You have had several exciting performances lately, including collaborations with the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony, your 25th presentation at the Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, several features throughout the US and internationally. What was one of your most memorable appearances, and why?
I’ll tell you one remarkable thing which ties in with the other topics we’ve discussed. My manager, Frank Salomon, was always trying to find cool ways to connect me to the history of the pieces. At Vienna’s famous Konzerthaus, I performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, which was written and premiered in 1791. I also noticed that the Brahms Clarinet Quintet was written in 1891. Frank knew that I loved Takemitsu’s music, and we knew that commissioning a new concerto would be upwards of $70,000, but Takemitsu was a force in Japan and was one of the greatest Japanese composers. So, in 1989, Frank talked to Takemitsu and discussed with him the idea of me playing the Mozart (1791), the Brahms (1891) and the Takemitsu (1991). And it all came together. It was an incredible miracle and, by chance, our first performance was on the exact date that the Mozart Concerto was premiered 200 years earlier in the same hall. So again, many of these performance opportunities can be attributed to my manager.
You are a two-time Grammy Award winner. This is a huge accomplishment that many artists only dream of achieving. How has winning this award inspired you as a musician and performer? What is your drive?
This all ties in with the world of management. Honestly, I didn’t even know about the Grammys. I didn’t go to the awards show or anything. I wasn’t that involved in the whole thing. It all has to be good fortune. I mean, sometime later, I found out that the president of the Grammys was an amateur clarinet player, and they had never presented the award to a clarinettist before. So, who knows? It wasn’t that I was playing better than anybody else. Several other excellent players could’ve won it as well. So, it’s kind of the luck of the draw.
Describe your teaching philosophy. How do you hope to inspire up and coming musicians? Along with that, what are some of the most memorable and vital pieces of advice you’ve received as a musician?
Some words come to mind: humility, gratitude and meaning. You’re not great; the music is great! Mozart is great. If you get to play your instrument for other people, you should be filled with gratitude and humility for what it is you’ve chosen to do. The fact that it brings pleasure to other people is so fulfilling. And more than pleasure, it brings meaning. Not that the audience knows all about classical music or whatever you’re playing, but it brings meaning. You don’t have to win a Grammy or play at Carnegie Hall. You cannot be full of yourself. You have to be humble and make life available to your instrument — you have to become friends with your instrument all the time. You need to look for meaning. Don’t ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” but rather, “What does the music mean?” Every possibility can come from sound. Music is made of intervals, so it’s important to ask what the intervals mean and how they translate to the emotion. I think emotion is pretty abstract since it derives from the intervals, so you need to choose how you treat and present those intervals carefully.
You’re nobody special, but you’re part of a special thing which is humanity. You take what you have, which is your breath and your instrument, and you make the sound mean something through your interpretation. You translate it into something that’s going to give emotion and meaning to ordinary humans. You’re trying to give and interpret that music to and for other people.
I love teaching these pieces for clarinet by Schumann. In German, they’re called Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces). I played them when I was in college; at that time, I played all the right notes and stayed with the pianist, and I didn’t think there was anything else to accomplish. Of course, that’s not a good way to think of music. What I know now is that everything you need to know is in the music. Schumann gives you ways to delve into his music. For example, he gives you a tempo or marking. His particular markings were in German, so you need to translate German and understand what it means. One of them says, “Zart und mit Ausdruck,” which partly translates to “out-pushing.” Then, you have to figure out what that means for the music. Once you have a basic idea of the music’s directions, you have to step back and say, “I’m a musician, and I want to approach this with humility.” You’ll eventually start to notice the significant details in the music, such as dynamics, articulations or other markings. There are also many half steps in these pieces, so observing the intervals and what they’re conveying is essential.
In all of this, you have to be humble and remember that you don’t know everything. You have to dig deep into the music and get behind the deeper meaning of it all; this includes the clarinet part and the accompaniment. Music is wide open for interpretation, at least it seems. But it’s wide open to life’s interpretation and how we interpret life. Do we treat life like a checklist, or do we reflect on life? You can start looking at the score and thinking about what the composer has told you as well as the piano, and you are responsible for telling the audience the story. If I could be stranded with anyone on a desert island and only had one question, I would bring Brahms and ask what he meant when he chose certain markings and words in his music. Musicians need to be inquisitive. I think what he’s probably trying to say is, “Can you please try to be a little more human? Can you please express your humanity? I need the music to be expressive, and I need it (them) to be a part of you.” You have the responsibility to transform and transcend the music into something meaningful for the audience.
Many new exciting projects are on the horizon for you, including The Stoltzmans on Clarinet and Marimba, Father & Son (with your son, Peter John Stoltzman), and concerts with guitarist Eliot Fisk. What excites you about these upcoming performances?
I always look forward to performing with my wife. We got the opportunity to play new pieces that had never existed until my wife commissioned these composers into writing them. I look forward to being part of that process. I look forward to the unexpected. That’s why I love working with Mika. We have the opportunity to explore the music together. We’ve had some very cool pieces written for us, and we love to put these pieces on record and get the composer’s ideas of what the music is about.