A Chat with David Shifrin

We were thrilled when David Shifrin agreed to come play the Copland Clarinet Concerto with A Far Cry. His extensive personal experience with the piece is something that we've been enjoying all week long. We sat down for a few minutes to discuss some aspects of it with him - and now you can enter the conversation too! 

You've been playing the concerto for a long time, right? 

I've been playing this piece for decades!

Has it changed for you over that time? 

Of course, it changes every time, and it's always great. I think the big question about this piece is always: since it was written for Benny Goodman, should it be played like jazz? Or should it be played very strictly? Fortunately, we have two recordings of Goodman playing the concerto with Copland conducting, and you hear that it was written for Benny, and that there are certainly some jazz-inflected things. But he takes the score quite literally and plays elegantly.

The first movement has this broad, lyric, quality and this mesmerizing, Satie Gymnopedie feeling. (Satie and Copland were in Paris at the same time!) In the cadenza and in the second movement, the question is always how much liberty to take, and of course there are many different opinions on that - and many are valid! I try to play it in as lively in a fashion as possible but still to play in the fashion that I think was intended by Copland. I never played this piece with Copland, although I played other things with him, and I worked with other clarinetists who did the piece with him. I have a sense that you want that jazz inflection but that you don't want to start adding notes and improvising in the cadenza… although on the other hand, why not? But then it becomes a whole other piece. 

What's the takeaway from working with Copland? Any special memories? 

He was always very kind, and I knew him as a student in two different places. We spent a week in Interlochen doing Appalachian Spring and some other pieces. He was very exacting and demanding of the students. At the same time, he was thoughtful, and very generous with his time, eating lunch with everyone and hanging out. Then I got to work with him again at the Blossom center, and again... you know, I think he might have even lived in the dorm with the students! I remember him coming to meals, and being available. And he had really clear ideas about what he wanted. This is what I wrote; this is what I want you to play. 

Is this the first time you've played the piece without a conductor? 

This is the second time. We did it with a group from Yale, to celebrate Benny Goodman's hundredth birthday, we did a concert of all the concert music that he had commissioned or premiered, at Zankel at Carnegie Hall, in 2009. Ida Kavafian led a conductorless orchestra - and Liesl was a student in the orchestra at that time! 

Is there anything in particular audience members should listen for? Anything special they'll enjoy? 

Well, it's really three distinct pieces within this one work, played without pause. The opening is just etherial - just let it flow - and then the cadenza - you can root for me, because it's really a piece unto itself! A really extended clarinet cadenza is quite unusual. Then the most Latin American jazz, and swing influences, are in the last part of the piece, and I think it's fine if people want to tap their feet - i don't know what the rules are for dancing in the aisles at Jordan Hall!