The University of North Carolina School of the Arts boasts a fine compliment of "artist-faculty," instructors who are also busy professional performers with international reputations. In addition to being dedicated and knowledgeable educators of traditional techniques and musicianship skills, UNCSA's faculty consistently explore, reimagine, and refine their craft, pushing the boundaries of their instruments and the music written for them.
The spirit of experimentation and virtuosity was on full display Saturday night, when clarinetist Oskar Espina-Ruiz and pianist Allison Gagnon presented "Rhapsodies for Clarinet and Piano." On paper, the program didn't look revolutionary. Most of the selections dated from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with familiar names like Claude Debussy and Robert Schumann. But this was not the canon as usual: many of these pieces were transcriptions by Espina-Ruiz for his instrument – and his inimitable technique.
Opening the concert was one of the program's two pieces originally written for clarinet – Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie. Debussy was the wizard of sound colors: no matter the instrumentation to which he turned his pen and his ear, sensual and enveloping textures emerged. Espina-Ruiz and Gagnon wove a shimmering fabric of melody and chord color, filling Watson Hall with glorious sound.
The remaining two pieces on the first half were transcriptions: Enrique Granados' Violin Sonata and J.C. Arriaga's String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat. Espina-Ruiz has a special connection with Arriaga: they both grew up in Bilbao, in the north of Spain. His transcription has a daring premise: use an essentially monodic duo to recreate a musical narrative relying on four interacting instruments.
The problem is not the sheer number of notes on the page – the piano, after all, can easily meet the required number of simultaneous voices. The challenge is more subtle: Classical musicians like to refer to string quartet music as a kind of "conversation" between four performers, whereas sonatas with piano accompaniment are often rhetorically arranged like miniature concertos, with one musician featured and the other supporting.
How did Espina-Ruiz reconcile these two contradictory scenarios? With a clever combination of shifting registers in both his instrument and the piano. While there were a few unconvincing moments in which a quick transition from one octave to another recalled the original instrumentation in an unflattering way, the transcription was mostly successful. It sounded and felt more like a sonata than a quartet, but the music withstood this change in aspect.
The Granados was somewhat less successful, with the extreme register of the original composition taxing Espina-Ruiz's instrument. This consummate musician was by no means beneath the task of these extraordinarily difficult passages: his performance was, in fact, astonishing. But the expressive musical affect of the original composition suffered somewhat in the transfer from violin to clarinet. More on that later.
Opening the second half was Tableaux by UNCSA student composer Algernon "A.J." Robinson. This two-movement piece for solo clarinet (no piano) is nuanced and rich. With sweeping gestures carved from a complex quasi-tonal pitch language, Tableaux is a delightful exploration of the various tone colors available to the instrument. Student he may be, but AJ is already a sophisticated composer with a fine ear. It's a testament to Espina-Ruiz's magnanimous educational spirit that he shares his knowledge and musicianship with budding composers. Kudos!
Following the Robinson, and closing the concert, was the final Espina-Ruiz arrangement, Schumann's Sonata in A minor, originally for violin and piano. This was the most successful of the three transcriptions, with Schumann's masterful piano writing providing color and resonance beneath the difficult clarinet line. Gagnon, who specializes in collaborative piano, was infinitely warm and delicate in her accompaniment; but to those familiar with the keyboard, her own awesome technique was on subtle display. Espina-Ruiz also demonstrated his thorough command of long-term forms. The Schumann sonata is dense, but Espina-Ruiz never got lost in the details, controlling his phrasing of repeated gestures with the utmost care.
My overall impression of the three transcriptions was a mixture of awe and puzzlement. Espina-Ruiz is almost as much martial artist as musician, with an exhibition-worthy ability to make the instrument speak in stratospheric registers. However, there's a disparity between the lush, beautiful, and often delicate expressive qualities of these compositions' highest passages and the taut, risky athleticism and tortured sound of the clarinet's extreme altissimo register. Of course, some beloved and enduring repertoire asks the performer to navigate nearly impossible technical challenges with effortless fluidity. But in the most effective examples of virtuoso writing, composers deploy difficulty strategically, pairing musical rhetoric with appropriate techniques.
In Paganini's caprices, for instance, the mood is often tense and thrilling. The violinist plays the role of stunt artist defying death; deviations from perfect intonation and phrasing only heighten the tension and serve the theater. Chopin's etudes, on the other hand, utilize the composer's unmatched knowledge of the piano and its timbres: the difficult passages frequently result in sparkling, resonant waves of sound unavailable with simpler techniques.
The Granados follows this model: the climaxes in the original violin score inhabit a register that is by no means easy to navigate, but which rewards the performer (and the audience) with a blossoming, expressive tone. It seems stubbornly optimistic to transmit these beautiful passages to the clarinet's most extreme register, which offers the performer scant hope of speaking, much less singing.
With all that said, many of Espina-Ruiz's more daring transcription choices were in fact quite clever and appropriate, and the sheer force of his stunning musicianship won the audience over. Espina-Ruiz, Gagnon, and student composer A.J. Robinson all did truly fine work to mount an engaging and epic concert. Bravi to all!