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!)


 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! :)


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... 


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! 


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!)


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. 


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. 


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! 


Friday, May 2, 2014

The new Ridenour Lyrique "Libertas": Life, Libertas, And The Pursuit of Perfect Intervals

So, in my line of work (playing in the pits of Broadway national and international tours) there are a LOT of things a fellow has to think about when deciding what gear to take on the road. Usually, these decisions end up in some sort of compromise that generally means I have to work a little bit harder, because I don't generally bring top-of-the-line stuff with me, because, well it's just stupid. (I learned this lesson the hard way on my first tour several years ago, when I brought my 14K gold flute out on the road with me and ended up having nearly two thousand dollars worth of dent removal and adjustment work done after the tour was over. Oops.) 

This is particularly true of wooden instruments...my current gig requires me to have three clarinets, an Eb, a Bb, and a bass. In a previous entry, I've discussed the choice I made regarding my bass clarinet, which was the Ridenour Lyrique. Not much of a compromise there, actually, as it is every bit as in tune and beautiful-sounding as a wooden bass three times the price. 

However, I've had a slightly different journey regarding my Bb clarinet. My original road horn was a Vito V40, which for a plastic clarinet, is a pretty darn good little horn with great intonation. I'd added a Backun barrel and bell, and honestly, it was a pretty serviceable setup for a professional playing situation, at least in the environmental circumstances I found myself in. (I certainly would not play it in an orchestra, or probably even in a pit on Broadway in New York, but adding in the variable of constant travel changes everything.) Over time, though, I realized that it just wasn't cutting it anymore. The mechanism was giving me all kinds of grief, and the sound, even with the Backun stuff, was a little too bright to be comfortable; the intonation seemed to be getting squirrely, which it never seemed to be before. The only thing I could deduce was that the constant travel and temp/humidity instability was wreaking havoc with the cocobolo parts of my setup, causing dramatic fluctuations in intonation and response, and the damn thing was made in like, 1979, so it was probably time to put it out to pasture. 

I became determined not to have a wood clarinet in the pit. Partially out of a genuine worry about cracking and unstable intonation from day to day, climate to climate; but also partially out of a stubborn resolve to see if I could find a non-wood instrument that did both the score of the show and my own playing standards justice. It became sort of a quest, really. 

The obvious choice to me for the next horn was the Backun Alpha. I'd tried a couple, thought they played fantastically well for the price point (which is excellent), and it's synthetic, so woo, no fluctuations in bore geometry! I bought one from a music store in Memphis, and started using it in the show. Instantly, I felt more secure in certain passages that had been giving me uncertainty-based heart attacks with the Vito, because I knew the mechanism wasn't going to fail me; and instantly the intonation seemed to settle with the rest of the orchestra and everyone gave a big stamp of approval on the new clarinet. (It also is a pretty darn cool looking little thing, which never hurts.) 

Honestly, I would probably have been happy to use it until the end of the tour, but one day, I was exchanging emails with Ted Ridenour, and he mentioned that they had just come out with a new flagship model of hard rubber Bb clarinet. I,  of course, immediately said I'd love to try one, because I love my bass so much and have such respect for Tom Ridenour's design skills. So he said he'd send me one, no obligation,  he knew I'd just purchased a new clarinet, he just wanted me to try it out for a few days and give them some feedback on it. 

Boy, am I ever glad he did! I'm still playing it every day, two months later... 

This thing is simply unbelievable. If you have ever played a Leblanc Opus or Concerto (as I have, for many years), then you have an idea of how incredibly well-tuned this clarinet is, and how easy large intervals are, and how round and lovely the sound is. However, the Libertas is NOT an Opus or Concerto...I daresay it's a bit better. First off, it is made of the same natural hard rubber as the other Ridenour clarinets, so it WILL. NOT. CRACK. EVER. I cannot stress how important this is in the peace-of-mind department, especially for a person who makes most of their living in a dark, dusty, occasionally damp, hole in the floor that is generally situated directly under a direct blast of industrial air conditioning.

