Thursday, November 6, 2014

My flute is Japanese, I think my flute is Japanese, I really think so...

Since my last few posts have been clarinet-centric, and I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about flutes (which isn't really all that new or unusual), I thought I'd do some talking about a topic that seems to generate some mild disagreement in the flute world, or at the very least is the source of a bit of division among flute players, and that is...Japanese flutes vs. American flutes. 

Much is written and heard about the glorious Haynes sound, or the unrivaled mechanics of the Brannen Brothers' offerings, or the rich history of Verne Q. Powell. Let us also not ignore Lillian Burkart and Kanichi Nagahara, also churning out much-beloved magical flutey-tubes from their Boston workshops. (It should be noted that Nagahara, while certainly of Japanese origin, lives and makes his flutes in Boston, and as such is considered an American maker.)

But, this isn't about them...

On the other side of the globe, we have the big Japanese heavy-hitters of the last few decades, Muramatsu, Miyazawa, Altus, Yamaha, and Sankyo, flutes we've all heard of and most of us have played at least one or two of them. Proponents of the American flutemakers often decry the Japanese flutes (as if you could lump them all together and assign characteristics to the whole lot!) as being one-dimensional in sound, too limited in dynamic range, colorless, devoid of personality...to them, I say “pfffffffft”. The Japanese flutemakers, both the globally renowned (Muramatsu, Sankyo, Miyazawa, Yamaha) and the secret local gems (such as Akiyama, Aihara, and Mateki, which is distributed globally, but for some reason the Mateki flute has never achieved the widespread popularity they deserve), are turning out instruments of impeccable fit and finish, ever more nuanced and colorful headjoint cuts, and they are utterly unafraid to be innovative and try new things.

I would love to write this from a completely balanced and unbiased perspective, but it should be noted that I have always been a great lover of Japanese flutes, and for the majority of my adult life, and certainly the portion of which has been financially supported by my flute playing, I have primarily been a Sankyo player, and I have a bit of a fanatic love of the company and their flutes. However, this does not preclude me from finding many other makers' instruments to be delightful and worth playing on...in fact, I have over the years owned a good number of flutes by other makers, and loved them all in their own way, but I find myself always drawn back to the magic flutes of glorious Nippon! :)


MURAMATSU

When discussing Japanese flutes, one should begin with the internationally recognized king of them all, Muramatsu. Most people are aware that Muramatsu was the great James Galway's flute of choice for many years, but it is also worth noting that Muramatsu is consistently the best-selling professional flute globally. Many prominent flutists around the world, both soloists and orchestral players, play on a Muramatsu. They began making flutes in 1923 (which may surprise many people), and continue to make incredible flutes, from the basic EX model, with a silver-plated nickel silver body and solid sterling head, up through their 24K gold model. (It should be noted that Muramatsu is one of only 4 flute makers on Earth to make flutes in 24K gold, and all of them are...Japanese. Hmm.)

One of the things I love about Muramatsu flutes is the incredible consistency from model to model, flute to flute. If you lined up one of every model they make (EX, GX, DS, SR, PTP, 9K, 14K, 18K, 24K, platinum) and played them back to back, you should find that from one flute to the next, there is very little difference in what you experience as a player in terms of resistance, evenness, intonation, and ease of color production. This is, I believe, due in large part to the fact that unlike many other flutemakers, Muramatsu does not offer a wide variety of headjoint cuts; there is the standard and the Tsubasa, which is Mura's take on the winged headjoint. That's it. They've figured out a headjoint that allows just about any player of any style to find their own “sweet spot” and, regardless of how much air you use, how strong your stream is, or the angle you prefer to play, you will get just about anything you want out of a Muramatsu.



There is also a distinct styling to their keycups that, to the keen eye, renders a Muramatsu flute almost instantly recognizable. The cup itself appears somewhat diminutive, and there is a beautiful simplicity about the design of the radius leading to the point at the center that just screams “That's a Muramatsu!”. There aren't many flutemakers this can be said of, save perhaps also Sankyo, which has a similarly unique key styling. Muramatsu flutes are simply one of the most elegantly designed flutes in existence.

Something else to think about when you're considering your new flute choice is that all Muramatsu flutes are handmade, even the least expensive silver-plated model. So, no matter what your budget is or at what stage of flute playing you find yourself, you can be assured you're getting a handmade instrument of full professional quality, even if you can't afford a $15,000-$70,000 instrument. (And, if you happen to find yourself desperately wanting a solid gold flute but don't have a solid gold budget, Muramatsu is one of the only flutemakers in the world that can give you a gold instrument for under 20K...the 9K gold flute comes fully loaded with C# trill and D# roller as standard features in the US market, and it is less than $19,000. That's a pretty fantastic bargain!)

One of the most interesting things about the Muramatsu lineup, IMO, is that they are the only flutemaker on the planet that includes, as a standard part of their model catalogue, a fully platinum-bonded instrument, INCLUDING the keys and mechanism. It's a DS model (all sterling silver, drawn toneholes) that is then very thickly electro-bonded with platinum from top to bottom. You really have to play this instrument to truly understand just how magical it is...It really does approach the power and color of a solid platinum instrument, but with a voice of its own that's really quite unusual and totally intoxicating. There used to also be a gold-bonded model, but for some reason or other, it's been discontinued, which makes me super-duper ultrasad. :-(

And finally, of course, Muramatsu makes the ne plus ultra of alto flutes...well worth a try for any serious professional flutist who requires an alto in their career.

While we're in this part of the alphabet, let's talk about...

MIYAZAWA

Another long-established member of the Japanese Flute Family, Miyazawa flutes have long been favorites of younger flutists seeking to push boundaries or somehow distinguish themselves from the pack; much of this seems to be because Miyazawa themselves have never been afraid to be different. (I'm still in mourning for the Modern Style key cups! They were absolutely beautiful.) Miyazawa has also been a big proponent of material experimentation...over the years, they have developed and made flutes out of such materials as PCM (a proprietary alloy containing copper, silver, palladium, and other precious and semi-precious metals), rose silver (a beautiful pink silver alloy which I wish they still made, but suffered some tarnish/discoloration problems, I believe. Perhaps a reformulation is in order?), and the Miyazawa GS alloy, which contains 10.5% gold and 89.5% silver, a truly magical blend that fits in the low-karat gold category along with the Lafin/Brannen 15/85 and Hammig's 15% gold alloys. There really is just something for everyone!

Miyazawa is the second member of the ultra-elite 4-member club of flutemakers that offer a 24K gold instrument. It is also, sadly, the only one of the 4 whose 24K gold flute I have not had the pleasure of playing. (Maybe that could change? hint hint hint :) )

24K gold Miyazawa w/14K mechanism!

