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

This will be the first entry in a series of posts chronicling my adventures in instrument-land during my six-week long trip to Japan, where we wrapped up the 2012-2013 international tour of the Broadway show “Dreamgirls”. Tokyo has some of the most intensely well-stocked music stores on the planet, and I made as many trips to as many of them as I could get away with without seeming completely insane. While I tried more flutes than anything (by quite a large margin), I also got in quite a few clarinets, oboes, English horns, and even a bassoon or two. This particular series of posts will focus on the clarinets, and in particular, three of the finest clarinets I've ever had the privilege of putting my fingers on...the new Buffet Divine, the Peter Eaton “International”, and the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm model 187. (See what I did there?)

I will probably do a follow-up post addressing the other clarinets I got to hang out with while I was there. :)

To write this in the spirit of honesty, I must first start by saying that I have never, ever really liked Buffet clarinets very much (the one exception being the Festival. I have always greatly liked the Festival), and not once have I ever played one professionally or otherwise, actually...except for the E11 that I had for a year in high school, and I have never understood why people have always gone so crazy for them, particularly the R13. Yes, I suppose in the right hands, they do have a lovely sound (if often a bit bright for my tastes), but the unevenness in resistance and sound quality between hands and between the various registers of the instrument, the inherent difficulties in intonation (widest. 12Ths. Ever!) and, lately, the questionable build choices (seriously? Nylon key pins that are GUARANTEED to snap on an instrument that costs the equivalent of the average American monthly salary?) have all just made it seem like more work than it's worth to play a Buffet. 

I personally have always preferred Leblanc clarinets, specifically the ones designed by clari-genius Tom Ridenour in the 90s. My first “real” clarinet was a Leblanc Sonata, and it was followed first by a pair of InfinitĂ©s, then a pair of Opuses (Opera?), then a Concerto Eb joined the family, and then another Opus in rosewood (one of only 27 that were ever made before the model was called the “Symphonie VII”, and then all the rosewood burned in a fire in the factory in France, which was probably one of the most awful things ever to happen to the clarinet universe). I instantly fell in love with the evenness of that era of Leblanc, and the fantastic intonation, and most of all, the dark, creamy sound. My entire concept of how I want to sound on the clarinet was built from the ground up on these instruments, and though it has evolved slightly over the years, that is still the sound I hear in my head, and the feeling I look for when I play a clarinet.

More recently (about five years ago, I'd say?) I switched it up a bit. A clarinet wizard from Vancouver named Morrie Backun (whose barrels and bells I'd been playing on for YEARS...I bought my first barrel back in 2001, and have always used them) partnered with Leblanc to create a line of clarinets that combined That Sound with Backun innovation, so of course I tried them...and immediately switched to the Leblanc Legacy. I defy anybody to claim that this is not one of the absolute finest production model clarinets to have ever existed in the history of clarinetistry, and I continue to play them. 

 However, that does not mean that there are not some other extraordinary clarinets being made out there, and that's precisely what this blog post is about! There are dozens of instruments out there that I would gladly play on a daily basis for the rest of my life, which is kind of awesome and also kind of hugely irritating, because I'm a Libra, and I can't make decisions! :)

I've meandered off topic a bit, but with good intentions. Now that you know I am absolutely NOT a Buffet fanboi or a secret card-carrying member of the “Buffet Mafia”, let's talk about their newest offering, the “Divine”.

Aptly named, sirs and madams, aptly named.

The Divine fits into the Buffet lineup directly next to the Tosca; what the Tosca is to the R13 bore family, the Divine is to the RC. Now, I actually like the Tosca, don't get me wrong...the intonation is pretty darn good, it's got a HUGE sound, it feels great in the hands, and some of the very finest clarinetists I know play them. HOWEVER, the Tosca, being the Granddaddy of All R13s, still has some of that laser-beam-ish quality to my ear, and it can come across as a bit raucous at times. The Divine, on the other hand, has all of that power and agility and great intonation, but it feels as though the edges have been polished off the sound a bit. It possesses a roundness that carries up through the various registers of the clarinet, and that roundness seems to stick around even at dynamic extremes. I also seem to recall noticing that the Divine has metal (or perhaps carbon fiber?) pins on the long E/B and F#/C# keys instead of the white nylon they use on the lower models. 

