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Clarinetist Jon Manasse Prepares Bartók and Brahms for Upcoming St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble Series

by Michael Cirigliano II

Jon Manasse, Feast of Music Interview 1
Jon Manasse has brought career versatility to a whole new level in today’s classical-music landscape. In addition to his roles as principal in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, as well as the orchestras of the American Ballet Theater and Mostly Mozart Festival, Manasse has recently received wide acclaim as half of the Manasse/Nakamatsu Duo, commissioning and touring across the world with pianist and longtime collaborator, Jon Nakamatsu

Known for his laser-sharp technique and unique vocal sound, Manasse is a lifetime New York resident, having grown up on Long Island before moving to New York City for his extensive degree work at the Juilliard School. And although teaching and performing engagements have him zigzagging across the globe these days, the clarinetist finds himself at home this week, as he prepares for a diverse program of trios with the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. I had the chance to sit down with Manasse to discuss life as a dynamic artist, his meditative performance style, and heralding the next generation of elite musicians.

FoM: Let’s start off by talking about your early studies. For a substantial period of time, you studied with noted clarinet pedagogue David Weber. What aspects of your time with him helped you to hone your craft, transitioning you from Juilliard and into the early stages of your professional career?

JM: Well, it’s interesting to know that he was actually my first clarinet teacher. Prior to that I was playing the saxophone, since I actually really disliked the clarinet and had never heard it played in a way that attracted me to it.

I came into contact with Weber in a serendipitous way. My father used to take me to a famous music store at the time called Ponte Music Company. Charlie Ponte, the owner, brought my father and me to the back of the store one day, and I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was entranced by all of the equipment, and according to my father, there was something that Mr. Ponte heard in my clarinet playing. He thought I should take serious clarinet lessons, and said there was only one name he would recommend in New York City at the time: David Weber.

I still had no interest in the clarinet at the time. Even when I would go to orchestra concerts, I was bewildered that there was no saxophone section. My early interest was in swing and jazz, but I always loved the sound of classical music, too, so that was the incentive to eventually immerse myself in the clarinet.

David Weber was a strict and dogmatic teacher—very specific in his concept, which was a beautiful bel canto sound. His whole approach was that if you didn’t have a voice, you couldn’t sing. The pure, bell-like, smooth, and velvety sound was extremely compelling, and I took off from there. I did as he told me to do from early on, becoming my teacher for two degrees at Juilliard and beyond.

Jon Manasse, Feast of Music Interview 2

 FoM: So it was Weber’s teaching profile and sound concept that officially won you over to the instrument?

JM: I’d say so. He also introduced me to a lot of recordings from the time. Back before YouTube, getting certain recordings of various players was sort of an inside track to learning that there were various styles of playing. I thought a lot about fusing all of those styles together, and that helped me with my musical trajectory. I didn’t keep everything about Weber’s style, but it helped me to build my own.

As you grow older, though, you realize that a one-dimensional approach doesn’t help you to play all of the music you want to. I still love to play in the Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw style, and even as we talk about the Bartók and the Brahms for this program, there’s a way of voicing and stylizing on the instrument that brings out the intent of those two composers, rather than opting to play with one special sound.

FoM: That’s actually a perfect segue into my next question, since I want to talk about how you’ve managed to juggle such a varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player. What are the mental components that need to change in moving from a Brahms sonata to, say, delivering a performance of the Lowell Liebermann Concerto?

JM: I feel incredibly lucky to have this variety, as anyone would. For me, it’s exceeded my dreams so far; I love to wear these different hats, and it’s a thrill for me to have those moments where I’m part of an ensemble, emerging and receding in a texture as needed, to where I’m taking a leading role as a soloist.

It might seem ironic, but building flexibility in your muscles and your cognitive awareness is much more freeing, allowing you to move between different styles and performance situations. It used to be thought that if you played a loose, jazzy style that it would ruin your Mozart playing, but that hasn’t been my experience. It opens up a whole other world, and there’s a relaxed freedom that, in some ways, can lend something beautiful to the Mozart. Similarly, there’s an aspect of a Mozart tone color that can enhance the Artie Shaw.

FoM: So it’s not so much about compartmentalizing jazz versus classical, but rather letting the inter-genre gates stay open…

JM: I would say that’s very accurate. Playing the opening of the Brahms Trio like I would the Artie Shaw would be comic, but taking aspects of a less-restricted jazz style can offer a relaxed approach to presenting yourself in the Brahms.

FoM: So the one aspect of your career that we haven’t touched upon yet is teaching. Not only have you been teaching at the Eastman School of Music since the mid-‘90s, but you were also appointed to the faculties of the Juilliard School and Linn Conservatory. Your students across each of those schools have been experiencing great success, including the big recent story about your student Christopher Pell playing the Copland Concerto with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the last minute when the scheduled soloist fell ill. What kind of mental concepts are you instilling in your students to help them gain that competitive edge?