Since I played my very first Miyazawa flute in 1996, I would conservatively estimate that I have played somewhere around 200 of them over the intervening 18 years, so I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp on the marque, and I have to say they have continued to improve tremendously over the years. My distinct recollection of the brand from back then was that, when you got a good one, it was a VERY good one, but much like with Buffet clarinets, it behooved you to try a number of them. Today, however, it seems that no matter how many you play, you are just about guaranteed to get a Miyazawa that plays smoothly and beautifully with little effort or compensation for intonation and resistance on certain notes. In fact, one of my favorite flutes I've encountered in the past few years was a Miyazawa...followers of my blog and Youtube channel may recall the “Magic Miyazawa”, a 14K Miya body with a 14K Faulisi headjoint that was being sold by the inimitable Joan Sparks of Flute Pro Shop. I got to play this flute on three separate occasions, and it was absolutely breathtaking. Now, yes, I know that it didn't have a Miya headjoint, and that is where the bulk of the playing experience comes from, but the scale of the body was a perfect match to the Faulisi head, and the Brogger mekanik of the 14K body was an effortless joy to play. It remains one of the most beautiful flutes I've ever encountered, and I hope whoever finally bought it (I HATE YOU FOR HAVING THE MONEY TO SNAP IT UP, WHOEVER YOU ARE) realizes how truly special it is and cherishes it! :-)

The magic of their gold flutes aside, Miyazawa is a fabulous choice for the advanced student/collegiate flutist, in that much like the other major Japanese makers, even their silver plated entry model is handmade and paired with a sterling silver headjoint, so you don't have to break the bank to get a beautiful flute that will easily take you through to your post-grad work, and even into your first orchestral job.

For those who want something a bit more sonically complex than standard sterling, but either don't like gold or don't have the budget for it, Miyazawa also offers a higher-purity .958 Britannia silver alloy on the 602, Elite, and Vision models.

One thing to be aware of when choosing Miyazawa is that they offer a wide array of headjoint styles, so it may take you some time to find the one that is the best fit for your style of playing, your airstream, and your preferred angle of attack. If you're an inexperienced player, or perhaps don't have the chance to try all the headjoints, the MZ-7 and MZ-10 (for the gold players) I find to be good all-around headjoints that would work well for 90% of flutists.

Miyazawa also makes a spectacular platinum flute...if you have the budget, it is very much worth considering!

Their alto flutes are also very, very, very good, and in the case of the PCM model, absolutely exceptional. (Miyazawa no longer makes PCM concert flutes, but it has proven an ideal material for the particular resonance of the alto). While I don't believe they're available in America, when I was in Japan last year, I discovered that Miyazawa also makes VERY good piccolos!

A final note about Miyazawa (and this is neither good nor bad, just information) is that the pricing of their gold flutes is quite a bit more than comparable flutes from other makers, owing to the fact that all Miyazawa gold flutes feature soldered toneholes as standard. For example, the 9K gold Miyazawa flute is $25,000, which is more than $6,000 over the price of the 9K Muramatsu and the 10K Sankyo (which is just a hair more expensive than the 9K Muramatsu, still coming in at under 19,000 via FluteWorld), both of which are available with drawn toneholes. Just something to think about :-)


I wanted to save the best for last, but I'm too impatient...it's time to wax rhapsodic about:


SANKYO!!

So, here we are. This is probably going to sound a bit like an ad for Sankyo, and...well, it sort of is. After all, the mission statement of this blog is to spread the word about instrument makers that are outside the mainstream in the US, and if that doesn't describe Sankyo, I dunno what does! I never claimed I'd do it without bias, though. :-P

Quite a number of years ago, I had an encounter with a very famous international flute soloist and pedagogue (who, I should disclaim, is a very lovely person and has been delightful in subsequent meetings) and said flutist, who happens to be a Brannen player, asked me what flute I played on. At the time, I was playing a beautiful 14K Sankyo that I had recently purchased and was madly in love with (selling that flute is one of the greatest regrets of my life), and said as much. Aforementioned Flutist responded with a slightly derisive chuckle and said “Oh, my...I didn't realize people still played those. How cute.” This anecdote seems to me to encapsulate the general attitude toward Sankyo flutes in the United States until quite recently, and I've never been able to understand why. After all, not only are they wildly popular in Asia and continental Europe, but the great flutist and pedagogical father to many of the world's top players today, Alain Marion, played an 18K gold Sankyo! I can't seem to unravel the mystery of why Muramatsu caught on like a house afire and Sankyo was regarded largely as a curiosity, but it's certainly a disservice to Sankyo, because they make flutes every bit as wonderful as Muramatsu. I can only imagine it's because Muramatsu happened to land in the hands of a couple of prominent American flutists such as Ervin Monroe and Murray Panitz, who loved them and championed them, and Sankyo was not so fortunate.

That, however, is changing. A recent change in the distributorship model and a re-evaluation of their pricing scheme to bring them more in line with the other major American and Asian handmade flutes has gone a long way towards making the flute-playing public take Sankyo seriously as a contender in the upper echelons of flute making. It also doesn't hurt that the new principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the dashingly handsome Julien Beaudiment, is a Sankyo player. If that isn't street cred, I don't know what is! :-)

What is it about Sankyo flutes that I find so special? It's hard to put into words...there is just such a harmonious matching of the sound that I hear in my head, the sound I'm constantly striving to produce, and the sounds that I am able to get from a Sankyo flute. My fundamental sound concept is a very strong, solid, stentorian sort of sound that is capable of a great deal of volume, particularly in the low range, but also possesses a very dark primary color that stays dark as you ascend into the third octave, but with the flexibility to change colors as the music requires. This is never as easy for me on any flute as it is on a Sankyo, particularly with any of the RT headjoint cuts. (My personal preference is for the RT-3, which is the head style I've played on for the past 9 years).

As I also mentioned with Muramatsu earlier, there is a remarkable consistency with Sankyo flutes, not just between individual flutes of the same model (ie, 14K to 14K), but also throughout the entire range. Like the other major Japanese makers, Sankyo's least expensive flute is a handmade model with a sterling silver headjoint and a silver-plated nickel-silver body (the 201), and in a blind listening test, you would be hard-pressed to differentiate between that flute and the $125,000+ solid 24K gold one. The craftsmen at Sankyo take enormous pride in their instruments, and lavish just as much attention on the lower models as they do on the gold flutes.