Secondly, the sound. Jesus, the sound. It is SO round and lovely and clarinetty and fluid, as you'd expect from an instrument designed by the guy who gave the world the Leblanc Opus. For those who have expressed concern about the projection of hard rubber...fear not, I routinely fill 5,000 seat auditoriums with this instrument's sound. Intervallic response on this instrument is also really spectacular. This particular show is full of legato sevenths, tenths, and twelfths (both ascending and descending), and I nail every one of them, every time, and I don't have to do anything with my face to coax them out. There is no tiny hesitation between notes while the next one is trying to speak, it just...comes out. 

Thirdly, the intonation. I just don't know how much better it can get on a clarinet. No, it isn't totally perfect, BECAUSE IT'S A F*CKING CLARINET. No clarinet is ever going to be perfectly in tune on every note without any adjustment, because it is a tube with fewer than 30 holes drilled into it from which we are expected to produce, what, about 45 different pitches (depending on how high you can play)? So, OBVIOUSLY some mathematical compromises are going to be made in the placement of these holes...what makes one clarinet different from another is how close to the center those compromises are. My Libertas was some rando case that was grabbed off a shelf of clarinets (which had all just been setup by Tom personally, that is), put in a box, and shipped to me. I did not try 5 of them. I did not try 10 of them. I did not go to a dealer or the factory or the US importer and try 25 to 100 of them to find this one. It's just whatever one was grabbed off a shelf and sent to me. 

There has yet to be a variation of more than, at MOST, 10 cents in either direction on any note. I play a D below the staff...just about perfectly centered. I hit the register key, and immediately out pops an A above the staff...just about perfectly centered. 

Tom has put up at least 2 videos that I know of on Youtube demonstrating the remarkably even and consistent tuning characteristics of this clarinet, and I think that speaks for itself. This thing, for a clarinet, is REALLY in tune. 

Next, the keywork. It is just as solid and sturdy as any other clarinet I've ever played. I don't LOVE the Delrin (nylon? I dunno. They're white) pins in the left hand long E/B and F#/C# keys, but hey, I don't like them on the R13, either, and those puppies are three and a half thousand bucks. The Libertas isn't. It isn't even $1500. Know what else you get on a $3,500 Buffet? Nothing else I've written about so far. 

In summation, Tom Ridenour has created a top-of-the-line clarinet that plays really well in tune, smoothly and evenly throughout every register of the instrument with a totally uniform sonority from bottom to top, great keywork, and will never, ever, ever, crack. Ever. 

For $1500. 

I can think of precisely zero reasons not to at least give one a shot...I did, and I'm extremely glad. Maybe you will be, too. 

OH, and for those who are like "Ew, nickel keys suck, I hate them.", I've heard that they're going to be offering them in gold plating soon, so YAY! 

OH OH, I also forgot to mention there's a Libertas in A on the way. DOUBLE YAY! Orchestral players who play lots of pops/outdoor concerts, HOLLA! :) 

OH OH OH, I must also tell you...they are not paying me to say ANY of this stuff. (Just as the other 2,402,780 makers of instruments I've mentioned on my blog haven't paid me anything to say all THAT nice stuff about them, either.) I just like it, so I'm telling you about it. Capisce? 

Peace out from the West Side Story 2013-2014 tour pit, kids! Till next time...  :-) 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Ridenour Lyrique 925 Hard Rubber Low-C Bass Clarinet: Yes, It's A Real Instrument.

I've wanted to write this review for quite some time, but have been procrastinating like crazy because, well, that's what I do. However, as I sit here at a lovely coffeeshop in Anchorage, Alaska watching the sun go down over the mountains three hours before our final Anchorage performance of the 2013/14 North American Broadway revival tour of "West Side Story" (off to Canada for a month on Sunday!), I'm suddenly full of inspiration, so...here's some rambling! :)