A story: The first time I ever encountered the Divine was at the Buffet Showroom in New York, where I spent a lovely afternoon with showroom manager Laurie Orr (an absolute PEACH of a woman! Love her!) trying out pretty much everything on display. She mentioned that many people had said that they thought the Divine was not capable of being played as powerfully as it might need to be in orchestral situations, and certainly not in comparison with the Tosca. So, I picked up a Tosca, and I played a three octave F major scale up, down, and in arpeggios, as loudly as I absolutely possibly could without sounding like an angry 4th grader, then I played a short cadenza from “Capriccio Espagnol” (the one starting on the low A, pianissimo, and progressively sweeping through an Am7 arpeggio up to high C and back down, with accompanying dynamic changes, which is one of my absolute FAVORITE excerpts for trying clarinets, because it tells me a lot about the instrument I'm testing). 

Then...I did the same thing on the Divine. 

The look on her face was priceless. You see, Laurie is the absolute BEST kind of person to demonstrate this kind of thing in front of, because Laurie is not a clarinetist. She IS, however, a musician, and therefore offers an excellent and impartial ear without any sort of clarinet-player preset ideas or judgments.

Her observation was that the Divine was in fact JUST as loud as the Tosca (my shoes vibrated, for real), but the sound maintains such a roundness and smoothness that it doesn't SEEM as loud. However, in a real, physical, measuring-decibels way, the Divine can be pushed just as much as the Tosca. It is a tiny smidge less free-blowing, however, so that bit of extra resistance from the player's point of view might lead to a belief that the sound isn't as open and large as you want it to be. This is incorrect. The end result to the listener is a very heroic symphonic forte with no loss of beauty in the sound, whereas the Tosca can get downright brutal if you let it. Of course, everyone will have different experiences with both of these instruments, depending upon your own personal playing style, mouthpiece/reed setup, etc etc, but I've now played at least six Divines (in both Bb and A), and far more Toscas, and these impressions have held true for me throughout the lines.

The evenness throughout the range of the instrument is also quite wonderful. It plays very fluidly between registers with very little manipulation of the embouchure needed, even for very large intervals. The upper clarion register is also beautifully sweet and lyrical, with almost a human soprano quality.

On the less positive side of things, I really dislike Buffet's approach to the low F correction mechanism found on both the Divine and the Tosca, which places a mini version of the right hand pinky keys underneath the low F key (where the low D key is on their 1193 bass clarinet and the basset horn), where it's quite awkward to reach, and you have to remember to reach for it in the first place and then put the finger back where it belongs. I vastly prefer Selmer's automatic low-F correction mechanism which is connected to the register key and operates via a bridge between the upper and lower joints, a mechanism which Backun is also currently employing on the MoBa clarinets. I also quite like the German approach, which Yamaha has adopted with the CSG-III, of a thumb-actuated mechanism for the correction. Your pinky doesn't have to learn anything new, and it's relatively simply to throw the thumb on when you're playing a loud low F. I did also notice that while the extreme altissimo does respond very nicely on the Divine, it can be a little thin and screamy, but then again...a written D7 has a hard time being anything but. :) I also feel like players who are die-hard R13 players and have that sound concept ingrained in their playing will not find the Divine's particular voice at all to their taste, because it IS very different, there's no getting around that.

To clarinetists who are curious about the Divine, I would implore you not to pay heed to the various comments on the web that decry it as “thin” and “bright” and “lacking in projection”, because none of those things are inherently true, and just go out there and try a Divine for yourself. Give it a shot, you just might like it!

(I should add that it is also a very visually stunning instrument, as Buffet has done away with traditional metal tenon rings and replaced them with carbon fiber bands, resulting in a very sleek-lined instrument that flows visually from top to bottom. As with all Buffet clarinets, gold plated keys are an option, and I cannot even IMAGINE how gorgeous *THAT* would be!)

In summation...you've won me over, Buffet.  I would play the Divine any day, and love every second of it! :) 

Here's a short video of me playing around with the Divine for a few minutes in Japan. (It's difficult to get a recording that really does it justice, especially in a music store trial room)...

For those who wonder these kinds of things, I'm testing the Divine using a Rico Reserve X10 mouthpiece, a Vandoren 56 Rue LePic 3.5 reed, and an 18K-gold plated Brancher ligature. 

And here is a video that features everyone's favorite clarinetting Scandinavian supermodel, Martin Frost, (mostly) playing and discussing the Divine (video courtesy of the official Buffet Crampon Youtube channel): 

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