This article is going to be primarily a review of what I felt to be the standout instruments of the day, but I would be a terrible blogger if I didn't mention the unholy cacophony of 50 clarinetists at a time (most of whom I imagine to be collegiate underclassmen incapable of controlling their desire to strut their stuff, no matter how ill-advised that desire may have been) playing the smear from Rhapsody in Blue over. And over. And over. And over. All. Day. Long. There was one particularly charming fellow who thought it was a fantastic idea to try it up an octave. Multiple times. At FFFFFF. Without success. I don't know how I've made it through 3 decades of life without truly understanding just how unbearably irritating the clarinet can be in the wrong hands, but rest assured, that has been rectified. Why DARPA hasn't taken it upon themselves to weaponize the clarinet is beyond me, but I think they could do a bang up business in non-explosive warfare that way.
Of course, I wanted to try as much stuff as I could possibly get my hands on (y'all know how I do), but I had two clear goals for the day, and anything else was icing: playing the new Buffet Tosca bass clarinet and the new Selmer “SeleS” Presence clarinet. (Turns out that cake had a LOT of icing on it, though...read on!)
BUFFET TOSCA BASS CLARINET
I've been having vivid fantasies about the Tosca bass since the first second I saw Buffet's slickly-edited Youtube video announcing its existence a couple months ago. All that daydreaming built up some pretty lofty expectations, of course...and I have to say, I was not in the least disappointed by the fact of the thing. I didn't get to spend as much time with it as I would have liked, and of course a festival is HARDLY the ideal environment for getting a true picture of an instrument, but I did what I could. There were several available, the one I ended up trying was at the booth of Lisa's Clarinet Shop. I waited for a relative lull in the action, and then I went for it. (For those who may want to know this sort of thing, I tried it with my Ridenour Artist bass clarinet mouthpiece) From the moment I picked it up, I was smitten. I hadn't even played a note, and I was ready to sell a kidney. The mechanism on this instrument is almost freakishly perfect. Somehow, they have managed to achieve a totally balanced resistance on every key, even the left hand pinky low D, which took no more effort to depress than, say, the LH3 C key. Replacing the right thumb low D with an alternate low Eb was an absolute stroke of genius, and once you get used to it being there, using it is almost intuitive. The roller on the low C key was also a nice touch.
In the short cell phone video I made of it, you can see the left hand low D lever depress itself whenever any of the other basset notes were deployed, and it's a visible testament to the smoothness and responsiveness of the action on this instrument. The other big thing I noticed about the keywork is that it is just about completely SILENT. There was hardly a key-click to be heard, and on a low C bass clarinet, that's just about miraculous. It's also extremely comfortable under the hands...I have relatively large hands, but I would imagine that someone with smaller hands would be just as comfortable on it. In fact, there could have been a bit more spread on the right hand pinky feather keys, and still have been fine with.
Then I played it...wow. From the first note I played (which was, logically, an open G), the resonance and warmth of the Tosca bass was evident. There wasn't any of the hollowness or buzziness that one often encounters in the throat tones of the bass, and descending chromatically to the low C, there was a beautiful evenness of tone color and resistance that was really pleasant, as a player. Crossing the break was smooth as silk, and the traditional "pinch" throat Bb was full and robust, and matched beautifully with both the A directly under it and the B over the break. The B and C were wonderfully in tune, thanks to the redesign of the register mechanism, and it maintained a full-throated lyrical quality into the upper register. (Soundwise, it actually is remarkably similar to my Ridenour Lyrique hard rubber low-C bass, which has one of the darkest and most beautiful bass-clarinetty sounds I've ever heard).
When Buffet first released the Tosca bass information, I thought for sure it was going to be ungodly expensive, on the order of a German bass clarinet, at least $20,000USD or so. Now, I don't have any American dealer pricing information, but I've found it already listed on the Thomann website, and the list price is 11,008 Euros, which works out to $14,773USD, and their actual selling price (ex-VAT) is 7,740 Euro, or approx. $10,387. This actually makes it a significant chunk less expensive than the Selmer Privilege (currently clocking in at a street price of just north of 12 grand), and only slightly more expensive than the existing Buffet 1193 Prestige bass (which is riding just below the 10 grand line in most places). Hey, if I had it, I'd pay it.