This particular tour is the main reason I decided to buy the Ridenour Lyrique bass. Tonight we finish a two-week run of the show in Alaska, and this weekend, we begin four and a half weeks of performances all over Canada, from Vancouver to Edmonton. While this past couple of weeks have been amazingly mild in Anchorage, temperatures in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Calgary are predicted to stay parked in the VERY minus-double-digits degrees Fahrenheit, and those are conditions I did NOT relish the thought of bringing a $10,000 wood Selmer or Buffet bass through. The hard rubber construction of the Lyrique assures a certain peace of mind in unstable climates that one just does not have with a wooden instrument. Travel between cities can be rather rough on musical equipment, particularly since I often travel my horns with the rest of the pit equipment on the trucks instead of carrying everything with me on the tour bus (which was what I did a couple years ago when I played the flute/picc/clarinet book on the national tour of My Fair Lady, but is highly impractical with a bass clarinet, a tenor sax, and four other smaller instruments). Having played Tom's hard rubber soprano clarinets before, I knew that the bass was going to sound good and having played the Leblanc clarinets he designed for the past nearly 20 years, I knew it was going to be well-designed acoustically and play in tune. What I didn't know was whether or not a sub-$3000 low-C bass clarinet would physically be able to stand up to the rigors of professional touring life (or, honestly, whether or not the mechanism would be up to the demands of a Leonard Bernstein bass clarinet part!).

Well, it is CERTAINLY up to the task. From the second I opened the box and put it together for the first time, this instrument felt like it's been mine for years. I made a short video recording of my very first encounter with the instrument, which you can view here: A Quick First Look At The Ridenour Lyrique Bass Clarinet. Right out of the box, it was a joy to play. The sound of this instrument is absolutely fabulous, with a rich creamy center that doesn't spread as you go higher, even into the altissimo; and the intonation is ROCK solid on this thing, with one noticeable exception: The lowest C# (concert B), is exceedingly flat, 20+ cents on average. However, I have needed to use this note precisely zero times, so it isn't personally an issue for me right now. I will, of course, work on fixing it (perhaps a little building up of the tonehole on the inner surface will do the trick...to use this instrument in the long term, I am of course going to have to address this at some point, but it isn't a major, major sticking point. This note tends to be sort of horrendous on most low C basses...). Overall, I was really, really surprised at how little work I had to do to play this instrument well. (I should mention that I am playing on a Ridenour hand-faced bass clarinet mouthpiece, which was included with the clarinet, a mouthpiece I had zero prior experience with, so what you are seeing in this video is truly a brand new encounter with unfamiliar equipment.)

As with any new instrument or mouthpiece, it does of course take a bit of time to get used to the voicing tendencies (hence that small harmonic blip in the altissimo in the video clip), but on the whole, it was remarkable how familiar and comfortable this instrument felt. It does absolutely everything I want it to, and it does it quite easily, which is a wonderful thing, because the very next day I flew to Chattanooga to begin rehearsals and tech for the West Side Story tour, so I literally had zero time to acclimate to this clarinet before using it in a professional setting.

The first real test came during the first rehearsal with the orchestra. I do not play the bass clarinet until the middle of the Balcony Scene, where the bass clarinet enters in unison with the cello on a written low Bb after sitting cold for about 25 minutes, then continues in a beautiful lyrical solo phrase of the "Somewhere" theme, which finishes in unison again with the cello, this time in the lower throat tones, which are notoriously problematic on bass clarinets, both in intonation and tone quality. I needn't have worried, because not only are the F#, F and E nearly perfectly spot-on in tune, they are also much fuller and less nasal in quality than one would expect. They are very nearly...well, cello-like in color. (A quality that our musical director is no doubt highly appreciative of!)

My only criticism of this instrument lies with the basset keywork (low D, C#, C). The thumb key
arrangement is awkward at best to begin with, and the travel of the key touches is quite excessive. When the thumb low D is depressed, I can slide my entire thumb forward underneath the low C# thumb key with room to spare. This makes any sort of rapid chromatic motion in the thumb virtually impossible, and there are no rollers to aid in this. The low C key is actually quite functional and easily accessible, just not from thumb low D. The low C# has a bit less travel, and with a bit of practice (and a long thumb helps), can be made to smoothly transition to low C. The left hand low D lever, however, is basically unusable. The amount of force required to depress this key is so extreme that I cannot fathom using it in any practical situation, the ONLY exception being whenever it chromatically follows a low Eb, which closes most of the pads depressed by the low D lever and alleviates most of the tension caused by requiring the pinky to close the two low F pads, the low E, and the low Eb. I have no doubt that this will be improved in future iterations of the instrument, as the key work has continued to improve since the instrument was debuted several years ago. (Perhaps a future version will include a right-hand pinky low D key!)

