The Clarinets Are Front, Center For A Minnesota First

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Claudio Puntin, composer and clarinetist (Grzegorz Golebiowski)
Claudio Puntin performed his new concerto ‘Aroma’ with the Minnesota Orchestra, which commissioned the work.
(Photo by Grzegorz Golebiowski)
By Michael Anthony

MINNEAPOLIS — If memory serves, it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “The chief objection of playing wind instruments is that it prolongs the life of the player.” Exactly which wind instrument — or instruments — he found the most irritating, we don’t know.

If it was the clarinet, Shaw might have blown his top listening to Swiss composer Claudio Puntin’s Aroma, which received its world premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall on Nov. 11. But given the wide range of colors and intriguing sounds that Puntin drew from his instrument — many of those colors improvised and some of them enhanced by electronics — it’s also possible that Shaw might have changed course and developed an affection for the clarinet. The composer himself played the solo part, with music director Osmo Vänskä on the podium.

Osmo Vänskä, who also plays the clarinet, is a Puntin fan.
(Karl Gehrke, Minnesota Public Radio)

Puntin calls the work a concert suite rather than a concerto. Its full title is Aroma: imaginative spaces for Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Electronic Effects and Orchestra. Vänskä, a professional clarinetist in his early days in Finland, commissioned the work on the orchestra’s behalf in Berlin in 2014, having been impressed with a recording of East, Puntin’s 2002 album for clarinet and string quartet.

Cast in nine brief sections, with improvised cadenzas serving as transitions between the sections, Aroma draws on Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Serbian folk song and dance rhythms, along with klezmer, jazz, and traditional Western techniques. The work’s title comes from the notion of aroma as a spice that is added to give flavor to musical languages.

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Claudio Puntin performed his own concerto. (Grzegorz Golebiowski)

The piece opens evocatively: a sustained note in the clarinet brings to mind the lonely cry of a wolf in a distant forest. The solo line begins to weave, taking on an echo via a tape loop and gradually, adopting flatted 3rds and 5ths, alluding to klezmer. There are eerie passages and moments of intense lyricism. At one point, the orchestra takes over and suggests the sound of a jazz big band. Aroma ended some 25 minutes after it began, the music floating gently and then fading away. Afterward, Puntin seemed surprised by the audience’s standing ovation.

There was little obvious connection between Aroma and Mahler’s grim, weighty Symphony No. 6, which took up the second half, except that Mahler himself was no stranger to klezmer. Given that the orchestra was scheduled to record the symphony the following week (for the Swedish BIS label), the performance could be taken as either a preview or a rehearsal. It was, of course, both.

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Osmo Vänskä, with Minnesota, recording Mahler 5 for the BIS label. Up next, Mahler 6.

The performance, as a result, sounded tense. Understandably the musicians, including all those extra brass players, were afraid of making a mistake. They made very few, as it turned out, in a performance of enormous impact and relentless energy. Vänskä is a dynamo onstage most nights of the year; on this occasion he seemed possessed, his body in constant motion, as if he were working out to one of Jane Fonda’s old exercise videos. (Indeed, he gets slimmer every year.)

Osmo Vänskä at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra. (Greg Helgeson)
Osmo Vänskä at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra. (Archive image/Greg Helgeson)

The first movement of a work that Mahler described as the sum of all the sufferings he endured at the hands of fate was properly grim and ominous, though fairly brisk, a mix of grandeur and nightmarish intensity. Vänskä observed the exposition repeat, which gave the development an extra sense of inevitability. And he chose the movement order of Mahler’s own performances, rather than that of the original score, that is, putting the Andante in second place and the Scherzo in third.

The Andante, delicate yet passionate, was enhanced by principal horn Michael Gast’s sonorous solo. The Scherzo, with a strongly contrasting Trio, took on an extra tone of bitter sarcasm, and the lengthy finale was driven forward in a single tight arc, the famous hammer strokes delivered with startling impact. The musicians played brilliantly for 87 minutes and at the end looked exhausted.

This will be a recording to watch for.

Michael Anthony, author of Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder, writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.