High On Clarinet, Composer Bacri Goes Low At Last

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Composer Nicolas Bacri (left) acknowledges Chicago Symphony Orchestra bass clarinetist and soloist J. Lawrie Bloom
after the world premiere of ‘Ophelia’s Tears’ at Symphony Center. (Photos © Todd Rosenberg)

CHICAGO – Nicolas Bacri’s elegy for bass clarinet and orchestra, Ophelia’s Tears, opens with a menacing growl and then a solo melody from the extreme depths, rising ever slightly higher and falling back repeatedly on itself, as if trapped in an agitated dreamstate.

One might expect a composer inspired by the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who suffers colossal collateral damage at Hamlet’s hand, to choose an instrument in the feminine register for portraying the young noblewoman’s spectacular unhinging. Indeed, Parisian composer Bacri’s first essay on the subject, Ophelia’s Mad Scene (2018), for soprano and clarinet, prowled after the high tradition of Donizetti’s Lucia, Thomas’ Ophelia, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Marfa, albeit in a contemporary way. Bacri followed this with a second work, Ophelia’s Solo, for clarinet alone.

Bloom convinced Bacri to consider composing for bass clarinet.

It would take the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s J. Lawrie Bloom to make the 58-year-old composer serious about putting Ophelia and the bass clarinet together.

Although Bacri had often declared the clarinet to be his favorite instrument since hearing Benny Goodman play Copland’s Clarinet Concerto on the radio as a boy, and despite having penned 30 works of one kind or another for clarinet since 1985, the composer confessed recently to a Chicago critic that he had never considered the bass clarinet “sexy enough” for a concerto.

Bloom traveled to Paris to show Bacri otherwise. When Riccardo Muti offered the bass clarinetist a CSO concerto commission as part of a series of such works designed to spotlight key players, Bloom – who has been with the CSO since the Solti era – said he thought first of Bacri. (More details about this in the video below.) On his visit, he played Bacri’s own Ophelia music on the lower instrument to point out the possibilities, and almost before Bloom got back to Chicago, Bacri’s custom-made ideas for Ophelia’s Tears: Concertante for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra began to arrive.

Although it rises to frenzied heights, Ophelia’s Tears also indulges the bass clarinet’s particular ability to fathom almost bottomless depths of despair and then descend to nothingness. Indeed, the intimacy of Bacri’s writing reflects his professed respect for the mournful potential of the instrument as well as the composer’s considerable orchestral command.

Ophelia’s Tears opens magisterially, with the orchestra seeming to hover closely in response to the bereft and often soaring solo line, a relationship of ceremonial dignity. But the alignment begins to crumble as the music makes a transition, without a break, into the middle movement, called “Madness.” Here Bacri’s fluctuations become more extreme, the mood sometimes violent, culminating in an extraordinary passage for Bloom’s bass clarinet, timbales, and percussion that is erratic to the point of hair-raising.

In fact, the soloist might have done even more with it. Up to this point in the Feb. 21 performance, the orchestra seemed tentative as well. But the picture soon sharpened as the music evolved into an eerie passacaglia for soloist and orchestra, almost a set piece in itself, which the composer describes in his notes as “feigned gaiety,” although the tragic through-line was apparent.

‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais, among artists who were inspired by Shakespeare. (Tate London via Wiki Commons)

The final movement – “Death,” arrived at without break – also made a strong impression at first hearing. It begins with a solo cadenza that seems like the farewell of one already partially gone. Bloom’s delivery was winged with sadness. The disconsolate strings, which help usher the soloist’s ebbing lines to their close, provide the choral summing-up that is the equivalent of Queen Gertrude’s devastating remark how “one woe does tread upon another’s heel.”

Muti encouraged the CSO to commission concertos for several key players whose instruments are in the bass register.

The Bacri premiere was hardly the first CSO commission to focus on instruments of the orchestra’s bass register. Others during Muti’s tenure include James Stephenson’s Bass Trombone Concerto (introduced by CSO’s Charles Vernon) and Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto (for two trombones, bass trombone and tuba). The latter was taken by the CSO to Carnegie Hall and soon thereafter performed by the co-commissioning Philadelphia Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony, with March performances upcoming in Nashville and Raleigh. Bass clarinetists in orchestras around the country will welcome Ophelia’s Tears as well.

Muti could not have presented Bacri’s new concerto to Chicago audiences in a more splendid frame. He led four long-sold-out performances (Feb. 20-23) that included Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Symphonies, part of Muti’s season-long cycle of the nine symphonies. The opening night mood was electric and the ovations were prolonged for Muti’s fleet, elegant, and often surprising changes of momentum in both works, consistent with what has been a profoundly rewarding “Beethoven 250” celebration that keeps sending one back to the scores.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago on the Aisle. She was the founding music critic at USA Today and a cultural columnist for the Detroit News. She has written about the arts for The New York Times and a variety of other national publications.