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Clarinetist Martin Fröst Delivers Electric Mozart with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

by Michael Cirigliano II

Orpheus, Martin Frost, Carnegie Hall

Photo credit: Brian Harkin, The New York Times

It's not every day that a woodwind soloist can steal the spotlight while perched in front of an orchestra, let alone bring a packed house to their feet in jubilation, but that is exactly what Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst did at Carnegie Hall this past weekend. Fröst—an incredibly sprite figure, tall, lanky, with a wild mop of platinum-blonde hair—deservedly marked the stage as his own with an energetic and pristine interpretation of Mozart's delicate Clarinet Concerto, and, luckily, no one in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra seemed to mind at all.

Written in the final few months of his life, Mozart turned to the dark, burnished tones of the basset clarinet (similar to the modern clarinet, but with an extension of four pitches at the bottom end of the instrument) for his concerto, pushing the clarinet's range to new boundaries and allowing for a wide variety of colors. Although many performers continue to use modern instruments for the work, Fröst augmented his capabilities by using the basset clarinet, creating some of the most clear and robust tones in what is usually a very stuffy and muted register.

Given Orpheus' incredible sense of sensitivity and nuance, Fröst never struggled to be heard, quickly maneuvering between effortless outbursts and whispered utterances. His tone wonderfully matched that of the orchestra's wind section, whose pairs of flutes, bassoons, and horns created a beautiful and homogenous blend.

Although Fröst's tone and style maintained purity throughout, his addition of mini-cadenzas and overuse of ornaments were the only entities that momentarily wiped away the fantasy of his creation. If only he had left these examples of his flawless fingers to the encore (and what an encore it was—Goran Fröst's Klezmer Dances, complete with flutter-tonguing, strident wails, and free improvisation), the performance could have achieved true bliss.

Unfortunately, after a show-stopping performance like Fröst's, and a work as sophisticated and dramatic as the Clarinet Concerto, there was nowhere to go but down, programmatically. The second half of the concert featured an obscure work of American composer Irving Fine, Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra—a sleepy work that will hopefully continue to remain obscure—and Mozart's Symphony No. 29. While the symphony was performed well, with great energy from the string body, and a sense of overall shape, it paled in comparison to the later work in the concerto: melodies were trite; the orchestration was much more monochromatic; and the lack of timpani and outer winds (only oboes and horns were used here) fell flat on the ear.

If only Mr. Fröst had returned to the stage for one more encore.