I am greatly looking forward to spending more time with the Tosca bass, which I hope to do at the Buffet Showroom on my upcoming trip back to New York. Look for a much longer, proper demo video. In the meantime, check out this short crappy cell phone video, and look at that mechanism! :)
A minute ago, I said of all the things I played during the day, there were two I could not stop going back to over and over again...one of them was the Ridenour Lyrique C clarinet, the other was the newest incarnation of Yamaha's German-inspired CSG clarinet, the CSG-IIIL, particularly the "H" version, with the Hamilton plated keys (an alloy of nickel and gold). This thing...good god. It's like the R&D department at Yamaha somehow found a way to get inside my head and find out *exactly* what I think the clarinet should sound like, and then made it...with really, really awesome keywork.
Uebel has been around for a really, really long time (since the '30s, at least). Over here in the States, though, if anybody has heard of them, it has been primarily in connection with flutes that looked like this:
However, that was quite a long time ago. In Germany, they have long been known and respected for their German-system clarinets, which are played in quite a number of orchestras. For the past several years, they have been working on developing a clarinet for the Boehm market that combines the most desirable traits of both worlds, without quite going the Reform-Boehm route. What has emerged as the final product of that process is the line of Boehm clarinets that tops out with the Superior Bb/A, and the Emperior bass.
The Uebel table was directly across from the Ridenours at ClarinetFest, and for the first half of the day, every time I went to talk to Tom or Ted, I'd sneak an eyefull of the Uebel table and think "I really should go check those out, I've seen them online and I'm super curious", but there were always tons of people there, doing their shrieky screamy awful altissimo Festie-showoff thing, so I kept putting it off. Finally, there was a significant downturn in the action (I think a big recital or lecture had started, and most of the Festies scampered off to see it), so I walked over and asked to try a clarinet. The poor fellow (a charmingly harried Mr. Moe, husband of Victoria Moe, CEO of Moe-Bleichner Music Distribution, the US distributor of these amazing instruments), having been subjected for the entirety of ClarinetFest to the wailing, screaming antics of 80% of the attendees, understandably looked a little apprehensive. He handed me the base model in the lineup (the "Classic", intended to compete with the likes of the Buffet E11, but after playing it for about a minute, I'd rate it much, much, much higher than that), but after listening to me play (primarily long tones and Brahms legato passages), got an absolutely adorable twinkle in his eye and said "Ah. No, no, THIS is the clarinet for you...now that I hear you play, I see you understand us and what we're trying to do" and handed me the Superior. Dear god, that clarinet! I played four notes and had to stop because I started grinning involuntarily. It was everything I loved about the Yamaha CSG, but with perhaps a slightly more restrained Bavarian sensibility, which is very up my clarinet-alley. Even more so than the CSG, they have managed to capture the essence of the German clarinet tradition and put it in a Boehm package. The bore design is quite proprietary, neither pure Boehm nor Reform Boehm, and I can only imagine the extent of the research and development that went into this instrument. I don't think I have ever played a French system clarinet that behaved quite the way the Uebel Superior does. It's almost perplexing.
I was very obviously taken with this instrument, and as I kept playing it and acclimating to it, I realized I was working less and less and getting more and more color out of it, and the more I played it, the closer attention I noticed people around me were paying. I wasn't playing anything at all technically flashy, just things that I felt spoke to me musically and showcased the idiomatic color palette of the clarinet (Tosca, Act III; Forza del Destino; Tristan...), but the sound I was getting out of this instrument was so unusual and just GORGEOUS that people seemed interested in what I was doing. It felt kind of awesome, not gonna lie. :)
One thing that struck me in particular about the Superior is that, much like the CSG (I'm going to keep making this comparison, because they're extraordinarily similar in about 90% of all possible aspects), no matter WHAT dynamic level I was playing, the sound stayed exactly in character. It never, ever broke, not even when I pushed it as hard as my six-foot-plus Scandinavian frame could muster, and I did that on an A above the staff. If ANY note on the clarinet is gonna crack, it's gonna be that A. Didn't on the Yamaha, and it didn't on the Uebel. It also kept all of its shape and focus at the most -issimo of pianissimos.
If you look at the bell in the photo above, you will see a little hole lined with a silver grommet...this is genius, and a very simple solution to the low E/F problem. (You often see this on C and Eb clarinets, and most of the tip-top clarinet repairmen from Ridenour to Backun to Yan to Hammer have drilled holes in bells to fix the low E and F; it's what the bell key on Oehlers does.) I particularly love their approach to it, because it is exactly what my favorite French oboe/English horn maker, Fossati, does on their English horns and oboe d'amores in lieu of a bell mechanism for low B resonance, except Fossati uses mother-of-pearl instead of silver for the grommet. (See below)