Saturday 10 August 2019

Exciting, colourful & a challenge: Clarinettist Mark van de Wiel talks about Joseph Phibbs' new concerto which he premiered & has just recorded

Premiere of Joseph Phibbs Clarinet Concerto - Mark van de Wiel, Philharmonia Orchestra at the Anvil (Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Premiere of Joseph Phibbs Clarinet Concerto - Mark van de Wiel, Philharmonia Orchestra at the Anvil
(Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Signum Classics has just released a new disc of concertos performed by the clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. The disc combines a new concerto by Joseph Phibbs (with the Philharmonia Orchestra), with Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (with the London Chamber Orchestra), both conducted by Christopher Warren Green. Mark gave the premiere of Joseph Phibbs' concerto and was in fact a co-commissioner of the work. Mark's career combines solo and orchestral playing; he is principal clarinet with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but also a member of the London Sinfonietta, the London Chamber Orchestra and the chamber ensemble Endymion, and we recently met up to talk about the Joseph Phibbs concerto, the technical challenges of Mozart's concerto, and how contemporary music is an important part of Mark's performing life.

Joseph Phibbs: Clarinet Concerto - Mark van de Wiel - Signum Classics
Mark van de Wiel has given five performances of Joseph Phibbs' concerto so far, two with Edward Gardner and the Philharmonia Orchestra, two with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Alexander Shelley, and one with Robert Max and the Oxford Symphony Orchestra. Mark, Gardner and the Philharmonia premiered the work at the Anvil in Basingstoke (Mark comments that the venue seems good at attracting premieres and the premiere of Phibbs' Rivers to the Sea was there), whilst the Malmö performances were the result of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra being co-commissioners of the work, along with the Philharmonia and Mark himself. [You can read Andrew Morris' review of the work's premiere on Bachtrack, where there is also an interview which Mark and Joseph Phibbs gave just before the premiere]. The Oxford performance was in fact the concerto's premiere by a non-professional orchestra.

The recording of the concerto on Signum Classics is a studio one, partly because contractual arrangements would have prevented a live recording of the premiere being issued on that label. The Mozart concerto, which partners the Phibbs on the new recording, is a live recording, one made in 2013 at the Cadogan Hall and it was simply an archive recording, but when Mark heard it he sensed that it would work on the disc. It was pure chance that Christopher Warren Green, the conductor of the Mozart concerto, was free and able to conduct the studio recording of the Phibbs.

These complexities of scheduling meant that before the work's premiere there were three conductors, Edward Gardner, Alexander Shelley and Christopher Warren Green, all learning it and in fact collaborating via email.

Mark describes Phibbs' concerto as very exciting and colourful, a challenge for both soloist and orchestra. It was originally planned as a smaller scale classical concerto, the idea coming from David Welton, the Philharmonia Orchestra's then Managing Director. Welton wanted to commission a piece for Mark (who is the orchestra's principal clarinet), and Mark suggested Joseph Phibbs because Mark liked Phibbs' work and Phibbs had already written Rivers to the Sea for the orchestra. Mark wanted a bigger piece than the proposed 16 to 17 minute classical concerto, and came on-board as a co-commissioner so that the final work now lasts 24 minutes and uses triple woodwind, three percussion and harp. And then the Malmö Symphony Orchestra joined as third commissioner.

Joseph Phibbs
Joseph Phibbs
Joseph Phibbs and Mark are friends, so they did talk about the piece, but both agreed that they had better not collaborate during the writing process so that Mark did not give Joseph lists of things to do and not do. If they had worked like this then it would have been Mark who was setting the boundaries on the solo part so he would not in fact be challenged by it. Mark wanted a virtuoso concerto, and most of the most of Joseph Phibbs music that Mark had worked on had been mainly slow with fast passages, and he requested from Joseph that the concerto be the opposite, mainly fast with slow passages.

Six months before the planned premiere, Mark received the score of the concerto minus the cadenza and finale. The music was colourful, well-written and playable. So, Mark emailed Joseph commenting that it was wonderful but that Joseph hadn't written anything really challenging. The result was the work's 'staggeringly difficult' cadenza and finale including the amazing ending with its exciting passacaglia.

The first time anyone heard a note was when Mark played through parts of it at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where Mark teaches, to Christopher Warren Green, Joseph Phibbs and three of Mark's RAM students, and the next time was in Edward Gardner's dressing room at the Barbican. No piano reduction of the orchestra part existed, which makes trying the piece out tricky and Mark feels that the only way to encourage other performers to essay the work will be to have a piano reduction. Otherwise, players have to make something of a leap in the dark.

Premiere of Joseph Phibbs Clarinet Concerto - Edward Gardner, Philharmonia Orchestra at the Anvil (Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Premiere of Joseph Phibbs Clarinet Concerto
Edward Gardner, Philharmonia Orchestra at the Anvil
(Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Mark found that he had to ask Joseph Phibbs for remarkably few adjustments. One area of discussion was the cadenza, which Phibbs had written in the tricky keys with lots of sharps (F sharp major and C sharp major). As the cadenza is unaccompanied, Phibbs tried putting it in different key but Mark felt that the result did not quite work so the original cadenza stayed.

For Mark, the concerto is as difficult as any of the contemporary works that he has played, though some contemporary works are notable for particular technical challenges such as Enno Poppe's use of quarter tones in Holz. Mark enjoys the fact that Phibbs writes naturally and lyrically for the clarinet, treating it as a voice which sings even when playing fast passages. And in that sense, the Phibbs concerto goes well with the Mozart concerto, as Mark feels that Mozart uses the clarinet in the same way.

