Having barely settled in after his appointment as principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 2011, the same position opened in the New York Philharmonic, and Stephen Williamson was invited to audition for it. The newly arrived Chicagoan still felt close to the Big Apple, since he had lived there since graduating from Juilliard in 1995, and had served as principal clarinetist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for eight years. He won the Philharmonic job and took a leave of absence in 2013-14 to give it a try.

But after a year, Williamson realized that his musical heart really belonged to the CSO and Music Director Riccardo Muti, so the clarinetist decided to return and was quickly welcomed back. “I am thrilled and honored to be a member of this incredible organization, artistically and professionally,” he said.

Chicago audiences will get their first opportunity Feb. 11-16 to hear Williamson as a soloist, when he takes center stage with the CSO in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. There are many concertos for the clarinet by prolific composers such as Aaron Copland, Carl Nielsen, Louis Spohr, Carl Maria von Weber, John Corigliano, just to name a few, but Mozart’s concerto is far and away the best known and most performed such work for the clarinet; some experts consider it to be the greatest concerto he ever wrote for any instrument. “I certainly think it is the gem of our repertoire,” he said.

CSO principal clarinet Stephen Williamson works with a UMKC student during a master class. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

CSO principal clarinet Stephen Williamson works with a UMKC student during a master class. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

As a young musician, Williamson flirted with the idea of becoming a soloist and won several competitions, but he believes that his greatest contribution artistically resides with the orchestral repertoire. Returning to the solo spotlight is always rewarding. “I think one of the strongest challenges is not to lose my voice, the way I play in the orchestra, to bring that to the front of the stage.”

He most recently performed the Mozart concerto with the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in Japan in 2011 and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in 2012, and he is excited to take it on in Chicago. “Mozart is an operatic composer, and I think my goal is to bring as many colors and voice types to this role. I must narrate a dialogue between many characters in this magnificent piece, and every vocal color must be beautiful and unforced,” he said. “It is also a challenge to express the simplicity of Mozart’s long musical lines without getting in the way.”

The piece was initially written for a basset horn in the key of G, then ultimately for the basset clarinet in A, a lower-pitched member of the clarinet family that Anton Stadler helped design. Although some soloists do perform this piece on the basset clarinet, Williamson has chosen the often-heard transcribed version for a modern clarinet. “ At this time in my life, the Mozart concerto speaks to me on the clarinet I currently play. When you have the opportunity to perform with Maestro Muti and the CSO, you want to be true to yourself.”

Every instrument presents its own special challenges, and the largest hurdles for the clarinet revolve around air support and a firm embouchure. Especially in Orchestra Hall, which does not have the most resonant acoustics, Williamson said, it is important to have a strong air flow, so the instrument can really project — something on which the clarinetist prides himself. “I use an immense amount of air,” he said. “I trained extensively for  years to embrace this. The combination of this incredible amount of force, which you learn how to control properly and co-exist with a strong and firm embouchure — is one of the most difficult things to comprehend as a clarinetist.”

Williamson plays a Selmer Signature clarinet — a high-end instrument made by Henri Selmer Paris. He discovered the instrument while still a freelance musician and immediately fell in love with it, although it can be “resistant” and difficult to master. “I found that as soon as I switched to that instrument, it did make me work harder, but there were things that I always wished I could do that I couldn’t do on any other instrument,” he said.  The instrument is made of the very dense grenadilla wood from the mpingo tree, which grows in 26 African countries but is endangered because of its slow growth and the heavy demand for the product. “The tree is threatened and clarinet manufacturers are looking at different types of wood to replace it,” he said. “I haven’t found anything better, so I try to stockpile as many grenadilla instruments as I can.”

Born in Denver, Williamson split his early childhood between Wyoming and Texas, eventually settling with his family in Austin when he was in sixth grade. His father was hired as a high-school band director there and oversaw his son’s musical education. The aspiring musician wanted to play trumpet like his older brother, but his father steered him to the clarinet to avoid sibling competition. “Once I started playing the clarinet,” he said, “I loved it. I certainly am indebted to my father, as I wouldn’t have picked the clarinet on my own.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree and performer’s certificate from the respected Eastman School of Music in 1991, he won a Fulbright Scholarship for studies in Berlin. It was just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the city was undergoing a massive transformation when he arrived. He chose Germany in part because one of his favorite orchestras was the Berlin Philharmonic, and he was fascinated with the German-system clarinet. While he was able to get some mentoring from members of the orchestra, Williamson’s main teacher was Peter Rieckhoff, a prominent clarinetist who was on the faculty of the Hochschule der Künste. He had three lessons a week, each running two or three hours, plus a studio master class on Saturdays. “We were having so much fun, the time just flew by,” he said. Professor Rieckhoff did not speak English, so Williamson had to learn German quickly so the two could communicate.

Two primary schools of clarinet playing exist: the French (predominant in the United States) and German, each with its own fingering and its own sound. “Most people typically think that the German clarinet is ‘darker,’ but I hear it as pure and centered,” he said. Because of his studies in Germany, Williamson has developed a hybrid sound that falls in between the two schools. “Maestro Muti has been so wonderful and incredibly generous with his compliments to me, that my sound is always what he envisioned the clarinet to sound like,” he said. ” I am deeply humbled by his appreciation of my playing. “

After earning his master’s degree from New York’s Juilliard School in 1995 and freelancing for a time, he joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2003 as principal clarinetist. Performing operatic staples along with a steady diet of new and unusual works was both a constant challenge and showcase for him. “The clarinet’s role in the opera orchestra is probably the most important of all the winds,” he said. It was great, because I learned to emulate the voice. That was my goal. I just wanted to sing.”

As much as he loved playing with the Met Orchestra, he jumped at the chance to audition for the the CSO, curious to compare the symphonic schedule and workload with opera’s intense rehearsal time and long performances. He was absolutely thrilled to become Maestro Muti’s first principal hire. While there is an inevitable learning curve in moving from an opera to a symphonic orchestra, especially a world-class ensemble like the CSO, the shift was eased by the kind of ensemble he was leaving. Famed music director James Levine has built the Met Opera Orchestra into one of the country’s top orchestras — operatic or symphonic — and it usually plays at least three symphonic concerts a year at Carnegie Hall. “I think if I had come from any other opera orchestra, it would probably have been a difficult transition,” he said.

Though his journey is still far from over, Williamson reveres the privilege of playing in three such prestigious orchestras. “I’ve been sort of pinching myself,” he said. “I’ve had the honor to be a member of such wonderful orchestras and to have had opportunities that most musicians only dream of.”

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.

TOP: Stephen Williamson, CSO principal clarinet, performs during the CSO’s fall tour. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015