The rest of the mechanism is surprisingly very solid, and in the three months that I have been playing this instrument every day, 8 shows a week, the total amount of adjustment required has been a quarter turn of a screw on a bridge key and a small piece of gaff tape around a register key connection. Rather impressive, I think! I do find the RH3 (low G/clarion D) key to be quite stiff, but given the length of the connecting rod to the register mechanism that it operates in addition to the low G tonehole, that's to be expected. It isn't overwhelming, and when the bridge keys are aligned just right, the tension isn't bad at all (or perhaps my finger has gotten stronger over the past couple months!) I would perhaps like to have some more supporting pillars or cradles for the basset mechanism rods, are they are quite long and very prone to flexing, particularly when assembling and disassembling the instrument, but there has been no major issue with them so far...as long as I remember to keep all the corks nice and greased up! ;-)

As David Spiegelthal pointed out in his excellent and concise review of the instrument on the Clarinet Bulletin Board (David Spiegelthal Reviews The Lyrique Bass Clarinet), the bell does need to be turned quite a bit to the left to make the low C key connection work, but this is also not too much of an issue, and I hardly notice anymore.

Close inspection revealed very nicely finished toneholes, a very smooth bore free of burrs or imperfections, and quite meticulously fitted keywork. The Selmer-style upper joint trill keys are particularly attractive to me, and I quite enjoy the left hand low E/B and F#/C# keys, which require only slightly more effort than a Bb soprano clarinet.

The wood-shell case is also very snugly fitted and quite sturdy, with two very heavy-duty latches and a subway handle (end handle), which was a lovely surprise, as I expected a zippered foam horror that offered little to no protection.

I have long been a very big fan of Tom Ridenour's, and I'm very happy to say that my experience with his Lyrique bass clarinet has only added to my admiration. Very few people know the clarinet better or love it more than he does, and it certainly shows in his current offerings. I am very proud (and fortunate!) to be able to say that I make the entirety of my living playing the clarinet around the world for thousands of people a week, and I do it with a Ridenour instrument.

In summation, I would like to emphatically urge all woodwind doublers, or even symphonic bass clarinet players who absolutely cannot afford to buy a Buffet 1193 or a Selmer Privilege to audition a Lyrique bass. I really think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of this instrument!

Check out me shredding some Shostakovich on this thing!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jeff Weissman and Chris McKenna Are Total F***ing Ninjas

Top: Nickel-plated
 Bottom: Gold-plated
If you've read anything else I've ever written so far, you know that I'm pretty nuts about woodwinds, and there aren't a whole lot of makers out there whose instruments I have not tried...The Weissman-McKenna flute, however, has long been one of the rarefied occupants of that list. Their piccolos I've played quite a few of, and they certainly deserve their reputation, because they are fabulous (and beautiful). The flutes, however, have remained a mystery to me until this past Thursday, when on a day of leisure in NYC during a break from my current international touring gig, I decided to pop by the new Chelsea location of Weissman Flutes and see what I could get my hands on. Boy, am I glad I did! Not only did I walk in to see an old colleague and friend, Michael Laderman, who I haven't seen in ages, sitting there, but the awesome Luke Penella (master flute repairman and sax builder!) was there and brought out a very beefy selection of Weissman-McKenna flutes for me to try.