JM: It’s a good question, since I’ve watched my teaching style evolve over time. I’m so gratified to see my students doing a variety of things: playing jazz in South America, teaching as a professor at the Crane School of Music, and playing in orchestras across the country. I try to give them all a similar foundation and appreciation for what drew me to the clarinet, but the main thing I like students to take away from studying with me is a true sense of them knowing about their incredible potential. It’s then my charge to give them any tools or experience that I have to help them meet that end.

FoM: So transitioning from that into your own performance style, a lot has been said about the Zen-like nature of your own playing: the mastery of the instrument that is articulately communicated to the audience, no matter the environment. Where does your focus lay during performance, and what is your roadmap for achieving such a masterful level of concentration?

JM: Well, of course, there are all kinds of performances and varying levels of preparation. At its best, what we should all try to do as performers is have the preparation be so great that when we’re in the performance, we can be outside of ourselves: listening to colleagues, releasing what we have individually done in a reflective way, and creating a give and take among ourselves. That can only happen when there is such a level of preparation that it seems effortless.

We all know it’s an enormous discipline, but the processing and preparation should never enter your mind as being difficult. If a passage is difficult for you, it means you haven’t found an easy way of doing it. Rather than thinking, “Here are 20 ways I’ve tried that were all difficult,” hone in on the two or three ways that make things easier. Progress can occur when you’re resonating from that internal space.

FoM: And translating that arrival point from the practice room to the stage is vital…

JM: Rather than an “arrival point,” it should be thought of as a continuum. There are definite points where things become easier, but the enormous discipline requires maintenance, new challenges, and constant development.

FoM: I love the use of “continuum,” and it relates to how you regard your changing teaching style. Concepts are always developing and evolving as your career moves along…

JM: That’s right. It’s not where you are on the ladder so much, but more the direction where you’re headed. Don’t think of something as hard, but rather as something that’s unfamiliar—something that’s just not manifesting itself at that moment.

Jon Manasse, Feast of Music Interview 3

Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor, New York Times

FoM: Let’s talk about the varied program you have coming up with the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, where you’ll be playing both the Brahms Trio and the Bartók Contrasts. How are you going about preparing two works that are so incredibly different from one another?

JM: I’ve been lucky to have quite a bit of experience performing these works over the years. It’s wonderful coming back to them—like old friends you haven’t seen in a while—and it’s fortunate that I already know these works, since I have a performance of the Copland Concerto shortly after, and then dive into ballet season [with American Ballet Theatre]. I’m revisiting the works with a fresh perspective and, in some ways, new skills that have been acquired since the last time I worked on these pieces.

I’ll be playing both pieces with St. Luke’s colleagues I haven’t worked with in a chamber setting, so I’m excited about that. One of the best attributes of the OSL musicians is that they all lead diverse careers like myself, making each new project completely fresh and exciting.

FoM: And even going back to what you were saying about keeping interpretive styles fluid—the Bartók is a thorny, contemporary work, but was actually written for a very famous jazz clarinetist. Are you thinking of the piece in its own right, or are you thinking about the aspects of Benny Goodman’s playing that would have inspired or directed Bartók’s own composing? 

JM: That’s a very good question! Thanks to Benny Goodman and his interest in commissioning new works, we have the Copland, Bartók, Hindemith—these great works. The first performance of Contrasts was actually Goodman playing with Bartók himself. There’s a Hungarian flavor to the work, full of folk elements, and there’s a looseness to Benny’s own playing that should be taken into account—moments where vibrato lends itself to the piece, for instance.

FoM: So between the Bartók and the Brahms, you’ll be showcasing two distinctive sound styles on the same program?

JM: Oh, without a doubt! Of course, with the Brahms, that’s the first piece he wrote out of retirement, after being inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld. You would think he would come out to write an opera or piano concerto, but it was Mühlfeld’s playing that drove him to write four new works for the clarinet. Brahms actually referred to Mühlfeld as “Fraulein Klarinette,” so there needs to be a soft, rich, mellow, and non-abrasive approach to the instrument, reflecting the style that initially inspired Brahms.

FoM: Do you feel that it’s easier to perform with that Brahmsian sound—something that’s often associated with your own style—or does the challenge of stepping outside yourself and delivering the virtuosic Bartók feel like more of an achievement on the stage?

JM: It’s taken me some time to feel comfortable letting go, but I fully embrace that difference now. It’s neat to have them juxtaposed on the same program. My recitals with Jon Nakamatsu usually follow the same formula, getting looser as the evening progresses. We can start with Brahms and end the same program with a set of rags or a piece of Paquito d’Rivera. The clarinet is lucky that it has such flexibility, and it should be put on display. The instrument has a full gamut of expression that I don’t think is as fully available to other wind instruments. I’m really looking forward to showcasing that dynamic range with my OSL colleagues.


The St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble presents "Three Part Inventions" April 28 through May 3 at the Brooklyn Museum and Morgan Library & Museum. Tickets and program information available at the Orchestra of St. Luke's website