Interview with clarinetist and “Fidelio” podcaster Marie Ross

Marie Ross, whose popular Fidelio Podcast may be known to some ARS members, graciously agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions related to her passion for original instruments, Rossini, and her career in general. The episodes of the Podcast are eclectic. Of particular interest is her “My year of living dangerously, 4 Rossini operas in one year”. Be sure to give them a listen!

My Year of Living Dangerously: 4 Rossini Operas

Please tell us how you came to play the clarinet and in particular what attracted you to historical instruments.

I started out wanting to play jazz saxophone, because we listened to jazz at home. But after listening to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (for the saxophone solo of course), I fell in love with classical music! The clarinet was suggested by the director of our local youth symphony, as I had called up wanting to audition on saxophone and learned that they didn’t have regular places for saxophones. That was in the 6th grade. But it was not until much later while studying for my Master’s degree at the San Francisco Conservatory that I first tried a historical clarinet.

Some of the collection of clarinets that Marie Ross brought to NYC in connection with with a recent visit to teach there.

I had taken my clarinets in for service to an instrument technician, David Deitsch, who also makes historical clarinets. As I was waiting for him to work on my instruments, he had taken down a historical classical clarinet that was hanging on the wall for decoration. From the first moment that I blew into it, I knew that historical clarinet was something that I had to pursue. The sound was like none I had ever experienced making: much sweeter and more intimate. And when I learned more about it: about the different colors and timbres the instruments created that the composers were writing for, (and that have all disappeared and become homogeneous now) I knew I absolutely had to pursue historical instrument playing.

For the benefit of those who might not know, can you give a thumb-nail account of the development of the clarinet both as an instrument and its role in the orchestra and ensembles? Is the instrument played in Rossini’s time different, for example, from the ones used now?

The clarinet has undergone a huge evolution from the 2-keyed Baroque clarinet and chalumeau to what we know now. In the Baroque period, the clarinet had a similar role to the trumpet, and in early Haydn orchestral works you also see this (with the clarinet writing consisting of mostly whole notes in loud tutti passages). As the players and instrument developed, composers like Mozart and Haydn (in his later years) realized that they could use the clarinet as a melodic instrument. It kept its role as a melodic instrument from the classical period until now. The clarinet was quite popular in the Romantic period, and even eclipsed the previous king of the wind section, the oboe, as the favorite during that era.

The clarinet used in Rossini’s time would have been much different to the modern instrument. The Italians were mostly using German instruments at that time, and for most of Rossini’s career, he would have heard these works on clarinets with between 5 and 10 keys. These instruments were made of boxwood, a light-brown wood found commonly in Europe that is delicate, light, and fragile – and partially responsible for the sound and response of the early wind instruments.

The clarinet used in Rossini’s time would have been much different to the modern instrument. The Italians were mostly using German instruments at that time, and for most of Rossini’s career, he would have heard these works on clarinets with between 5 and 10 keys. These instruments were made of boxwood, a light-brown wood found commonly in Europe that is delicate, light, and fragile – and partially responsible for the sound and response of the early wind instruments. By the later French operas (Guillaume Tell, Le Comte Ory), the premieres might have been played on the French Müller- System clarinets. These clarinets were also boxwood, but had enough keys (13), and a complicated enough system so that the player could play a much more homogeneous chromatic scale with it. For players who have tried to play these later operas on the earlier 10-key clarinets, it is really possible to feel that they would have had those extra keys on the more advanced clarinets. The clarinet parts became more chromatic and complicated in these last works!

Do you play other wind instruments, and is it the case that they too have evolved over the years?

It is certainly true that all the wind instruments (as well as strings and keyboards) have evolved in parallel directions. The point has always been for the instruments to become more chromatic, louder, and to be able to sustain longer phrases. One of the most poignant truths that you come to learn quickly form the study of any instrument’s evolution is that with each “improvement”, comes a sacrifice. So with each new aspect of the instrument that the builder gains, he also gives up another quality of that instrument. As instruments have evolved in the direction of having more keys, being louder, and being able to sustain a tone, they have also given up their flexibility of sound, different timbres and tones, and sweetness of sound. Through the ages, there has been documented complaining by players and audience, mostly about the lack of character in new instruments. As an example of this, there is a great quote from the composer, Karl Gottleib Reissiger (who was Richard Wagner’s boss for a time as Hofkapellmeister in Dresden). This was from 1837, the period where the valve horn was taking over the natural horn, and both were still being played:

“I hear such a beautiful, sustained solo performed in a colorless monotone on a valve horn, and it seems to me as if the instrument is moaning: ‘My love, I am a horn. Don’t you recognize me any more? I admit that I am too severely constricted, I am somewhat uncentered and hoarse, my sweetness is gone, my tone sounds as if it has to go through a filter sack in which its power gets stuck.'”

As for playing other instruments, I stick to the clarinets now! But as I play all of them, from Baroque through modern, and they all have different mouthpieces, reeds, and fingerings, it is already quite enough to keep track of! It is common even for clarinets from the classical period to all have slightly different fingerings that work for them – each instrument is so individual. When you learn a historic instrument, you are really learning that instrument: its tuning, fingerings that work well, and even the hands get accustomed to the shape of the keys and placement of the holes. There are so many fascinating differences from learning a historical instrument than its modern counterpart, which is a much more streamlined process.