Speaking of gold, it seems that gold flutes have become what Sankyo is most closely associated with in the minds of those who love them...nearly every major player around the world who plays a Sankyo plays a gold one (or a wooden one, which I'll get to in a bit). Over the years, Sankyo has produced flutes in a wide variety of gold alloys, one of the most popular of which was their now-discontinued 5K gold, which was then plated in a double layer of 18K rose gold. I can only surmise that Sankyo discontinued that flute because it was so affordable and fantastic that it bit into the sales figures of the higher-karat gold models. (I have also heard over the years that there may have been some occasional issues with the integrity of the gold plating over the 5K body, but those reports have been few and far between. I do wonder, though, what the 5K gold would have looked like on its own without the rich 18K red gold over it. Perhaps just a hint of a pale blush champagne against the stark white gleam of the sterling mechanism? I guess we'll never know!)

They also had a lovely 9K gold flute for quite some time that is also discontinued...the low-karat niche in the lineup has been filled by their beautiful rosy-pink 10K gold alloy, which is only available in the -2 configuration (10K-2), meaning that the only thing that is solid gold is the actual body tube itself (and the entirety of the headjoint), all ribs, posts, keys, and rings are silver. It's quite a beautiful instrument, but I can't help but wonder how gorgeous an all-10K Sankyo would be! :)

Above the 10K, we have a 14K, 18K, and yes, 24K. (Sankyo is #3 in the 24K Gold Club!). The 14K and 18K are available in -3, -4, and -5 configurations, each number denoting additional gold as you go higher. (A 14K-3, for example, will have a gold body and rings with silver ribs, posts and keys; -4 adds gold posts and ribs with silver keys, and -5 means the entire thing is solid gold.) The 24K, a very special flute indeed, has a base configuration of 24K (14K)-4, meaning the only thing that will be silver if you choose is the keys themselves. All parts that attach to the tube (ribs and posts) are 14K gold. If you desire gold keys, you can have them made in 14K or 18K. Gold plating of the silver keys is also, of course, an option.








Glitzy, eh? If you want to know how much of a hit your bank account would take for one of those beauties, the German Sankyo website has a current 2014 pricelist available on their website (Sankyo Gold Flute Prices 2014 ) and you can have a look...you should probably be sitting down first, though. Don't say I didn't warn you!

While Sankyo certainly makes exquisite gold flutes, we shouldn't ignore their magnificent silver instruments, either. Sankyo was an early pioneer in the usage of higher-purity silver alloys (“Sterling silver”, for those who may not know this, is only 92.5% actual silver, the remaining 7.5% of the alloy is traditionally copper). Sankyo offers flutes in .950 silver (95% pure silver) and .997 silver, which is 99.7% pure silver, and has an absolutely remarkable sound. Playing the Sankyo Pure Silver model (officially called the 901) is an experience that I think every flutist should have. It's nearly impossible to describe, and equally impossible to forget. There is something of the platinum color in the sound, but there's also the shimmer of silver and a bit of the burnish of gold....it's really just something else!




Another wonderful thing Sankyo does is to create a special instrument every year to add to the lineup. This year we got the fabulous B-footed bass flute: 










last year brought us the LOW A FOOT (yes, seriously) concert flute:









and prior to that there was a special gold-engraved model (the keys, lip, and crown are engraved and within the engravings is a beautiful shimmering gold fill):





and before that, the “Crystal Light”, which is a .950 silver body with special thinned keywork for added resonance, an engraved G# key, 10K gold rings, and a Swarovski crystal in the headjoint:





 I have played several of both of the Crystal Lights and the gold-engraved flutes, and they're just magical. The gold engraving is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on a flute. Dare to be different!

BUT WAIT, there's more! :)

Sankyo also makes one of the absolute finest modern wood Boehm flutes on the market today. Available in grenadilla or cocuswood (though I believe the cocus has been recently discontinued, there are still stocks available at certain dealers around the world), the Sankyo wood flute distinguishes itself among the other wooden flutes available by dint of the fact that it is one of the ONLY ones you can buy with a C# trill key. (A feature I consider indispensable). I've played about a dozen wood Sankyos, and I would happily have taken any one of them and played it for the rest of my life. I am about 90% certain at this point that my next major flute purchase is going to be a wooden Sankyo.



In addition to the concert flute lines, Sankyo also makes a stunning alto flute in several different configurations of silver, from a silver lip plate on a plated head/body to an entirely sterling instrument and a silver piccolo with soldered toneholes that plays like a flute.  

Sankyo also produces a flute d'amore in A which beautifully fills the gap between the alto flute and the concert C flute. There is a great deal of repertoire for this instrument, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries, and it's lovely to have a modern flute upon which to play it all!

You may never have heard of Sankyo flutes, or you may have only heard of them peripherally, but I encourage all of you to consider them when you're looking for your next flute. At the very least, whenever you have a chance to try one, do so. You just might be taken by surprise :-)


ALTUS

Another beautiful Japanese flute that has reached great heights of popularity in the States over the last decade or so is this gem from the picturesque mountainside town of Azumino, Japan. It would be impossible to talk about Altus without mentioning the great British flutist William Bennett, who combined forces with Japanese flutist and engineer Shuichi “Speedy” Tanaka in the late 1970s to see what they could do about recreating their beloved Louis Lot flutes for the modern era. A little mathematics, some artistic inspiration, and a few prototypes, and in 1981, the Altus flute was officially born, featuring the Altus-Bennett scale.

This fascination with the old French flutes has led Altus to a great deal of experimentation with the metallurgy behind flutemaking, in an effort to replicate the sound of the time-hardened silver and maillechort tubes of the Lots and Bonnevilles with modern alloying techniques. This experimentation has resulted in several proprietary alloys, including the extremely popular PS (Powdered Silver), a tube formed of 99.7% pure silver and trace elements of other metals in fine powdered form that is then compressed under great pressure into a tube. There's also the AL (Altus Limited) alloy, formed of 94.6% silver and 18 other metals, including gold and platinum, that very closely approximates the properties of the age-hardened silver found in the prized old French flutes. Finally, we also have Britannia silver, which is a traditional 95.8% silver alloy long used in coin making in England.

In addition to these innovative new materials, there is of course also the option of traditional sterling silver and 14K gold. (I believe they will also make flutes in 9K and 18K on special order, and of course there's also platinum if you have very deep pockets and are willing to wait a while). Another unique feature of the Altus flute is that above a certain model level, the option of a thick layer of 18K rose gold or platinum plating is available on all models, which is a fabulous way to further customize your instrument and your sound. (Though I believe the plating is now available on the body only, whereas in the past, you could also get the mechanism plated.)