I'm still recovering from the experience. #hyperbolemaybe

I had absolutely NO idea that these flutes would possibly be as awesome as they are. Now, if you know anything at all about the flute business, you know who Jeff Weissman is. Not only is he a master flute tech, great player, sought after teacher, piccolo guru, and proprietor of the largest-inventoried flute shop in America, he also builds one HELL of a flute. In partnership with Chris McKenna (without question one of the most masterful and innovative headjoint makers of our time), they are turning out some EXTREMELY interesting flutes that play like you wouldn't believe. Among the Weissman-McKenna models I tried that afternoon were a solid silver with soldered tone holes that was entirely nickel plated (yes, I said nickel); a silver head/heavywall nickel silver body, also heavily nickel plated; a silver head/nickel silver body heavily gold plated with some of the richest, pinkest rose gold I've ever seen; and a silver head/silver body, unplated. All flutes had stunningly engraved keys and body rings (but not lipplates), D# roller, and C# trill. (I am extremely fond of the C# trill, and it makes me very happy that they put it on almost all of their flutes. The D# roller is quite nice, too.)

That engraving! That D# roller! 

I wish the C# trill was a standard feature on ALL flutes
Now, I suppose the first thing I should address is the whole nickel situation. The vast majority of flute players, myself included, have been conditioned to view nickel as purely the domain of the cheapest, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, factory-made student flutes. I must confess I raised an eyebrow at first when he handed me a nickel plated $6,000 flute. Obviously used to this reaction, he just smiled and said “Play it. You'll like it”...and wow, was he right. The nickel plating lends a brilliant darkness to the sound, and when you're holding a high-end flute covered in nickel, it's almost easy to pretend it's platinum plated, they look so similar. (I personally believe a large part of the stigma surrounding nickel, in addition to its inexpensiveness and use on basic instruments, is the fact that a small percentage of the population is allergic to it. I myself tend to make nickel go cloudy very quickly, which is why I prefer silver or gold on all of my instruments, but I could probably live with it for that sound!) Consistent from model to model is a huge, voluminous, very present sound that possesses almost infinite color possibilities. With the exception of my Sankyo, I don't think I have ever played a flute that responded so well in the fourth octave. Both my friend Michael (an extraordinarily accomplished flutist) and I played all of these flutes, and not a single one of them missed a high D, E, F, (or in Michael's case), F#. Ever. I even (I swear to Cher this is a true story) played a D7 sustained with a dimuendo to p and vibrato! It was almost...PRETTY. I can't even really do that on MY headjoint, and I've had the damn thing for the better part of a decade! I would need to spend some more time with a selection of the same model in various finishes to determine whether or not the nickel has anything to do with this, but my current impression is that the extreme upper range of the instrument is somehow enhanced on the nickel plated models. I had a tiny bit more difficulty up there on the gold plated and bare silver models, though it was still EXCELLENT. (Never. Missed. An. E7. Seriously.)

The gold-plated "Integrity" model, with engraved rings

In an interesting (possibly refreshing?) departure from the current trend of most flutemakers to have an almost dizzying array of different headjoint cuts, the McKenna headjoint paired with the Weissman-McKenna flute is of one type (quite similar to how Muramatsu does things), and it is the result of a great deal of experimentation to find an ideal cut for the demands of today's orchestral and solo player, but without losing the color and personality of the older-style headjoints found on the prized “Golden Age” Powell and Haynes flutes, and even the vintage French flutes. The Weissman-McKenna flute headjoint is a beautifully rounded square cut with nice pillowy overcutting on the sides, but not too extreme. Riser seems to be of medium height, allowing for a wide range of airstream angles and strike points, but without sacrificing either dynamic range, response, or tone color variation. It's really one of the most perfect heads I've played in a while...I'd put it up there with the Hammig 9K or 15% gold heads, I liked it that much. (In fact, and don't tell ANYBODY I said this...I think I might even like it a tiny bit better than my trusty ol' Sankyo RT-3. I know. Wow.)

The last major thing I want to touch on is the scale...the intonation of these things is just freaking FANTASTIC. I literally could not play the dreaded E6 out of tune at any dynamic. It just wouldn't budge (at least not outside of an acceptable range of say, 2 cents). From bottom to top, it slotted beautifully, with no messy weird C# or D issues in any octave, and nothing sagged or spiked in the top. (Even high Ab!)

