‘Spirit’ Of Friend Recalled In Work For Solo Clarinet

A jazz club hosted the SOLI Chamber Ensemble’s concert in remembrance of clarinetist Laura Flax. Shulamit Ran composed a solo clarinet work for the occasion, and the ensemble played ‘Birkat Haderekh,’ Ran’s last collaboration with Flax.
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO – When the distinguished clarinetist and new-music advocate Laura Flax died in 2017, at age 64, she was mourned by her students and fellow faculty members at Bard College and Juilliard Pre-College, in the New York City Opera orchestra and the Da Capo Chamber Players, and by the many composers whose music she had championed. Among that last group was her close friend Shulamit Ran, whose many collaborations with Flax extend back to the clarinetist’s 1978 debut recital in Carnegie Recital Hall.

Shulamit Ran, prompted by SOLI violinist Ertan Torgul, spoke to the audience.

At the behest of Flax’s sister Freda, a longtime supporter of San Antonio’s SOLI Chamber Ensemble, the widely honored Israeli-American Ran wrote a new piece in remembrance of her friend. Spirit, for clarinet solo, was given its world premiere by Stephanie Key on a SOLI concert Feb. 5 in JazzTX, a basement jazz club in a new urban neighborhood created from the former Pearl Brewery. (The program was repeated in a more conventional venue, Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, the next evening.) The concert’s opening work was Ran’s final collaboration with Flax, Birkat Haderekh (2015), for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. As both Laura Flax and her sister have been advocates for women in music, the program also included music by the Iranian-born Gity Razaz and the American Alexandra Gardner.

Speaking to the audience before the concert, Ran said of Spirit, “I wanted to write a piece that I could imagine Laura playing. I wanted to write a piece that was vibrant.”

You never know what you’re going to get with a Ran piece. She has called her music “freely atonal,” but a more apt characterization might be simply “free.” She proceeds without formal or harmonic dogma, sometimes even without plan. Her music goes where it wants and needs to go. In that respect, it’s kind of like a lively, inquisitive, unpredictable puppy – but one that’s on a (long) leash. The details in a Ran score are carefully considered both for their emotional weight in the moment and their role in the larger structure.

Laura Flax was Shulamit Ran’s friend and collaborator for 40 years. (Courtesy SOLI)

Spirit begins in full-throated declamatory fashion, but some of the phrases end in witty squiggles. Witty, too, is the ensuing passage of soft staccato puffs. But those transform into rapid, elaborate lines that give way in turn to high wailing and then wailing glissandos, suggestive of grief. After this climax the music falls calm and meditative. There are long sustained notes, whispered, with spaces between them, and eventually these individual notes coalesce into a tender melody. Vibrant, yes, and all encompassing.

One cannot know how Laura Flax might have played Spirit, but Stephanie Key, who had flown to Chicago to spend several hours working on the piece with Ran, gave it a confident and polished account.

The Hebrew title of Birkat Haderekh translates as “Blessing for the Road.” A sense of apprehension hangs over the journey. The clarinet opens with a sinuous melody that evokes Levantine musical traditions, and much of the music that follows also conjures the Middle East in its melodic contours and its scales. But some passages recall expressionist chromaticism, and the raspy, spiky, skittering, harmonically weird sound world of full modernity is always close at hand. Joining Key in the splendid performance were Ertan Torgul (violin), David Mollenauer (cello), and Carolyn True (piano).

Stephanie Key played Shulamit Ran’s new ‘Spirit.’

(Laura Flax’s own performance of Birkat Haderekh with her colleagues of the Bardian Ensemble is available on YouTube.)

Gity Razaz moved with her family to the United States at age 15 (she’s now 32), and she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard. Her music easily embraces both her Iranian roots and her Western education. Her Duo for violin and piano (2007) comprises two movements. The first is dark and mournful, with long-lined melody on the violin turning anguished in the middle; the second is a folk-like dance at its core, but richly filigreed. Some passages sounded almost jazzy in this fully committed performance.

SOLI commissioned Alexandra Gardner’s Crows, gave the premiere in 1998 (which you can listen to here), and reprised it in 2010. It remained compelling in its third hearing. Scored for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, the five-movement work is inspired by passages from the poetry of the Native American (Muscogee Nation) writer Joy Harjo. The music is economical, at times laconic, but vivid in its evocations of the desert landscape in wide, shifting planes of sound; of “the flash of silver breaths on the wing of the sky” in radiant staccato chirruping; and of “the lush stillness of the end of a world” in an unutterably lovely dialog among violin, cello, and clarinet, coaxed along by gentle chords on the piano.

The venue was not sonically ideal for music that was often quiet. The acoustics were dry, the air handling was loud, and the entry door squeaked when it was opened, as happened frequently during this concert. The musicians of SOLI seemed to draw energy from the intimacy of the setting, however, and the music was strong enough to command attention.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.