One of the things I've always found fascinating about the Altus flute is the complexity of the sound that seems built into every flute they make, even the humble 807, which, in a step further into affordability, has just a sterling silver lip plate and riser, with the remainder of the flute being silver-plated nickel silver. (And, like our other Japanese friends, it's handmade!) There really is something of the complex Louis Lot sound present in Altus flutes, and more than just about any other flute maker out there, there is a richness of color available in the Altus sound that makes them a very compelling instrument to consider. The “Artist” models (807, 907, 1107) are particularly popular with woodwind doublers and commercial/jazz musicians because of their great economic value without sacrificing that refined handmade sound and flexibility.

(I should disclose that I have owned 2 Altus flutes, an all-18K-gold plated 1307 and a platinum-plated 1407, and both of them were amazing instruments that I wish I still had! The Telemann Fantasie #12 recording on my Youtube channel was made with the gold-plated Altus)

Altus also makes a killer alto and bass flute, and like Sankyo, offers a flute d'amore, but UNLIKE the Sankyo, which is in the key of A, the Altus can be had in either Bb or A. No piccolo (yet), though!

Worth noting...several of the world's greatest current orchestral principal flutists play Altus flutes, such as Emily Beynon of the Royal Concertgebouw, Denis Bouriakov of the Metropolitan Opera, and Gareth Davies of the London Symphony Orchestra. (All of whom play on either the PS or AL material, coincidentally!) If you've been hesitant to consider Altus, perhaps that little piece of trivia will convince you to take the plunge :-)




Playing a solid platinum Altus in Tokyo: 





YAMAHA

Well, well, well...I couldn't very well avoid talking about El Grande Papa of them all, Yamaha. It's been very easy to dismiss Yamaha as not a terribly serious option in high-end flutes because, hey, they also make motorcycles and pianos, and who wants to play a flute made by a motorcycle brand, right?

Wrong. They're freaking awesome.

One of the major benefits of being a ginormous global conglomerate is that there is a HUGE budget for research and development, so they have unlimited resources to explore the advancement of flutemaking, and given the experiences that I've had with Yamaha flutes in the past year, I'd say they are doing a bang up job. With the input of some of the world's leading flutists, they have developed new models and new headjoint cuts that are absolutely on par with anything that Muramatsu, Sankyo, Haynes, or Brannen for that matter have to offer.

While I was in Japan for two months last year with the international tour of “Dreamgirls”, I got to spend a considerable amount of time at both Yamano Music and the Yamaha Showroom, both in Ginza (just a few blocks from each other!). Between the two, I would say I played somewhere around 25 different Yamaha flutes of the newest generation, and I would be terribly hard-pressed to have picked just one of them as a favorite. (Ok, fine, it was the 14K gold Ideal model with the type A headjoint...) From the silver Merveille model to the all-gold Ideal and the delicately beautiful Bijou, I was consistently blown away by how refined Yamaha's flutes have gotten. They have always been very popular in the student and intermediate categories, but perhaps not so much in the upper end. I distinctly feel that that is all about to change with the newest generation of Yamaha professional flutes...even the “standard” pro models (the 500/600/700/800 series) have been revamped with new body designs and headjoint styles that put them on par with anything else I've ever discussed on this blog. The type A headjoint in particular is just mind-blowing to me...it is VERY reminiscent of my beloved Sankyo RT-type headjoints, and that is a very, very good thing. The M (Merveille), K (Khaner) and HC (Bijou), A, and Am (American version of the Type A) headjoints are all equally fabulous and have very distinct personalities that provide something for every type of player, whether you're a big-sound-American-guy kind of player, or you prefer the beautiful delicate French school of playing. They've even created a German-style flute with an entirely new headjoint style, and features a traditional German setup of closed holes, C#/D# footjoint rollers, and a G/A trill key (which features two small trill keys on the back of the instrument, instead of one large one like the C# trill)






Yamaha is not playing around, kids. They mean business.

AH, and I haven't even talked about their wood flute yet! It is the most affordable of the handmade wood Boehm flutes on the market right now, and it is a wonderful, wonderful instrument. It's quite barebones in terms of options (you can get a split E, probably some footjoint rollers, and I've seen them with gold plated mechanisms, but no C# or G/A trill keys), but MAN do they play beautifully! Huge bottom register and a gorgeous, colorful high register.

I think we're all pretty familiar with Yamaha as a brand, but you may not be aware that they've stepped up their game and are making Serious Flutes now...try one and let me know what you think! :)






PEARL

Ah, Pearl flutes...one of my favorite recommendations to students, doubling friends, and amateurs on a budget is the Pearl 665/765 series of flutes, and for those with a bit more scratch, the Coda versions. They are sturdily built instruments that are well in tune and sound beautiful, and most people have heard of them. However, how many people know they also made fabulous handmade flutes? From the .970 Pristine Silver Maesta to the all-18K gold Opera model, Pearl turns out some extremely beautiful high-end flutes that are played by soloists and orchestral principals all over the world, particularly in Europe. Much like the other Japanese makers, Pearl offers a wide range of options to customize their instruments, from standard options like elaborate engravings, C# trill key, C#/D# rollers, and split E (also available in on/off clutch form), to things you just don't see on American flutes, such as gold plating of either the tube or the entire flute in yellow, rose, or champagne(!) gold and the G/A trill key system which is very popular in Japan and Germany. Pearl has also developed a lovely array of headjoint cuts to speak to a wide range of playing styles (my personal favorite is the Forza, on which you can peel the paint from the walls with a low B, but the Vivo and the Calore are also excellent, colorful choices!).

Mechanically, Pearl's greatest claim to fame is the one-piece core bar system, which mounts the entire mechanism on one long rod and eliminates many of the typical wear and tear issues one encounters with the flute. All Pearl flutes are also constructed with pinless mechanisms, which is a boon for any of us who have ever snagged a sweater or stabbed a finger on the tiny little evil buggers. Pointed key arms are also standard on every flute in the entire range, including the most basic student models, which I think is a lovely touch that not only lends an aesthetic uniformity to the entire line, but I think offers a psychological benefit to younger players. Having a beautiful flute that LOOKS like the five-figure handmade flutes would certainly have encouraged my 12 year old self to practice more. :) There's just something extra-inspiring about having an instrument that is as fun to look at as it is to play!

MATEKI

In Japanese, “Mateki” means “Magic Flute”, and having experienced quite a few of them over the past year, I would have to say they are very appropriately named.