During the course of the afternoon, I also played a lovely vintage Powell, a brand new handmade Powell, two Miyazawas (a Boston Classic and a 402), a Sankyo 401 (#TeamSankyo!), a Burkart-Phelan, and an amazeballs vintage Haynes, and I firmly believe the Weissman-McKenna flutes stood their ground admirably next to any of these great flutes. (In fact in several cases, the W-M was clearly superior in many aspects).
Weissmans and Powells and Sankyo, oh my!
The shop is incredibly accessible, as are the fellows themselves, so I really would urge you all to get your mitts on one of these and give it a spin! I think you'll dig them. :) (I also have it on very good authority that one of the biggest names in the NY flute scene traded in his prized Powell for a Weissman-McKenna, and is using it 8 times a week to great ovation :) )

Perhaps best of ALL is that the W-M flute is available in a wide range of price points to fit any budget, and the quality is just as good at the lower end of the dollar scale as it is at the top!

Don't just take my word for it, though, go play 'em! :-) 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Divine International Reform-ation...or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Buffet: Part II

While the last entry was devoted entirely to the Buffet Divine, this one will cover the remaining two instruments referenced in the title, the Peter Eaton “International” and the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm model 187. (It turns out I had a lot more to say about the Divine than I thought I did!)

One of the most wonderful things about what I do for a living is that because I travel so extensively, I am frequently able to try out instruments that I never, ever would get my hands on otherwise. My recent trip to Japan provided me with several opportunities to try out instruments on my gearhead bucket list, and one of those instruments was the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm clarinet. The Wurlitzer clarinet is absolutely LEGENDARY in the clarinet world, and has been the de facto instrument of choice for German clarinetists for generations. I have been fortunate enough to try out two different sets of Wurlitzer Oehler system clarinets over the last decade or so, and the reputation is well deserved. The build quality is second to none, and the wood they use is beautifully aged and dense. These days, of course, there are many more clarinet makers than there used to be, even in the world of the Oehler system, but Wurlitzer is still top of the heap, and their Boehm system clarinets are no less impressive.

I don't want this to turn into too much of a drudge-laden history lesson in the development of the clarinet, so I'm going to operate under the assumption that if you're reading this, you are at the very least aware of the difference between Boehm and Oehler system clarinets, and that you know that the clarinet that you and I and every high school band kid in America plays is a Boehm one. The Reform-Boehm clarinet is an effort to merge the facile key system of the Boehm clarinet (with additions and improvements that were originally part of the design, but removed in the early 20th century in a bid to simplify the mass production of the clarinet) with the dark, focused, rich, powerful, colorful sound of the German Oehler system clarinet. It is of course a matter of personal taste, but I find that the inherent tonal quality of the German clarinet to be vastly superior to that of the French clarinet. Wurlitzer's website has a lovely article on the Reform system, complete with musical examples of the improved functionality of the mechanism, which you can read here:


When I was in Tokyo, I went to a shop called Dolce, which is something of a paradise for woodwind junkies. In the clarinet salon, they had a set of Wurlitzer RB clarinets, in Bb, A and Eb, just BEGGING to be tried. I immediately commandeered the Bb and sequestered myself in a trial studio, whipped out my trusty Vandoren B40D German mouthpiece (my Old Faithful!) and went to town. With the very first note I blew, I was in love. Like, crazy scary restraining-order Tony-and-Maria kind of love. The focus in the sound is laser-like, but it's a dark, heavy-cored kind of sound. If it were visible, I'd expect the sound to be a dark velvety royal purple color. (Kind of like a Crown Royal bag, but in light saber form...) It played almost freakishly evenly throughout the entire range of the instrument, with absolutely no change in tonal character from the bottom to the top. It took a few minutes of conscious work to play without the automatic embouchure compensation one gets used to on one's own clarinet, but once I relaxed into it and found the right combination of airflow and embouchure control, the thing just sang. The intonation is EXCELLENT on this instrument. So much so that it almost felt incorrect...I was CERTAIN that the upper clarion was flat, but turning on the strobe tuner proved that to be most untrue. I think we're just so used to feeling and hearing that register of the clarinet sharp and having to compensate for it that NOT having to do that just seems...wrong. The solidity and darkness of the upper clarion and lower altissimo was also quite a unique experience. It just doesn't get thin up there!