Now to Rossini questions!!! Which Rossini operas have you performed in. Your famously titled podcast – 4 Rossini operas in a year certainly lets us know some of them!

Yes! I have played seven Rossini operas with the French period-instrument orchestra, Ensemble Matheus: Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, Le comte Ory, La pietra del paragone, Otello, L’italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola, and Elisabetta. Ensemble Mathus played a huge production of the Barber of Seville right before I joined the orchestra. I’ve never played it, and am still itching to! We’ve also played quite a few Rossini and Mozart aria concerts with the fabulous Marie-Nicole Lemieux, so I’ve gotten to play the Overture and “Voi che sapete” with her! Our conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, is a great Rossini specialist, so hopefully I will keep adding to the list!

What are the specific challenges (if any) in playing Rossini as compared to, for example Mozart?

This is a big question! To put it concisely, for wind players, it takes a different sort of air. Playing in Rossini must be extremely light, and if it gets at all heavy, it will be too slow and bogged down. It is the same for Mozart, but the articulations are not quite the same. Mozart is about the shape of the notes: tension and release. And Rossini is quite a lot about light, fast, and short notes! And of course, Rossini has his famous crescendi, which can take quite a bit of discipline to pull off for wind players. It’s about starting the Rossini crescendo soft enough to make the full effect in the climax!

Do you have a favorite “clarinet moment” in a Rossini opera? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

It’s always difficult to pick out one favorite of anything.. I usually have a favorite clarinet moment in each opera!

But I’ll tell you about a few big ones.

One would certainly be the opening to the Overture of La Cenerentola. It is basically a duet for the two clarinets. Much of it is in octaves, which is always a challenge to get well in tune on historical instruments… but when you have a really great colleague playing the other part with you, it is just amazing. It’s usually a bit nerve-wracking to play as it comes straight at the beginning of the opera and is extremely exposed. In Ensemble Matheus I am lucky enough to play with one of my best friends ever, Toni Salar-Verdú, who has taught me an incredible lot about how to play the clarinet. We played Cenerentola in the Salzburg Festival a few summers ago, and having a moment like that for two clarinets in the Overture was great fun each night.

Another one is the Overture to La pietra del paragone! It has what we think is the first notated glissando in a clarinet part! (Another glissando clarinet moment you might be familiar with is the clarinet solo in the opening to Rhapsody in Blue, which is very jazzy and something quite different – but it’s the same sliding effect.) It’s fantastic: the clarinet stops on a high note, and then slides down an octave to play the theme. I played this once in the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles (that’s a fantastic concert venue!) It was incredible, because I could actually audibly hear the gasp from the audience after I played the glissando. These kinds of slides are also quite fun and easy to do on historical clarinets, as they are more bendable and flexible than the modern. So our conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, and I really exaggerated it and played it up. Really great fun!

It was incredible, because I could actually audibly hear the gasp from the audience after I played the glissando. These kinds of slides are also quite fun and easy to do on historical clarinets, as they are more bendable and flexible than the modern. So our conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, and I really exaggerated it and played it up. Really great fun!

It has to be said, though, that often my favorite bits in an opera are the parts that I don’t play. It leaves me open to listen to the music in a different way than when I’m playing. I’ve loved opera since I was about 12, and everywhere that I’ve lived, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the opera houses. As a student I always bought discounted rush tickets, and even if the seat was in the back of the house, I’d wait for the last moment before the curtain to grab an empty seat in the front. I was extraordinarily lucky, and could usually grab a free seat in the front row. The opera experience has always been so different for me in the front row compared with the back of the house. I feel like I’m in it – I can see the singers breathe, watch the small gestures the conductor shows to the orchestra. And having a place in the pit is the absolute best – it’s the dream job for an opera lover.

Please share with us a little biographical information and tell us about your career.

I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and finished high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. After studying modern clarinet performance at the Eastman School of Music (NY), San Francisco Conservatory, and the University of North Texas, I moved to the Netherlands to study historical clarinet at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, one of only a few institutions where you can study period clarinet full time. It was quite a change! I was going from making the finals in the St. Louis Symphony audition to not being able to play a C major scale. Historical wind instruments are so different from their modern counterparts in every way you can imagine. But I was determined, and after three years of studying at The Hague, I moved to Cologne (Germany) where I worked as a freelance historical clarinetist for almost 10 years.

Historical clarinet Marie Ross bought especially to play with Cecilia Bartoli. Signed by Bartoli, that performance is now a part of the story of the instrument.

Most of the historical orchestras are freelance, but there are a few top ones that hold auditions and have members like modern orchestras. I won an audition for the Associate Principal Clarinet position in the French orchestra, Ensemble Matheus (where I have played all of my Rossini), in 2011 and have been there ever since. I’ve also played regularly and recorded with orchestras like Concerto Köln, MusicaAeterna (Teodor Currentzis), and Die Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (René Jacobs).

About three years ago, I moved my base to New Zealand when I got the position of Lecturer and Head of Woodwinds at The University of Auckland. I teach both modern and historical clarinet here, and it’s fantastic because I have incredible colleagues here who I play with all the time. This has also allowed me to do things that I could have never done as purely a performer – like make a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas and Trio on historical instruments. That was an exciting project, as it is the first to be recorded on original instruments (not copies). The University job is ideal, as I teach exactly what I want – including subjects like historical performance practice, music theory, and chamber music in addition to clarinet. I also have the flexibility to travel the world performing, teaching, and researching.