‘Child’s Play’ – Clarinetist Kelly Johnson plays works of PARKER, DAVID, ROGERS, DESPIC & MANDAT – Potenza Music

by | Dec 27, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

‘Child’s Play’ = PHILIP PARKER: Merry Music; J.M. DAVID: Distracto; PHILIP PARKER: Grooves; RODNEY ROGERS: Dance Duo; PHILIP PARKER: Story Hour; DEJAN DESPIĆ: Nine Dances; ERIC MANDAT: The Moon in My Window – Kelly Johnson, clarinet/ Gail Novak, piano/ Drew Irvin, violin/ Allison Stanford, narrator – Potenza Music PM1014, 64:56 ****:
There are many reasons why I love discovering new music for clarinet, especially when played exceptionally well. This new collection of contemporary works provides all of those reasons; the most important of which being that the clarinet is, arguably, the most versatile of the woodwinds; capable of a wide range of tone quality, volume, mood, special effects and is, therefore, an instrument that many composers write for readily.
Kelly Johnson is a superb player who I have heard of before but not had the pleasure to hear until now. Johnson is principal clarinet with the Arkansas Symphony and a clarinet professor at the University of Central Arkansas. She is clearly gifted with a pleasant and supple tone as well as ample technique, including good command over the “extended” techniques required in works requiring multiphonics and quarter-tones, such as in the Mandat. Kelly also has recorded works in the collection “Clarinet Unlimited” and studied with Robert Spring at Arizona State University and Russell Coleman. I am also very familiar with the work of pianist Gail Novak; an Arizona based pianist with excellent technique and great sensitivity as an accompanist. Gail has practically made accompanying wind players a career, having worked with many of the world’s greatest clarinet, trumpet, flute and double reed players and appearing frequently at professional artists’ symposia all over the United States and beyond. Johnson and Novak are joined by Andrew Irvin, violin, on Merry Music by Phillip Parker and Distracto by James M. David. Irvin is co-concert master of the Arkansas Symphony and also specializes in the music of living American composers.
Aside from the brilliant playing of Kelly Johnson and all involved here, the real pleasure is finding exciting new works such as these. As the title, Child’s Play, implies, there is a playful, spiky quality to all these works. Philip Parker’s music is represented by three separate and wonderful selections. Parker is a professor of percussion and music theory at Arkansas Tech University. His Merry Music (2001) for clarinet, violin and piano is a fairly short but very fun work using some jazz rhythms and is joyous and buoyant throughout. It reminded me of Bernstein in a couple of places and is a very attractive work. The work gives plenty of spotlight to all three players. Parker’s Grooves for clarinet and piano was written in 2003 for saxophonist Jean Lansing. While you can certainly hear some very idiomatic saxophone writing in each of the four movements, it works very well for clarinet and the piano also gets involved. The four movements, “Bop”, “Hocket and Rock-It”, “Sultry Waltz” and “Bulgarian Blues”, are all very fun to listen to and – I suspect – great fun to play.
Parker’s Story Hour is a very engaging work for solo clarinet and narrator; without piano. Based on poems by Sara Henderson Hay, the words basically parody familiar nursery rhymes and fairy tales; each of which has a twist or funny unexpected ending. Narrator Allison Stanford is actually an accomplished soprano, from Conway, Arkansas who has specialized in opera. Stanford gets to showcase her acting and impressionist skills in this Story Hour which is a real tour de force for the vocalist and the clarinetist. I found this work one of the highlights in the collection and for such an unusual combination.
James David’s Distracto is another very unusual and very interesting work for clarinet, violin and piano. Written for Kelly Johnson, this is a four movement work based on themes found in the drawings of James Reed, an eight-year-old and son of a friend of David’s. The movements are entitled after the pictures or symbols in the boy’s pictures: scissors, rulers, tanks and the one fairly cryptic (but precocious) message on one of Reed’s drawings, “Poison People of Your Doom.”  Each movement is built on a device or style that seemed to fit the mood of the child’s sketches. This is a very nice, occasionally eerie little work that makes an excellent addition to the repertoire for clarinet, violin and piano. David is a composition professor at Colorado State University.
Dance Duo by Rodney Rogers was also written for Kelly Johnson. Built on a very Bartok-like rhythmic pattern of 3+3+2, motives reappear at subsequently higher transposed tonal centers (also much like Bartok)  Written for clarinet in A and also featuring the very sultry lower register of the clarinet, this is a very technically showy work that stays brisk and light throughout. Johnson and Novak perform wonderfully in sync throughout. Rogers is a composition professor at Arizona State University.
Dejan Despić is a well known figure in his native Serbia and worldwide. Nine Dances for solo clarinet was written in 1976 for the esteemed Milenko Stefanovic. Each fairly brief section contains some melodic fragments from Balkan traditional dances as well as some rhythms that are also very eastern European in their feel. This a nice addition to the many works for unaccompanied clarinet. Stylistically, it might make a good companion to the Heinrich Sutermeister Capriccio.
Erik Mandat is, himself, an accomplished clarinetist and composer who teaches at Southern Illinois University. Most of his works stretch the abilities of the player through pitch bending, multiphonics, and the like. The Moon in My Window was written for Kelly Johnson and takes its names from the child’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. Each of the six sections to the work depicts a different aspect of a child’s typical day: waking, playing, eating, nap time, more playing and, finally, bedtime. This is a very clever and engaging work and Kelly Johnson plays it with style and some humor.
This entire collection is a must have for clarinetists and for anyone who enjoys well written and thematic contemporary music. Kudos to the Potenza group for recording the music of living musicians and their composer allies. This is a very nice disc and I greatly enjoyed getting to know Kelly Johnson’s work and these pieces!
—Daniel Coombs

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