Frank Proto
Sextet for Clarinet and Strings

Sextet for Clarinet and Strings was written between August and November 2006 as part of a two-part project to showcase the unique talents of Clarinet virtuoso Eddie Daniels. The work - scored for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and clarinet - is especially intended for players comfortable in a wide range of musical styles.

In the late 1950s Eddie Daniels and I were classmates at The High School of Performing Arts in New York City. After graduating in 1959 we went off in different but similar directions, working in a musically wide range of our profession. Our paths crossed rarely but when they did we usually spoke about doing something together. On one of those occasions Eddie was engaged as a soloist with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. I learned of it a few weeks before the concert, called him, and after a short conversation it was decided that I would compose a piece for him to be premiered at that concert. The "Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra" was born on May 8, 1987. Unfortunately it was one of those programs for which only one rehearsal was scheduled, leaving no opportunity to make changes to the music or even play through it more than once. Luckily, with the combined skills of the soloist, orchestra and conductor, the piece managed to get around all of the usual sight- reading pitfalls and end without serious incident.

About ten years later our paths crossed again and once more we talked about doing something together. This time there was no performance scheduled and we had more time to think about what direction we'd like to take. For starters we elected to go with a smaller ensemble - a string orchestra. We also decided that the music should try to inhabit that betwixt world - on those Bridges - between jazz and classical music. That treacherous ground that never fails to bring out the guardians, the protectors-of-the-faith and divine messengers of both musical camps to weld their swords against any contamination that might infect their precious charges. This is a delicate area, laced with mine fields and other traps that have tripped up many composers and performers over the years. But after having navigated its waters for close to 50 years - Eddie playing consistently with premiere jazz artists, while at the same time regularly performing the staples of both the clarinet concerto and chamber music repertoire with major ensembles throughout the world, and I having had the opportunity to compose for world-class soloists in both of those worlds - we both felt confident that we could come up with something musically worthwhile, and if not, we were determined to have a good time trying! It also happened that we were coming up on the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin's birth (1898). Gershwin was probably our first true cross-over composer, not so much because of what he had already accomplished, but more for where he was surely headed before his untimely death at the age of 38. The resulting work, "Sketches of Gershwin," which we decided to dedicate to George on his 100th Anniversary, sat dormant for nine years. A suitable performance opportunity just didn't present itself.

In early 2006 I was perturbed about never having heard the Sketches and was discussing this with Eddie. We both wanted to hear the piece under the best possible circumstances - i.e. not at a quick read-through rehearsal for a concert - and decided that the best route to go was to record the piece with a small string orchestra made up of very strong players. We began to plan the sessions, and as we searched for dates and availability of players thought that it might be fun to also include some companion pieces to the Sketches. This led to even more grandiose ideas. By the time our conversation had finished it was decided that we would do a whole project together calling on our long experiences in both styles of music. Our self-imposed challenge was to keep Gershwin in mind during the whole adventure. Using some of his melodies in separate arrangements is always great fun but keeping a bit of his essence present in some less obvious ways is even more rewarding.

What does it mean to be working in this (for lack of a better term) crossover world? To many the term itself is off-putting. But if we're able to get past arguments of definitions - especially the old standbys about what is or isn't jazz - and all of the preconceptions that accompany them and cut to the matter at hand: what does this mean for the music itself? - we might see that one important puzzle that must be solved is: how do we combine the improvisational aspects of one style with the importance of formal structure of the other. While it certainly isn't necessary, or even expected to use the common forms of older music, they can be really valuable in helping to keep us (composers) coherent. Delving deeper into this subject is far be- yond the scope of this program note, but it's helpful to know that when we introduce foreign matter into any musical style it's a sure road to chaos when all the rules are thrown out. Of course chaos in itself can be a great tool, but when and how to use it for great effectiveness is another point that needs our attention.

Introducing the aspect of improvisation, especially jazz improvisation into an otherwise classical situation presents its own set of questions: How do we make it work logically within the context of the material that we are using? How do we avoid making it sound like an alien add-on that makes no musical sense? Answers to these questions always lead to more questions: How much freedom do we give the performer? How much do we control the material that is improvised upon? We are sure to find ourselves in deep water without a life jacket when we dive into this risky sea unprepared. If we try to control every aspect of the performer's improvisation it's sure to sound stilted. If we just say improvise here and give very little or no guidance we run the risk that it will just sound like a big splice from one unrelated piece into another. Maybe it becomes time to think about Duke telling us: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Surely this is one of those situations where the success of each performance changes radically depending on the skill and inspiration of the improviser. But since we already know that everything has its own kind of swing, we listeners and performers can look forward to each performance being a premiere.

The "Sextet for Clarinet and Strings" is in three movements. The first is the most conventional, serving to introduce the material much the piece is based upon. The second is basically in two parts - slow and fast. If Gershwin seems to come to mind now and then, don't forget we are thinking about him. There are several improvisations - in different styles - in this movement which closes quietly. The last movement, after an introduction reminiscent of the beginning of the first, puts all of the previously played material together with enough twists and turns to bring things to a rousing finish.

Frank Proto Feb. 12, 2007
from the DVD Bridges - Eddie Daniels Plays the music of Frank Proto

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