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