By Jack Howell, PSO Bass Clarinetist
I’ve been asked to write about my road to the Pittsburgh Symphony — a daunting task because the road has been rather long. However, perhaps two stories, one at the beginning of the road and one at the PSO’s threshold, will suffice.
The clarinet was not my first choice of instruments. I wanted to play the cello. My favorite babysitter, Paula Cozzuto, played the cello and once brought it with her and taught me to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Paula was short, Italian (both parents first generation immigrants), cute.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I think when I started lobbying for Paula whenever a sitter might be hired my parents decided I was old enough to look after myself.
When I was in third grade, my mom, who taught music theory and ear training at the local community college, brought home a clarinet. Her exact words: “I can get this for a hundred dollars; do you want to play it?” I didn’t especially, but I took it as my sign that I wasn’t getting a cello and that if I couldn’t be with the instrument I loved I might as well love the one I was with.
There was a lot I didn’t know about that clarinet at the time. I immediately started taking lessons with the man who had sold the clarinet to my mom. Mr. Stensager taught all the woodwinds at the community college. The college was a wonderful resource for a logging town of 10,000 but the departments were small and faculty had to play both sides of the ball. Mr. Stensager was an oboist who could play enough flute, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone to teach; more to the point, he was the only teacher around. That is not a complaint. What Mr. Stensager lacked in specific clarinet pedagogy he made up for in pure human goodness. He was a fine musician, infinitely kind and patient, and an excellent repairman. By the time I got to band in fourth grade I had been taking lessons for a year, which was a big head start.
The instrument itself was a wooden Noblet, an intermediate model made by Leblanc, once a professional brand on par with Selmer and Buffet. I remember being embarrassed when I first went to band and all the other clarinets, being plastic, were shiny and new while mine was dull and old-looking. That Noblet was a great advantage, though. I started on an instrument with good intonation, good resistance, kept in top shape by my teacher. I played it until my senior year in high school and won several solo competitions with it. Eventually I learned that the clarinet had belonged to Mr. Stensager’s eldest son, who had battled drug addiction and committed suicide. My mom had just happened to be there when Mr. Stensager decided to let go and mentioned that he had a really nice clarinet that might as well be doing someone some good.
I just . . . can’t imagine.
Fast forwarding through a bunch of different orchestras, we come to the winter of 2012, when (PSO bass clarinetist) Richard Page became ill. I was not a bass clarinetist. I hadn’t even seen a bass clarinet until I went to college, and all through college and most of my career I had strenuously avoided playing bass. The first time I heard the instrument played masterfully live was in the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, with Bill Helmers of the Milwaukee Symphony. Then I heard Dick when I came to Pittsburgh in 1996, which was another revelation, but even if I’d had any interest, I had my hands full.
By 2012, though, I had a little bit of experience on bass, acquired somewhat grudgingly. I owned a Schreiber bass mouthpiece that Dick had picked out for me and one box of reeds. As second and bass in the Pittsburgh Ballet Orchestra I had borrowed an instrument when I was obliged to play bass and then played it only as long as absolutely necessary. The parts were neither extensive nor frequent enough to force me to invest in my own bass. Oddly enough, though, at the point when it became clear that Dick’s absence from the PSO might be prolonged I had just played Hansel and Gretel with the Pittsburgh Opera. The second part doubled bass, was rather nice, and rather than embarrass myself I had devoted some time to it.
I wrote Mike Rusinek a short email saying that I had been playing more bass, was planning to acquire my own instrument, and I’d appreciate it if he kept me in mind for sub work on bass. I was already first call sub on the other clarinets, so that wasn’t completely out of the blue, but I’ll always appreciate Mike’s trust in casting me on an instrument he’d never heard me play. Mike cast me for the next opening, which was about a month away.
A Dearth of Supply . . .
Here’s the problem: I had assumed that buying a bass clarinet would be easy. Unfortunately, my need coincided with a dearth in the supply of instruments. Bass clarinets come from France, where Buffet, the manufacturer, makes however many they can make whenever they can make them. Nobody knows how many or when. The supply of sufficiently large pieces of African Blackwood is limited, the instrument is complex and difficult to make, and, well, France. At the time I started calling around, there were no new Buffet Prestige models anywhere in the US, there had not been any for months, and demand had dried up the used market. The best my Buffet sales rep could offer was that some new instruments might be arriving sometime in the next few weeks. Maybe.
Without building too much suspense, let’s just say that it was a near thing. On Friday the week before I was scheduled to play for the first time with the PSO, as I was scrambling to find an instrument to borrow, my Buffet rep called to say that nine Prestige basses had arrived at the distributor in Florida that afternoon, and if I could be there Monday I could have my pick. But no later. By Tuesday they would all be en route to dealers. “EVERYBODY wants these things,” said the rep.
. . . and a 3-Day Florida Round Trip Drive
To complicate matters, I was playing a recital Sunday afternoon, and all the flights that would work were full — at least the seats I could afford. So I played the recital, got in my car and drove all night to Jacksonville, tried clarinets all day Monday, drove back to Pittsburgh with two of them, and on Wednesday was playing bass on Wagner’s Prelude und Libestod from Tristan.
A few weeks later it was Strauss’s Til Eulenspiegel, then Death and Transfiguration, then Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and then there was a European tour, and once I’d picked up the bass I couldn’t put it down. I began every day — and it would be three years until my audition — by playing bass for an hour. Etudes, scales, soprano solo literature, just figuring out how to play the damned thing. As the months went on I came to consider myself (with apologies to the bassoon) the cello of the woodwind section.
I could go on, but there are my two stories. Both about initial lukewarm reactions turning to flame, both about sorrow for one yielding opportunity for another.
I guess that’s just how it goes.