He comments that because every clarinet player performs Mozart's Clarinet Concerto we tend to forget the work's technical difficulty. We know that the clarinettist for whom it was written, Anton Stadler, complained to Mozart about the technical difficulty of the concerto. Mozart asked him if the notes were available on the instrument, and when Stadler answered in the affirmative Mozart commented that Stadler's job was to produce them!

Mozart wrote the concerto for the basset clarinet, a relatively newly invented instrument which grafts a few extra notes to the bottom of the A clarinet's range. Mark likens it to a dramatic soprano, having the upper range of the original but with extra drama in the lower register. Mark plays a modern basset clarinet which is basically a modern A clarinet with a lower extension, this means that the instrument is heavier than a standard clarinet (which makes playing it something of a challenge) with a significant amount of extra metalwork. Mark takes his hat off to players like Anthony Pay who perform Mozart's concerto on a period instrument with far fewer keys than the one Mark uses, and who still make the music sound effortless.

Mark feels that the Mozart concerto can only be approached operatically as Mozart was such an operatic animal and writing reflects this. In this respect, Mark feels lunch that his first job was with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under their music director Sir Richard Armstrong. Mark comments that you can't do opera and not play lyrically. Mark played all the marjo Mozart operas under Sir Charles Mackerras who was a big inspiration in this repertoire and Mark hopes that this experience is deep inside him when he plays the Mozart concerto.

Mark's career combines orchestral playing with solo work and teaching, and he feels that he has got the balance about right. He also feels staggeringly lucky to be a member of such varied ensembles as the Philharmonia Orchestra (symphony orchestra), the London Chamber Orchestra (a chamber orchestra) and the London Sinfonietta (a contemporary music ensemble) as well as being a founder member of the chamber ensemble Endymion. Chamber music can be tricky to schedule for a professional orchestral musician, and Mark's membership of Endymion means that he is able to play the symphonic repertoire and still schedule performances of the Brahms and Mozart quintets!

But teaching is important to him, and he would feel something was missing if he did not teach. He is a professor at the RAM which he describes as a privilege, a responsibility and a challenge. One of Mark's teachers was the great clarinettist Thea King and in an interview on BBC Radio 3 she once commented on her teaching that it was 'a huge responsibility that I find deeply worrying' (Mark adds that he is sure she enjoyed it too, but the emphasis on responsibility is important and if you forget it you are on dangerous ground).

Like so many children, Mark's musical career started out playing the recorder at Junior School. When he moved to Northampton Grammar he was asked to choose an instrument, too shy to put his hand up in class he waited to express interest privately. All that was left was a trombone, a flute or a clarinet. Trombone was immediately out, he failed to get a note out of the flute whereas he could at least squeak with the clarinet, so clarinet it was.

The moment that he knew the clarinet would be his life was his first course with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and a shiver went down his spine sitting in the middle of the scherzo of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7, with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting. It was a colossal orchestra of players way better than anything he had ever sat with before, and created a feeling he did not want to do without. He was the seventh clarinet with Andrew Marriner as principal, now the two are colleagues as teachers.

Mark came to contemporary music as it was one of the ways the chamber ensemble Endymion mad its name. Whilst its first engagement (in 1980) was for all the Mozart wind serenades they were also programming UK contemporary composers such as Harrison Birtwistle. Mark's contemporary work with Endymion 'got him hooked', for some years he was a member of John Woolrich's Composers Ensemble and he joined the London Sinfonietta in 2002, around the same time as he joined the Philharmonia Orchestra. Mark regards his career as being lucky in that the opportunities he wanted to do came along at the right time.

He sees one of the strengths of the London Sinfonietta as being that most of the players have symphonic jobs as well, so they have to make the rich sound that you need for Brahms and Rachmaninov.

When I ask Mark about influences, he comments that anyone who plays the Mozart concerto is worth listening to, and he mentions Gervase de Peyer, Jack Brymer and Thea King. But he warns against playing in a way which tries to outplay or emulate a particular player, as then you are not being you but all these influences feed in.

A big early influence was his first teacher, Peter Davies; not a professional clarinettist but a good amateur. He was an interesting teacher, instinctive and one who knew when to keep out of the way, and perhaps because he was an amateur he gave Mark far more time. When Mark got to Grade Eight, Davies thought he needed a professional teacher and Mark went to Thea King, and it was she who suggested the National Youth Orchestra, where he was impressed with Andrew Marriner's lovely creamy sound. Colin Bradbury, Mark's teacher at the Royal College of Music, was another inspiration.

Mark van de Wiel (Photo - Philharmonia Orchestra)
Mark van de Wiel (Photo - Philharmonia Orchestra)
As a player, Mark has been lucky to work with some great conductors such as Christoph von Dohnanyi and Esa-Pekka Salonen (the previous and current principal conductors of the Philharmonia Orchestra), and to be around for the appointment of Santtu-Matias Rouvali as the orchestra's principal conductor from the 2020/21 season.

Joseph Phibbs & Mozart Clarinet Concertos - Signum Classics - Mark van de Wiel, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Chamber Orchestra, Christopher Warren Green - buy from Amazon & support Planet Hugill, also available on-line elsewhere.

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