In parallel with our most illustrious American flutemakers, Mateki flutes began as the independent venture of a flutemaker who had worked for many years for Muramatsu. S. Watanabe left Muramatsu along with his friend Shuichi “Speedy” Tanaka (remember him?). They formed a very short-lived flute company called “Takumi”, but they had very different ideas about how the company should be structured, so they parted ways (amicably, one hopes) and formed their own companies. Tanaka went on to create the Altus flute, and Watanabe started the Mateki company.

I've known of Mateki flutes for years, but the only ones that have traditionally popped up in the states have been the older lower-level models. The ones I'd encountered were lovely and played well enough, but I didn't think they were anything particularly special, and I had no idea that the company was as reknowned as they are in Japan. Like many of the other companies I've discussed so far, one of the distinguishing features of Mateki is the vast array of materials they use in flutemaking, and the innovation in experimentation of both material and design. They have, for example, developed an alloy called “G10”, which is 10% gold, 20% palladium, and the remainder is primarily silver with a few other trace elements added. This alloy was inspired by the Japanese tradition of adding gold to the bronze used to make temple bells, and when the tube is pinged with a fingernail, there is indeed a bell-like resonance. It's quite an experience to play, as well! In addition to this brilliant alloy, they also use several different grades of silver. You can order a Mateki in sterling (.925), .943, .990 (99% silver, 1% platinum), and .997 silver.

Bridging the gap between silver and gold is the G10 alloy, and from there we have 9K, 14K, 18K, 24K (there's member #4 of the 24K Club!), and platinum. All gold/platinum flutes are available with a choice of silver, gold (any karat up to and including the karat of the body; ie, you can get an 18K gold body with 9, 14, or 18K keywork), or gold-plated silver mechanism, and in the case of the platinum flute, you can also choose platinum-plated or a G10 mechanism.

The G10 Mateki! 


14K Mateki


I mean, how to choose, right??

In Tokyo last year, at the Yamano Flute Fair in Ginza, the current scion of the Watanabe family and head of Mateki flutes was there with a table FULL of flutes and headjoints, and this ended up being one of the places I spent the most time. I fell absolutely MADLY in love with two of the flutes in particular, both of which were heavy-walled .943 silver models, one of which was very heavily gold plated (I believe there were 3 separate plating processes applied), the other of which was heavily platinum plated over a base of gold. I cannot tell you how fabulous these flutes were. I was floored...the power and color in them was just mind-blowing, and there was a real elegance in the sound that remained even when I played like a brash American pig. I took them out into the then-empty recital hall along with a lovely young lady who was one of the artists presenting later that day, and we recorded each other playing both flutes back to back. You can see the results of that below. I recall that I preferred playing the platinum one (it was rather like what I'd imagine driving a sports car to feel like; just pure exhilaration and a sense of limitless power), but upon listening to the playback, I preferred the sound of the gold-plated one, regardless of which of us was playing it. Still, I would have been hard pressed to choose one if I'd actually had the money to make a purchase that day.







These flutes are incredibly well made with a great deal of attention to detail, it's a multi-generational family business, and thanks to Sherry Lee, there's now a US distributor! I would strongly encourage any of you who read this to get in touch with her and try out a Mateki flute. Check out her website at: http://www.lflutes.com/mateki_flute.html

I just can't say enough good things about them...it's the only other flute that I can see tempting me to switch from Sankyo forever, and that's saying something! :-) 

FMC (Flute Masters Co.)

A relative newcomer to the flute scene, FMC has been in existence just since 1992, but in that time, they have firmly cemented a niche for themselves as a top-notch maker of fine handcrafted flutes. FMC began when 3 former technicians who worked at Yamaha for many years branched off and initially were in business as the go-to repair shop for professional flute players around the world. After repairing a huge number of top-level flutes, they decided they could improve upon what they'd been seeing and perhaps avoid some of the common problems they were encountering, as well as devising a better scale, so they started to design and build their own flutes. 

Similarly to how companies like Nagahara (with the Standard and the Full Concert) and Pearl (with the Maesta and Opera lines) have structured their lineups, there are now 3 series of flutes being produced by FMC: The Standard, the Seamed Tube, and the Master Made. Perhaps unique in all the world of flutemaking, FMC's flutes ALL have soldered tone holes, even on the "Standard" series. The difference lies in material and available options. The Standard flutes are sterling silver with soldered toneholes, a standard 0.35 wall thickness (optional heavywall .40 is available), and only a split E and 10K gold lip/riser as available options. In Japan, the typical flute setup is a very basic one, with the vast majority of players opting for open hole, inline G, and a split E, and that's all. Closed holes and C foot are also quite common on professional flutes, but the majority do not opt for things like extra trills and rollers, so the Standard model fits the local mold quite well. 

The Master Made flutes are where the fun stuff happens...included in the Master Made box is the Seamed series, which is a .970 high-purity silver tube that is rolled and seamed much in the way that Louis Lots were, and the Altus 1807 is. There are also options for .970 standard tubes, .997 silver, 10K, 14K, and 18K gold in all possible configurations. 

I had the opportunity to get acquainted with a .970 seamed tube, a .997 silver, and a 14K gold FMC at Yamano, and they reminded me a lot of a nice Powell, actually, but with a bit of a Louis Lot character to them. Very sweet, yet capable of a lot of power. They would be fabulous orchestral flutes for a principal player from the power standpoint, but a 2nd player would also enjoy them because of the ease of changing tone colors and blending. 

They also make a piccolo that has done very well in the Japanese market, and plays with an unusually even and dark sound, though perhaps a tiny bit much resistance in the top for my liking. 

The design elements of the flute are quite lovely, with a redesigned thumb key and a beautiful scalloped crown, and the key cups themselves are quite elegant, with a very French-throwback feel to them. 


As I near the end of this post, I'd like to talk about a couple of makers that I discovered in Japan that absolutely blew my mind with not only the quality of their craftsmanship, but the uniqueness of their instruments. 

AKIYAMA

The first is the wonderfully sweet and gifted Yoshiteru Akiyama. Mr. Akiyama made it his mission to recreate the essence of the great Louis Lot flutes, using the techniques of the time, but applying a modern scale to his flutes. He has gone so far in this pursuit of that Old French Sound that he actually has obtained a large supply of solid silver flatware and other objects from the 19th century and uses those in his flutemaking! This man is actually building flutes using silver FROM Louis Lot's time! I mean, how amazing is that?! He of course also works in gold (14K and 18K), and his instruments. Are. Freaking. Exquisite. I don't know if I've ever played anything so majestic and alive...I swear you can FEEL his spirit and his craftsmanship in your hands when you play his flutes. There's just nothing like it out there. 

