We begin our 2019 UK concerts with a colourful programme of English concert favourites, framing a new concerto for bass clarinet by acclaimed American composer Geoffrey Gordon. Find out what to expect in our new Q&A with our Principal Bass Clarinet, Laurent Ben Slimane, and hear the thrilling music live in Leicester & London (19 & 20 January).
What first drew you to the clarinet, and how did you move on to bass clarinet?
The clarinet came to me! My parents wanted me to do an activity outside school and they thought music would be nice so we went to my local music school in France.
The director, who was also the only teacher, asked me what I wanted to play. Because I didn’t know, he told me that clarinet would be great for me but in fact, he needed clarinets for his wind band!
When I was studying clarinet in Paris with Bruno Martinez, I used to go to the Opera House because he was Principal Bass Clarinet there. I absolutely fell in love with this instrument because Bruno had the best sound I had ever heard. So after months of harassing him, I convinced him to teach me the bass clarinet! I studied bass clarinet with him for a couple of years, and that was the best decision I have ever taken in my career.
Prometheus is inspired by the Greek legend – what aspects of the story can audiences listen out for in the music?
The concerto is based on a short story by Franz Kafka which treats the legend of Prometheus, the Greek mythological hero who is punished by the Gods for helping man by giving him fire.
For me, Greek myths mean fantastic and unbelievable stories where you have to use your imagination and create your own world. I can create my own world in Prometheus thanks to the range of dynamics Geoffrey has used. The soft passages should put the audience in a state of mind where they almost stop breathing to be able to listen to all the different colours and textures. But you also can feel Prometheus’ pain and hear the aggressiveness of the eagles in some loud and abrupt dialogues between the bass clarinet and the orchestra.
Kafka divided the story into four parables, and the concerto has four corresponding movements. Within this structure, Geoffrey has created a highly dramatic musical response to the Kafka treatment, describing, considering and retelling the four parables and the obscure ending. So much is clear thematically from the opening movement, that listening becomes like seeing. The listener quickly comes to know the place, the characters and their story in the opening movement. The solo bass clarinet identifies as Prometheus, the falling second heard in the orchestra as the Rock, the orchestra’s rhythmic punctuation the Gods and the piercing trumpet figures the eagles.
These musical pictures continue to unfold throughout the piece. For example, in the second movement the listener is immediately led to imagine the gigantic creatures descending on flesh, pecking savagely, and the pain of Prometheus’ torture. Geoffrey treats this in such a way that there is a sense of experiencing through textures, instrumentation and motif, not just the perspective of the hero, in random glimpses of terrorising feathers coming, and screaming pain, but also that of the Gods overseeing all and also that of the audience itself.
Laurent introduces his instrument in our guide to the bass clarinet
What was it like working with Geoffrey Gordon? Was he already familiar with writing for bass clarinet?
Working with Geoffrey was really easy actually. Before he started to write anything, I sent him a list of requirements and ideas of what I thought would sound great on the bass clarinet but also things I didn’t want to play! I really wanted Geoffrey to showcase the velvety, rich and dark sound of this instrument. I also wanted him to use all the qualities of the Philharmonia, its rich sound, fantastic range of dynamics. I really think he achieved it to perfection.
How does it feel to be the first person to play a new piece?
The first word coming into my mind is freedom; being able to to put your own stamp on a concerto which has never been played before is an indescribable feeling. You aren’t tempted to copy any other version because it has never been recorded, you can just do whatever you want musically, you can imagine your own world – but always with the agreement of the composer of course!
Which concerts in our 2018/19 season would you recommend?
If you haven’t heard enough bass clarinet after today’s concert, I’d highly recommend the concert with Maestro Temirkanov on 4 April. We’ll play Shostakovich’s 7th symphony which has one of the best bass clarinet solos ever written. Listen to the second movement really carefully!
The other concert I’m excited about is on 28 February with our Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is a fantastic, original and eclectic programme, as always with Esa-Pekka. I am really looking forward to playing the Berio Folk Songs and Donatoni’s ESA, two pieces I never came across before. It is always rewarding for us to add new pieces to our repertoire.
Book tickets to hear Laurent perform the new concerto here.