It’s always fascinating to see the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony step out of their respective sections and take up the soloist’s spot — especially when the work is as challenging as Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto.
Carey Bell, the symphony’s principal clarinetist since 2007, says he’s waited a long time to play the Danish composer’s 1928 concerto. He’ll get his chance this week at Davies Symphony Hall, when the symphony performs the work. The orchestra’s conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt conducts the program, which also includes Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, “The Great.”
Bell, an Oregon native who held principal positions previously with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and the Syracuse Symphony, calls Nielsen’s concerto “a work of extremes.”
Nielsen, inspired after hearing a performance by the Copenhagen Wind Quintet in the early 1920s, decided to write a piece for each member of the group. He began with a flute concerto, then turned to the quintet’s clarinetist, Aage Oxenvad — a brilliant musician who was by all accounts an extremely odd individual.
“He was a man of wild mood swings,” Bell says, “known for being sweet one moment and kind of terrifying the next. Nielsen makes that a cornerstone of the Clarinet Concerto.
“Over and over, you’re confronted with a very childlike simplicity that leads to this manic, almost psychotic, much more confrontational music. At the end there’s this kind of wistfulness — or maybe regret. The piece goes back to the original theme, which is basically the clarinetist saying, ‘I’m sorry — I meant to keep it sweet the entire time.’”
The concerto was one of Nielsen’s late-life works, and Bell says its aggressive music is a product of the era.
“He was hearing all this new music by Stravinsky and Strauss, and I think this was his attempt to be one of those modernists. Like many composers who had one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th, they were all coming to terms with the modernity and brutality of the time. Of course, Nielsen goes his own very unique way.”
The symphony has performed the Clarinet Concerto only once before, in 1989, with Blomstedt conducting and Richard Stoltzman as soloist.
Bell says playing it with Blomstedt — whose San Francisco Symphony recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies are among the finest ever made — is a rare opportunity. “I’ve always wanted to play it, but at the right time, with the right forces,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a greater honor than to play it with the man who understands Nielsen’s music so well.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
Conducted by Herbert Blomstedt with soloist Carey Bell
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $15 to $156