The man himself is a treasure, as well. He's so charming and committed to his work that you can't help but get excited about what he's doing! 

Enjoy these photos of his beautiful work...they don't do it justice, but it's all I have! 










AIHARA

Last but certainly not least, we have the Aihara flute company. These charming instruments are made entirely start to finish by one person, and goodness are they ever clever! Innovation is definitely the name of the game with this maker...he has come up with a new kind of split E, a new system of activating the low B key that eliminates the second roller next to the low C and instead places the low B finger touch to the right of the low C with a small roller that facilitates travel; a new kind of C#/G-A combination trill, and a C# trill that is activated via clutch mechanism on the D trill key. 

The REALLY noticeable stuff, though, is the experimentation that Aihara has done with headjoint making, specifically lipplate/riser/crown material. I played an array of about a dozen heads that had lips and crowns in three different types of coral, crystal, different varieties of wood, ivory, buffalo horn, different silver and gold alloys, composite and ceramic materials. What a range of colors! (both visually and sonically speaking...) I can't imagine having a full case of these at one's disposal. Now if I could just win that Powerball jackpot...












Tuesday, August 5, 2014

ClarinetFest2014: All The Laughter, All The Smears...

This past Friday, August 1st, 2014, I found myself on a bus at the crack of 8am from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to spend a day at the International Clarinet Association's 2014 ClarinetFest, a trip made possible by the kindness and generosity of Tom and Ted Ridenour, who had extra admission badges and allowed me to have one. Thanks, guys! :-)

 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.


 I digress...


 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! :)





SELMER PARIS "Seles" PRESENCE 


Next up, the newest offering from Selmer Paris, under their new branding, "SeleS"...the "Presence" clarinet. There has been much ado and ballyhoo about this clarinet since they announced it, it was one of the most popular items at ClarFest, and now that I've tried it, I can see why. Honestly, at first, I was a bit skeptical, almost to the point of being annoyed. I mean, did Selmer really need ANOTHER snazzily-named clarinet model in the multiple-thousands-of-dollars price range? Wasn't the recent fizzle of the Artys and Odyssey and St. Louis enough? Well, it turns out, yes, it was. They have scrapped those three models (which can still be had as new/old stock for AMAZING bargains on the Bay of E, just sayin'. They're great clarinets!) and replaced that entire price category with the Presence. It fits nicely in that space between "Super Premium I Totally Can't Effing Afford This" and "I Really Need To Upgrade From This POS But Am Never Going To Be Auditioning For The Phil". (Though, frankly, even if you were, you could do it on a pair of these.)

 At around $3500, it's squarely in competition with that old warhorse, Buffet's R13. I say "competition" merely as a function of price point, because after playing ten of them, there isn't any competition. The Presence is freaking wonderful. I actually don't really see much of a difference between it and the upper level Selmers (the Privilege, Signature, and Recital) in terms of playability or sound. It is very much what you've come to expect from Selmer Paris over the past several years; it is extremely comfortable in the hands, the mechanism is very well made and beautiful to look at (you'll note that there has been some redesigning of the left hand pinky keys, and it's all very chic), and the sound is even, focused, and dark but flexible. Intonation is very stable throughout the range, as with the other more expensive Selmers.

Available in both Bb and A, with an optional left hand Eb/Ab lever, I'd say this should be on the short list of every person looking for a new professional wooden clarinet. My only major gripe about it is that for that price, the damn left hand Eb key should be standard, but easily removable for those who don't like having one. I rather dislike the idea of having to pay extra for it at that price point. In summation, if you really want a Signature or a Privilege but your bank account says "no way, Jose", then try the Presence. You'll probably really like it. 

While we're on the topic of new offerings from Selmer Paris... 


SELMER PRIVILEGE VERSION 2.0

So, a few years ago, Selmer came out with a new flagship clarinet called the Privilege, and it was good. It was very, very, very good. I was kind of in love with it. Ok, more than kind of...a lot. As is usual in these cases, though, apparently I was one of the only ones. I was chatting with the Selmer rep at the festival about why on earth they went mucking about with one of the best things they've ever made, and apparently, we (or rather, you...I might hold a US passport, but the clarinet player inside me is 100% German!) American clarinet players just didn't think it was...American enough. It was too free-blowing and even, and I guess y'all thought the gold rings were just a little too snazzy or something, but for whatever reason, they weren't selling terribly well here. So, they went back to the drawing board and came up with a Mk II version of the Privilege, this time with engraved black-nickel-plated rings and a new spiffy inlaid silver "S" Selmer logo for the upper joint. It's also a bit more resistant (because if there's anything we know about American clarinet players, it's that most of them think that playing the clarinet should involve a bit of work; why else would the R13 be so popular, eh? ;) ). It is still a lovely, lovely instrument, but honestly, I liked the old one better. The tuning is still excellent, and the sound is still sweet and ringing, though a bit less "alive", if I had to pick an adjective. Keywork is still beautiful and comfortable, though, and I'd still very happily play one (especially if someone gave me a pair!). 



So now that that's out of the way, let's talk about some of the other things I played at ClarinetFest that really, really stood out to me, and I think y'all should give a try! 

RIDENOUR LYRIQUE "C" CLARINET


I would be remiss not to talk about this gem from my wonderful Fest hosts, the Ridenours. Everyone knows I play the Lyrique low C bass and the Libertas clarinet, and I love 'em both, so I don't need to tell you about those (especially since I already have two blog entries dedicated to them :) ), but we should REALLY talk about this lil' C clarinet, you guys! I mean, wow. I know that most of us have always thought of the C clarinet as a shrill, evil, impossible-to-tune, slightly-less-uncontrollable big sister to the Eb clarinet, but it really doesn't need to be that way. Talking with Tom about the C, he confessed that it's actually his preferred instrument to play (which may surprise you in much the same way I was surprised to find out that the alto flute was Boehm's preferred instrument of personal expression!), and in his opinion, it should be the most naturally in tune and free-blowing instrument of the clarinet family. I don't know about the rest of you, but when the man who designed the Leblanc Opus has an opinion about the clarinet, I'm not going to take it lightly! 

Of all of the instruments I played at the festival, there were two that I simply could NOT put down, and returned to over and over again all day...this C clarinet was one of them. It is just SO much fun to play! The sound is sweet and pretty, and really has its own character. It isn't a Bb, but it isn't an Eb, either. It possesses little bits of both of those personalities at times, but it's honestly just its own thing. I understand why Strauss and Beethoven liked it so much! There is a flutey delicacy in the upper register that comes across as very charming, and the intervallic agility of this instrument is most impressive indeed. I played some "Barber of Seville" and "Der Rosenklavier" on it, and it seemed that the intervals just leapt out of it on their own; Debussy's "Syrinx" for flute took on an entirely new persona on the C clarinet, and the Mozart clarinet concerto just sounded...weird. Don't do that. Ever. :) (the Oboe Concerto was kinda fun, though!)