The keywork on this clarinet is really what makes you realize that you're playing something quite different. The rollers on the right hand pinky keys, the wraparound speaker key, the left hand Eb/Ab, the resonance keys on the lower joint, the elongated RH1 Eb/Bb touchpiece, the double F/C toneholes...it's a mechanical masterpiece, and it isn't even the fullest system Wurlitzer has to offer. This particular model was lacking the LH3 ring on the upper joint, the C#/G# trill extension and the low E/F correction mechanism found on the model 185. Even so, I'd take it in a heartbeat :) The rollers between C/F and Eb/Ab are priceless, and extending the Bb/Eb side key makes its use completely reflexive and natural.

I do have to say, however, that the placement of the (fixed) thumbrest was almost agonizing, and caused me to have to stop a few times and shake out my hand because it was cramping so badly. It was almost comically high up on the lower joint. If I were ever fortunate enough to own one of these instruments, the VERY first thing I would do would be to replace the thumbrest with an adjustable one.

I recorded a short video of my experience with the instrument, and I think it's clear almost from the very first note that this is a very special clarinet indeed, and anybody who is interested in thinking a bit outside the box and exploring a different sound should very much consider getting their hands on one of these babies and giving it a try!

The last clarinet in this trifecta of awesome is the Peter Eaton International model. Many of you may not be terribly aware of Peter's instruments, but they are widely played in England, and are in fact direct descendants of the famed Boosey and Hawkes 1010 clarinets that the entire English school of clarinet playing was founded on. Peter makes 2 models of clarinet, the “Elite” and the “International”. Those of you who are familiar with the English school of clarinetting know that they use very large-bored instruments which have an almost unnaturally smooth, dark, beautiful (if somewhat inflexible) sound. Emma Johnson, Gervase de Peyer, and Reginald Kell are some of the most well-known players in this tradition. (All of whom, by the way, play or played either a B&H 1010 or a Peter Eaton). The Eaton “Elite” model is the traditional large-bore English clarinet, with the lovely creamy sound, and is totally incompatible with the mouthpieces that we Americans are used to using on our Buffets and Selmers. For this reason, he created the “International” model, with the more common smaller French-style bore, but retaining the thick walls and design features of the Elite (which are in turn based on the Boosey and Hawkes clarinets) such as the ringless flat-edged bell, the wide, flat tenon rings, and the “fingernail file” crosshatched textured LH F/C key.

This instrument (I tried out an A clarinet on this visit, btw, not a Bb. The only Bb they had was an Elite) is probably one of the top 5 A clarinets I have ever picked up, and was a revelation of tone color and legato playing. From bottom to top, it was rich and smooth, as though the sound were made of heavy whipping cream, and as near as I could tell in the confines of the trial room, capable of an enormous amount of projection despite the darkness of the sound. (I know, I know...THAT word again!) I was a bit worried that this incredible sound would come at the expense of response, but that turned out to be unfounded. Staccato playing was nearly effortless, which is surprising for an instrument of such weight, both tonal and physical. (This is a HEAVY clarinet. Like, Selmer Recital-heavy.)

The keywork is extremely solid and was very, very, very heavily silver plated. I cannot imagine anybody EVER managing to eat through the plating on this baby! The textured F/C lever was a nice touch, and I find the flat style rings to be quite beautiful. The wood was also very dense and beautifully tight-grained.

Intonation was very, very good throughout the range, with only a slight bit of flatness in the altissimo which was very easily dealt with. Low E and F were rather noticeably flat at large dynamics, but...it's a clarinet, so there you go. Intervallic response was top-tier, and upper register spoke very cleanly with a lovely lyric quality, rather like a fine dramatic soprano. (More Damrau than Dessay, if you know what I mean.)

I actually can't really think of any negative criticisms about this particular clarinet, save that the weight might be prohibitive to small players, or clarinetists with hand/wrist/forearm problems. Then again, that's what neckstraps are for, eh? :-)

As always, dear readers, I've made a little video demo for you. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed playing it, and I do hope that you get a chance to play one yourself someday!