a distinctly American classical voice, complimenting that established by jazz players like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (indeed, Benny Goodman commissioned the piece and performed its premiere). Copland viewed popular music as ripe for the picking, bringing vernacular American forms into classical composition, and the ‘Concerto’ fuses elements of jazz, folk and wide-screen cinematic country into a grand and rollicking arrangement, one very difficult to resist happily humming along to, tinny in hand, watching cricket.

Robert L Aldridge’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’ is described as a direct descendant of Copland’s work, and explores a similar hodgepodge of musical styles, all comfortably packed in, jostling like a cattle-train. Aldridge also introduces klezmer elements, particularly well detailed in the vicious opening movement, giving way to serene introspection in the second. The finale locks into a jaunty polka dance which, alongside the jazzy riffs and sweeping orchestral touches, evokes the heterogenous high-culture Americana of Woody Allen soundtracks.

Cinemusical, August 2010

Clarinetist David Singer is a member of the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Here he performs with a Massachusetts-based ensemble, A Far Cry Orchestra, in performances of two concerti with jazzy roots.

The disc opens with Robert Livingston Aldridge’s 2004 Clarinet Concerto written for Singer. Aldridge (b. 1954) is currently the Department of Music chair at Montclair State University where he teaches courses in theory and composition. His most recent opera, Elmer Gantry, received rave reviews in the press after its premiere and he has many commissions and awards to his credit. The concerto is cast in three movements and runs the gamut from jazz, to folk, to classical, and even Klezmer music. The first movement begins with a burst of orchestral energy that churns under a lyrical solo line. Most fascinating is to pay attention to how Aldridge shifts this bubbling energy and lyric content between soloist and ensemble with such effortless transitions in its opening moments. Singer’s rich tone gets plenty of opportunity to be explored throughout this engaging movement. The core of the piece is the near 11-minute slow movement reminiscent of a jazz ballad. The serene opening recalls a dreamy nocturne with the soloist set against muted strings. This moves into a Weill-like Klezmer segment before a semi-lush return to the restrained opening. The dance-like finale is a fitting and exciting conclusion to this great addition to the repertoire with a breathless Shostakovich-like conclusion. Rounding off the disc is a brief little Samba by Aldridge for clarinet and string quartet that has plenty of delights.

Since its composition in 1948 and subsequent recording by its commission-performer, the legendary Benny Goodman, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto has had its share of interpretations. Richard Stoltzman’s now deleted RCA release (which turns up on differing compilations at times) is perhaps the best of the late-20th century versions. Goodman’s is still the definitive historical marker, but there have been a host of soloists who have found a way to play up the work’s lyrical side as well keeping it from veering off into one of those early odd jazz-classical experiments. The couplings with other concerti also serve to bring out the works other dimensions. Aldridge’s work has been compared to Copland’s in some respects and one can decide if the comparison is worthy or not. Singer’s performance of the dreamy first movement is simply gorgeous in its own way and there is a freshness to this opening movement that reminds one of its timelessness. Singer’s cadenza is perfect and the transitions in and out of the opening movements are well-done. There is a pointedness to the angular writing Copland uses in the final movement that gets cast against his open Americana style and which the ensemble does a fine job of distinguishing in its performance here. A Far Cry Orchestra turns out to be a fine ensemble that one hopes will get a chance to showcase itself in future releases...Though the Copland might be the repertoire piece that one uses to discover this disc, many will find Aldridge’s wonderfully engaging concerto to be a welcome addition to the clarinet repertoire which hopefully will gain more popularity. Its flirtation with popular music while standing firm in the concert world makes it an easily programmable work for both pops and regular season concerts.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

Largely known in the States, where his quite substantial output has received critical approbation, Robert Livingstone Aldridge carries on from where Aaron Copland left off. Tuneful, rhythmically attractive, I came away from this disc regarding his Clarinet Concert on an equal footing with its distinguished predecessor. Completed in 2004 and running close to half an hour, it’s structure is conventional with fast outer movements surrounding music ‘with serene and steady motion’. But just to tease us, that movement suddenly erupts into a noisy central section that quickly evaporates into the mood of the opening. For the finale Aldridge runs the whole gamut of the instrument from bending notes in a way we hear in music from the Eastern world to the jazzy influences with which the instrument is linked. As a commercially attractive score you cannot fault it. It was written for the disc’s soloist, David Singer, principal clarinet of the highly acclaimed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and offers plenty of scope to exhibit his technical brilliance. Samba for clarinet and string quartet is even more outgoing, Aldridge’s stated intention to make it sound like a latin big-band being fully realised. Singer possesses that chocolate and cream tone that makes the opening movement of the Copland as seductive as any I have heard on disc. His rather easygoing cadenza links with a finale that has a lazy jazz lilt, but does not offer the squeaky texture high up that that we usually hear and which Copland would have expected from the great jazz musician, Benny Goodman, who had commissioned the work. Still it is the Aldridge that I am commending to you, and if the engineers could have been more generous to the young chamber group, A Far Cry Orchestra, the sound has a punchy presence.

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