LYRIQUE 576BC Bb CLARINET


So, if the Libertas is the Opus (or Tosca, if you will) of the Ridenour Lyrique lineup, then the 576 is the Concerto/Infinite (or R13). It's a workhorse, all-around, pro-grade clarinet. I hadn't ever really spent any time with one before, so I played both of the ones that were on the table pretty thoroughly throughout the day, and boy, was I impressed. Getting that much clarinet for under a thousand bucks, man...who can argue? They are crazy in tune, very flexible and easy to play, and the keywork is top notch. I would say that the Libertas has a bit more "punch" overall, particularly in the bottom quarter of the range, but the 576 is no slouch, either. It would make an amazing all-around clarinet for the gifted student or the adult player who doesn't want to invest thousands of dollars into an instrument but still wants to sound like they did. Give one a try, I think you'll be surprised at how easy it is to overcome any bias you might have about inexpensive hard rubber clarinets. 

YAMAHA CSG-IIIL


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. 

The CSG (for "German") clarinet has taken the sound concept of the German Oehler-system clarinets, that beautiful, polished, darkdarkdark, focused sound and applied it to the French system of clarinet keying, with a bit of an international sensibility. It doesn't sound *exactly* like a German clarinet, but it is very considerably different from the standard French instruments that we've all been playing. The upper joint is longer than the standard French clarinet, with a correspondingly shorter barrel (like the German instruments), and the bell is of the thick-profiled ringless variety. The keywork has been extensively redesigned and sculpted, and is a thing of abject beauty. The left-hand Eb/Ab key stands out from the rest of the key cluster and is set at a steep angle, putting it exactly in reach and exactly out of the way. The thumb-activated low E/F correction key is right where it needs to be for easy access, and doesn't really affect the balancing of the instrument at all once you get used to it being there. 

On the left hand, the third finger D/A tonehole, which was the standard drilled-through-the-wall type on the original CSG, has been changed to the chimney-style raised hole seen on some other top-level clarinets, and it really has aided in the clarity, intonation, and projection of the low C# and upper G#. 

Speaking of the intonation, it's very, very good, and there is an ease of playing about this instrument that is nearly unmatched by any other clarinet. Wide intervals speak easily and without hesitation, and the altissimo is sweet and very easy to control. The sound does not spread at high dynamic levels, and it does not dissolve on the whisper-quiet end of the spectrum, but maintains its core and clarity. 

Yamaha has increased the price considerably on these since their inception, but they have also improved them in proportion, so one can't complain too much. They're still very much less expensive than other premium-level Boehm clarinets on the market. You can buy them with silver plated keys or the beautiful gold Hamilton plating...purists may prefer the silver, but there is a warmth about the appearance of the gold against the unstained colorful grenadilla that I just can't resist. (I also tarnish silver only slightly less quickly than would wrapping it in a giant rubber band and putting it in a closet...) 

If they ever make this in an Eb clarinet version, I am going to sell whatever internal organs I need to in order to afford a full set. 

Since we're on the topic of my love of the Germanic clarinet sound, let's talk about my favorite new discovery...the

Uebel Superior Bb/A Clarinets and Emperior Bass Clarinet





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: 

and/or bass clarinets that looked like this (which I actually think is cool as all get out): 



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)

A simple and elegant solution, non? :) 

I finally tore myself away from the Superior and focused my attention on the Emperior bass. Now, I know what you're thinking...yes, it does indeed bear an uncanny and downright remarkable resemblance to the Buffet 1193 Prestige bass, and I can't argue with that. The keywork is, well, I won't say identical, but I won't argue with you if you say it. 

However, two notes was all it took for me to assure you that it is NOT a copy of the Buffet. Uebel has taken the same wizardry they used on the soprano clarinets and applied it to the bore design of the bass. It plays with one of the most vocal sound qualities I've ever heard on a bass clarinet, and while the response all over the horn is excellent, the upper clarion is particularly beautiful and effortless. Haunting, even. The instrument was a fabulous match with my Ridenour Artist mouthpiece, and handled as nimbly in the basement as it did in the stratosphere. Written C7 was no problem on this beast. Victoria and I took it out into a stairwell away from the noise of the exhibition hall so I could really hear what I sounded like on it; I almost wish we hadn't. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since I left Baton Rouge. It was like an extension of my own voice, and it was very, very difficult to stop playing it. 

Somehow, I'm going to get my hands on this anointed trio again and make a demo video for my Youtube channel so you all can hear just how beautiful these things sound! 

A final point (and the last time I'll compare the Superior to the CSG, honest!)...they are VERY affordable in relation to the level of craftsmanship and playability. You can have a Bb/A pair for the price of one Buffet Divine, they are quite a bit less expensive than the CSG, and you can in fact have the bass for about the same as the Divine or a pair of the sopranos. The Emperior is SUBSTANTIALLY less than the Buffet 1193, and made from the same grade of beautiful grenadilla. 

DO check them out! Uebel Clarinets USA


Royal Gao Clarinet (G-Soloist model)


Well this certainly was an interesting find...it was on the Lohff & Pfeiffer table, and it turns out it belonged to one of the evening's performers, who left it at their table for the day! It is the Royal Gao G-Soloist model, but was custom made with a one-piece body (a la Rossi) and gold-plated posts, with a RH1 C#/G# touch. It came with a Royal Gao Cohler barrel and bell (famed clarinet soloist Jonathan Cohler helped design them, and plays them exclusively on his Rossi clarinet). It was the first thing I tried at the L&P table, and I gotta say...it's a pretty sweet rig. It had a very idealized-Buffet kind of thing going; it was very focused, a bit bright, but very colorful, and just the right amount of resistance. The sound wasn't terribly large to the ear, but it bloomed at a distance (I had someone listen to it and report back). Keywork was quite comfy, and I love the adorable tiny little left hand Eb/Ab key! The RH C#/G# touch is also well sized and placed, and very easy to access for those pesky E-F Weber and Spohr trills (and yes, if you insist, the G to Ab in Rhapsody in Blue, which by the way, I DO NOT EVER WANT TO HEAR AGAIN. EVER.) 

