Though the bass clarinet is often overlooked, composers such as Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich have capitalized on the instrument’s distinctive growly sound to help sculpt moods that can be ominous, melancholic or weighty.
J. Lawrie Bloom never planned to specialize in the low-pitched instrument, which dates to the 1770s, but he has become one of its most respected exponents. He joined the Chicago Symphony in 1980 as the orchestra’s bass clarinetist, often playing other members of the clarinet family as needed.
For the third time during his tenure, Bloom will be centerstage Feb. 20-23 as soloist with the orchestra in the world premiere of French composer Nicolas Bacri’s Ophelia’s Tears, Concertante Elegy, Op. 150. The 15-minute work was inspired by an earlier piece by the composer, Ophelia’s Mad Scene for soprano and clarinet. Both, of course, draw their ultimate inspiration from Shakespeare’s celebrated play, Hamlet, and its character of Ophelia, a Danish noblewoman who goes mad and ultimately dies, perhaps by her own hand. Ophelia’s Tears was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is dedicated to Bloom and composer-conductor Oliver Knussen, who died in 2018.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Bloom, grew up in Bethesda, Md., and Princeton, N.J. His mother was an opera singer who trained at a predecessor company to Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she insisted he take piano lessons, which he began at age 4. The youngster was not a willing student. “I could never figure out at that age why I had to use one particular finger when I had plenty, and I had one of these Teutonic piano teachers who was very demanding of perfection,” he said. “It drove me nuts.”
When he was in fourth grade, he chose to play the clarinet in band class, persuading his mother to let him give up piano if took private lessons on that instrument. Bloom quickly developed an affinity for the clarinet, going on to earn music degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia and Arizona State University. He never set out to play the bass clarinet, but there just happened to be orchestral positions for the instrument when he began seeking a job.
He first auditioned for a bass clarinet post with the Milwaukee Symphony (one of his grandparents lived in the city). He didn’t make the finals but came close, an encouraging sign given he had just been playing the instrument for a few months.
Bloom began his career as the assistant principal clarinetist and bass clarinetist for the Phoenix Symphony, where he stayed for two seasons. He still didn’t consider himself a full-fledged bass clarinetist and found himself struggling with the instrument. To see what kind of progress he was making, he auditioned for a bass clarinet position with a major orchestra, and to his surprise, came in as runner-up. That success spurred him to work harder on the instrument, and he began to adopt it as his own.
After leaving Phoenix in 1976, he went on to be a member of the Lyric of Opera of Chicago Orchestra and played with the Vancouver (British Columbia) Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony before joining the CSO. “So in four years, I had been in five orchestras,” Bloom said. “That is how fast the auditions were happening. But by then, I had really started to realize that the bass gave me a voice I’d never had.”
The biggest challenge of playing the bass clarinet is to understand the instrument’s unique voice, its particular pitch range and other qualities. Ninety percent of bass clarinetists come to it from the standard clarinet as Bloom did, and at first they try to play it like a regular clarinet.
“To do what I do,” Bloom said, referring to his dual roles, “I think you want to play them with as little change as possible if you are going back and forth constantly. But you have to realize: ‘How do I find the real voice of the bass and what’s different?’ There are just things you can do on each instrument that you can’t do on the other, and that’s what makes it exciting for me.”
At the same time, he will listen to an operatic singer such as German bass René Pape, and he asks himself how can achieve some of the same expressive qualities on the bass clarinet. Because the 40-inch-tall instrument is significantly larger than a conventional clarinet, it can be harder to play and requires more air; players must get maximum efficiency out of out every breath.
Bloom’s introduction to CSO was a little bit of a trial by fire. He was still completing his time with the Cincinnati Symphony, when Georg Solti asked him to sit in for performances of The Rite of Spring in Orchestra Hall and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Bloom managed to fit the dates into his schedule. “That was a little intimidating, that your very first rehearsal was Rite of Spring,” he said, describing one of the repertory’s most challenging works, with its spiky rhythms and colliding motives. “I’d never played it in a group that played like this. I remember thinking it was really cool.”
Bloom had never worked with a conductor of the stature of Solti, the CSO’s music director from 1969 through 1991. “Solti scared the hell out of me at first,” he said. But he quickly discovered that if he squinted, Solti looked just like his grandfather, and that lessened his fright. Bloom ultimately became a fan of the conductor. “As you got used to him, you realized that he never went after players, ever,” he said. “He would make corrections and ask for exactly what he wanted, but it was never mean-spirited, and he got what he wanted. And that’s the goal. You stand up there and you say, ‘I realize you guys all have ideas, but this week it goes my way.’”
Daniel Barenboim took over as the orchestra’s music director in 1991, and Bloom described the maestro as an “incredibly interesting musician” and a “complex human being.” But Bloom lit up at the mention of Riccardo Muti, who is marking his 10th anniversary as the CSO’s artistic leader this season. “I love Muti,” he said. Bloom was in school in Philadelphia in the early 70s, when Muti was one of several young guest conductors with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “We all looked forward to their arrival, because the orchestra sounded great and they all had so much energy.”
When Muti first came to the CSO as guest conductor before his appointment as music director, Bloom made a point of going to see the maestro. “I’ve been waiting 35 years to play for you since I’ve been a student, and I’m so happy you’re here,” he recalled saying to Muti. The conductor, who served as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980 to 1992, was a good friend of Anthony Gigliotti, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist who also was Bloom’s teacher. The bass clarinetist and conductor bonded over that mutual tie.
“Everything he does, he does incredibly well,” Bloom said of Muti. He cited the example of César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a less frequently heard work that the CSO once performed on tour. Bloom thought the symphony was hardly an obvious choice, because it wasn’t the kind of showpiece that orchestras typically program, but Muti made most of it. “It was so beautiful,” he said. “I’d never heard the piece done that well.”
Bloom describes the maestro as easygoing with first-rate baton technique, and like Solti, he also gets what he wants from the orchestra. “There is a lyricism from Muti that is wonderful, that he encourages,” he said, “and I think that is because of all the opera in his life.”
Despite his demanding CSO schedule, Bloom has always found time to fit many other musical activities into his life. He retired in May from Northwestern University, where he taught clarinet for 28 years. “I had thought about retiring from the orchestra and keep teaching, but I just decided to do it the other way,” he said. In addition, he stepped down last year as co-artistic director of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival in Easton, Md., a post he had held for 34 years. He remains a member of the Civitas Ensemble, a Chicago-based chamber-music group he helped found in 2011.
“Why not?” he said of his many activities. “There is stuff out there to do, and it’s fun.”