French composer Nicolas Bacri doesn’t mince words. When his composer’s publisher called to ask if he were interested in writing a bass clarinet concerto, his first response was no. “Frankly, sincerely, I was not,” he said, “because for me the bass clarinet is not sexy enough to write a concerto.”
But when he found out that the organization making the inquiry was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he quickly reconsidered. “It was very difficult to refuse a commission coming from the best orchestra in the world, the Chicago Symphony, and the most famous and most prestigious conductor of our time, Riccardo Muti.”
In the end, he found a compromise that has made everyone happy. Bacri agreed to accept the commission, but instead of a full-fledged concerto, he has written a piece titled Ophelia’s Tears, Concertante Elegy for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 150. Bass clarinet J. Lawrie Bloom will join music director Riccardo Muti and the orchestra as soloist for the world premiere performances Feb. 20-23.
The 15-minute composition was inspired by an earlier work by the composer, Ophelia’s Mad Scene for soprano and clarinet. Both, of course, draw their ultimate inspiration from Shakespeare’s celebrated play, Hamlet, with its character of Ophelia, a Danish noblewoman who goes mad and ultimately dies.
“I think now we have a tone poem,” Bacri said, “a symphonic poem in three parts. First part, Tragedy. Second part, Madness. Third part, Death. Three linked different parts. I’m very happy about this. I think it will be a very poetic piece, with, of course, a very important part for bass clarinet solo, and very difficult to play but not virtuosic in the sense of a lot of notes and a lot of technical difficulties.”
The bass clarinet was viewed almost exclusively as an orchestral instrument until the 1950s, when pioneering Czech performer Josef Horák began performing solo recitals with his wife, a pianist, and commissioning works for the combination. Other bass clarinetists have followed his lead, and scores of works featuring the instrument have been written since, including concertos by such composers as Kalevi Aho, Anders Eliasson and Jonathan Russell.
With the CSO, Bloom has previously performed two concertos, a 1988 work by Ian Krouse, a distinguished professor of music at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the American premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Autumn Sonata (1993). The notion of a third turn in the spotlight came up a few years ago in a conversation between Bloom and Muti, when the maestro suggested the idea of commissioning a concerto for the longtime bass clarinetist.
Working with Cristina Rocca, CSO president for artistic planning, Bloom prepared a short list of possible concerto composers for Muti to consider, and he selected Bacri, who also happened to be the bass clarinetist’s first choice. “I was just really attracted to Nicolas’ music. I found it really spoke to me,” he said. “His Cello Concerto is just amazing. He’s written enormous amounts of music, and he is a wonderful composer. So when Muti liked him, I was like, ‘Great, let’s go with that.’”
Bacri previously had regarded the instrument as “dignified” and “solemn” and one that was “very interesting” to have in an orchestra. “But for me, a concerto implies virtuosic features, and I really didn’t see a bass clarinet doing virtuoso things.” So he began to think about what approach might make sense.
Bloom and Bacri initiated an e-mail communication, and the composer proposed the idea of writing a work drawing on his Ophelia’s Mad Scene. The roots of that earlier work go back some 30 years when Bacri heard clarinetist Armand Angster and his wife, soprano Françoise Kubler, at various contemporary-music festivals. Though he didn’t care for the music they were playing, Kubler’s vocal technique and stage aura sparked the notion of writing a work around the idea of Ophelia’s madness. But he had not able to realize the idea until 2018 after soprano Noriko Yakushiji asked him to write a piece for her. “I told her, for myself, I was only interested in writing this piece and not any other piece,” she said. “So she accepted.”
The idea of returning to that piece was inspired by the death of respected composer and conductor Oliver Knussen in July 2018 at age 66. Though the two only met on two occasions, Bacri was a big admirer, and he wanted to pay tribute to his colleague. One of the first pieces by Knussen he heard happened to be Ophelia’s Dances (1975), which he called a “masterpiece.” He took that as sign and decided to pursue their mutual attraction to Ophelia in his new work for the CSO, dedicating it to Bloom and the memory of Knussen. “That will be a fantastic way of focusing the listener of my piece not on the virtuoso aspects of the bass clarinet, but focusing the listener on Shakespeare, on Hamlet, on Ophelia,” he recalled.
In February 2019, Bloom flew to Paris and met Bacri at the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Paris, where the composer has taught since October 2017. Bloom played the solo clarinet version of Ophelia’s Mad Scene on the bass clarinet as well as some orchestral excerpts, and Bacri asked questions about the range, aural dimensions and other aspects of the instrument. “I talked to him about the kinds of things that I didn’t really like in some contemporary writing for the bass clarinet,” Bloom said. “He was in total agreement.”
Bloom especially voiced his objections to what he called “gimmickry,” effects that might be showy but don’t advance a composition musically. Five days or so after Bloom returned home, he received an e-mail from Bacri saying, “This thing is flowing before my eyes like a river.”
Around May 2019, the piece was completed. Bloom is thrilled with the result. “I think it’s great writing for the bass clarinet,” he said. “Hamlet is not exactly a comedy. It’s one of the great tragedies of all time, and this is not the most upbeat piece in a lot of ways. I feel at times that I’m playing Lucia di Lammermoor or something. I have a mad scene. I have the death. But it’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful writing.”
Bacri began composing at age 15, and from 18 to 28, he pursued an atonalist, what he called “post-Darmstadt” style, a reference to the rigid modernist music espoused by many of the composers associated with Germany’s Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music from the early 1950s to the early ‘60s. He dedicated his first symphony in 1989 to Elliott Carter, who praised the work. “Then I realized progressively that this music was doomed,” he said. “I’m 58 now, and when I was 18 in 1980, I was pretty sure that in 2020 every performer would play Webern like he plays Mozart. Now we are sure that is not the case and that it will never be the case. So that means what? That means it was the wrong path for the evolution of music.”
Because of these realizations, Bacri’s music has grown more melodic and tonal, and he no longer regards Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio and even Carter as idols in the same way he once did.
That said, Bacri does incorporate elements of atonal music in Ophelia’s Tears. “Ophelia was mad,” he said. “And madness for me is not in C major. In the second part of my work, titled Madness, we have a hint, maybe much more than a hint, of what my music was 30 years ago. I’m very happy to have this work, which testifies to the variety of language you can find in my work, and to have also a kind of stylistic synthesis of my tonal and atonal music.”