The one-piece construction also enabled ideal sizing/placement of the C#/G# tonehole, so those notes were delightfully clear and full. Not sure what the pricing is, but I do know that Heather Karlsson is a Gao dealer, so if you're interested in trying one out, she'd be the person to contact! :) Heather Karlsson Woodwinds: Royal Gao Dealer

Whew, almost there!

Wolfgang Dietz Reform Boehm and pure Boehm


And last but most certainly not least, it wouldn't have been a clarinet event without me being able to indulge my obsession with the German clarinet sound as expressed through the Reform Boehm clarinet, and this ClarinetFest didn't disappoint! Also at the Lohff & Pfeiffer table (you should check them out, btw. They are GENIUSES at setting up/repairing clarinets, and have a colossal stock of amazing instruments! Lohff & Pfeiffer), I came upon a happy surprise, a pair of Wolfgang Dietz (Dietz Boehm-system clarinets!) clarinets, one Reform Boehm and one pure Boehm system. HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY :) I've long wanted to try a Dietz, and I got to try TWO! O frabjous day, indeed. 

The pure Boehm was a delight, reminded me a lot of the Leblanc Opus (and my own Lyrique Libertas). Perfect balance of darkness and color, excellent presence to the sound, very even resistance. One of the sweetest altissimo registers of the day. 

The R-B was, of course, a near-orgasmic experience, as far as clarinets go. Much like the Wurlitzer R-B model 185 I played in Tokyo last year, it was everything I think a clarinet should be, sound-wise. It was incredibly comfortable ergonomically (something I could NOT say for the Wurlitzer), with an adjustable thumbrest and an ingenious cork thumb pad, Loree Dutch-thumbrest style, but thinner, right next to the thumb low E/F correction lever. There isn't much to say about the Dietz that I didn't say about the Wurlitzer in my earlier blog post, the sound is just beautiful. Focus for days, like a dark amethyst-colored laser beam. It's a Brahms-lover's dream come true! Those C/Eb rollers are handy as all heck, too, I gotta say. Positioning of the left hand pinky cluster was also very ergonomically friendly and intuitive, and the C#/G# key is just a stroke of lovely quirky genius. I'm glad I got to spend a little time with the lil' guy! :-) 

Before we go, though, I must put forth...

The First Ever Woodwindwonderland Sadface Panda Rant (Oh no!) :-( (Buffet BC1180 student bass clarinet)

A bit ago, I gushed and waxed poetic about the new Buffet Tosca bass clarinet, which I think is truly one of the most innovative and wonderful instruments to hit the clarinet world in quite some time, and Buffet should be very, very, very proud of it. Seriously. I want one.

As proud as they should be of the Tosca, they should be the opposite of the "new and improved" BC1180 "student" bass clarinet. It's bad, y'all. Like, shockingly so. Now, to be TOTALLY fair, I'm going to play as many as I can when I go to the Buffet showroom in NYC to get as much of a sample size as I can, because the one I tried at ClarFest was abominably set up. I actually had to spend about a full minute prying open the register vent and cleaning the pad because it was so ungodly sticky. It's as though the vendor wanted us to hate it and buy a Prestige or a Tosca instead. Or just, you know, run away crying and vowing to never, ever touch a bass clarinet again. 

Speaking of the register vent, could it even *be* smaller? No way in hell is sufficient venting occurring for a clear and responsive upper clarion...it was so stuffy and small-sounding, I would have given anything for a plastic Vito or Yamaha 221 to magically appear. 


Yes, the wood is absolutely stunning, and yes the keys are beautifully sculpted and super shiny and silver plated, and yes, the (plastic) thumbrest is comfy (Seriously? Plastic?), and yes the bottom register sounds full and fine, because *IT IS A BASS CLARINET*, and full, fine low notes are what the bass clarinet is designed to do. All bass clarinets sound lovely down there. It's their job. 

Above the break, though, it's a whole different (sad) story. Just awful. Stuffy, tinny, wretched sounds were all it had to offer, and no matter how much I voiced and throated and pleaded and begged and voodoo doll-ed, it wouldn't give me anything close to what I wanted up there. 

Now, for a student level bass clarinet, I don't suppose one should expect great things in the high register. (Although I've gotten some rather decent results from plastic Bundys, Yamahas, and Vitos over the years; for example, this was recorded on a Bundy bass from the 70s: Bundy Bass Clarinet ) but look, for  OVER FIVE THOUSAND COCKADOODIE DOLLARS  I'd kind of like to be impressed. 

And really? Five grand? What kind of "student" is going to spend that, or even HAS that kind of money? Weiner Music, for example, is currently selling this monstrosity instrument at a "discounted" price (the list price is $8585) of $5,366. Be Still My Heart (not their call, of course, they gotta charge what Buffet tells 'em to charge)

 You have really got to be kidding me. Furthermore, if this is truly for students, can you IMAGINE what kind of condition this thing would be in after one school year? Students do NOT need beautifully grained unstained grenadilla bass clarinets, they need something that isn't going to crack in half the second some clumsy freshman knocks it off their chair during a break in concert band rehearsal, or, horror of horrors, takes it outside on the field for marching band. (You know somebody would do this. You just know it.) 

For fitty-three hunnit bucks, a school could buy TWO brand-new current-model Yamaha student bass clarinets (which are EXCELLENT) with a little left over for decent mouthpieces, or up to five used ones in good condition (or Vitos or Bundys). If one really wanted a wood bass clarinet and had that to spend, a quick web search turns up no fewer than 2 dozen fully-reconditioned professional model low Eb bass clarinets (and a couple of low Cs!) for well under that price. (or you know, GET A LYRIQUE.)

I dunno, man, I just...dunno. I can't get into it. 

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Overall, though, I have to say that this ClarinetFest was a total joy to attend...not only did I get to play some truly magnificent instruments, I met some truly magnificent people; the Ridenours, Mr. and Mrs. Moe of Uebel; my online clarinet friend of over a decade, Josh Redman, who was working (and I mean WORKING, honey!) the D'Addario booth (by the way, try the new D'Addario Reserve reeds. Just do it.); Elise Curran, another lovely online clarinetiquaintance and fellow Lyrique lover;  and last but most certainly not least, composer Kathy Henkel, who is just a dear little charming confection of a person and whose beautiful and fun piece for unaccompanied bass clarinet, Tintagel Dreams, I purchased and will be making what I believe will be the first recording of in this coming year. 

So much fun, I can't wait for next year in Spain! (Where I will have to endure all 4 days of smears and high notes, but I have a feeling it'll be worth it! So much more gear to try and many more people to meet!) 

Till next time, fellow clari-nerds and nerdettes! 

:-)