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Interview with Charles Neidich

Hailed by the New Yorker as ‘a master of his instrument and beyond a clarinetist’, Charles Neidich has been described as one of the most mesmerising musicians performing before the public today. He regularly appears as soloist and as collaborator in chamber music programs with leading ensembles including the Saint Louis Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, I Musici di Montreal, Tafelmusik, Handel/Haydn Society, Royal Philharmonic, Deutsches Philharmonic, MDR Symphony, Yomiuri Symphony, National Symphony of Taiwan, and the Juilliard, Guarneri, Brentano, American, Mendelssohn, Carmina, Colorado, and Cavani String Quartets. He is currently a member of the New York Woodwind Quintet and a member emeritus of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

In 1985, Charles became the first clarinetist to win the Walter W. Naumburg Competition, which brought him to prominence as a soloist. He then taught at the Eastman School of Music and during that tenure joined the New York Woodwind Quintet, an ensemble with which he still performs. His European honours include a top prize at the 1982 Munich International Competition sponsored by the German television network ARD, and the Geneva and Paris International Competitions. Charles has achieved recognition as a teacher in addition to his activities as a performer, and currently is a member of the artist faculties of The Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes College of Music and Queens College. During the 1994-95 academic year he was a Visiting Professor at the Sibelius Academy in Finland where he taught, performed and conducted. For more information about Charles, please visit his website.

What was the first piece of music by Schoenberg that you had heard?

The very first piece I had heard, I believe, were the Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16).

What was your reaction?

Well, I started listening to ‘new music’ quite early—I was probably around 10 years old—but I thought, “This is the most amazing I’ve ever heard!”

Could you understand everything at the time?

Both of my parents were musicians and my father was always interested in new music, so I grew up with it. When I was very little, he would take me to new music concerts. So, when I heard Schoenberg, I didn’t think it was weird or unbelievable. I just thought it was amazing. Like, the trombone part in the first movement. I thought that was genius.

How do you think the general public can appreciate his music today?

I have a very strong opinion about that. I think that if the performance is good—a compelling, emotional performance—then the audience will understand. The biggest problem with Schoenberg’s music is that it’s complicated. The dissonance isn’t that big an issue. Rather, the issue is the fact that he had—and I say this facetiously—a kind of disease. The disease was that, whenever he saw a blank page, he had to fill it in because he could immediately see the possibility for a canon or another voice going in there. So, it’s very complex in the way it all works together. Because of that, there has been many bad performances, ones that you just want to run away from, because there’s too much going on and they lack a musical, emotional spark.

Do you think that his music can speak for itself?

Yes! and I know this for a fact. For instance, the Wind Quintet (Op. 24) has had a terrible reputation and has had really terrible performances. It’s a piece that many people think “Well, I love Schoenberg, but I hate that piece!” But the group that I’m in played it very well and at the proper tempo and, after the performances—we played at various venues—people came up and said, “You know, I can’t believe that was actually Schoenberg.” Or, take a piece like Pierrot lunaire (Op. 21). When it’s done well, it’s mesmerising and it’s so remarkable. Or, take Erwartung (Op. 17), one of the most amazing works ever written. If it’s performed in a compelling way, people will become very affected by it.

Do you think that it helps to stand up and talk about it before you play?

Yes, I think you have to do that in general nowadays, because the audience is much more casual than it used to be. If you look at history, you’ll see that we used to have an audience of amateurs. This was before my time, even. The problem with Schoenberg is a special one but, in general, if you have an audience of amateurs, then they’re already invested in the performance, because they’ve already played music like the one they’re hearing before. It used to be that we had amateurs and, out of them, a few people became professionals. But now, the audience has a very peripheral relationship to classical music, because they don’t play it themselves.

What do you think Schoenberg was like as a person?

I only know very tangentially, by people who knew people who knew him. He was . . . a difficult person! I think he was kind of a maniac. Not in a bad way, but you can kind of tell by the fact that, when he painted, he mostly painted self-portraits!

I find it interesting that he always wanted to do something that wasn’t conventional but, at the same time, he always wanted to be part of this great, German tradition.

Charles Rosen talks about this actually, how Schoenberg was a reluctant revolutionary and much more reluctant than his students—Berg and Webern—were. He cared deeply about the tradition and how he could preserve it in some way. It’s fascinating to read his letters, to read his ideas about those things and how scared he was when he gave up tonality. In fact, he wrote what were perhaps his greatest works in that period just after he gave up tonality but before he developed the twelve-tone method.

Is the First Chamber Symphony (Op. 9) one of them?

The First Chamber Symphony is from the transition to that period. It’s such an interesting piece because, in a certain sense, it’s a wilful composition. People would say, “Well, you know, you can’t put major thirds together, you can’t put fourths together.” And he said, “Are you kidding? Here, I can do that and have tonal implications with it.” It’s an incredible tour de force. But after that piece, he realised that the tonal underpinning was just an academic exercise, that he actually had to go further. So, very soon afterwards, he composed the Five Pieces and Pierrot. But then he had a big dilemma about certainty, because when he gave up the tonal underpinning, the question arose—how can you be certain that the note you write is correct? So, he developed the twelve-tone method, to have a sense of certainty, but what’s so interesting is that his twelve-tone works are by and large what you could call neo-classical, because the formal structure is organised in a very classical way, even to the point that in his choice of rows he has things which resemble tonics and dominants. That’s all a part of his being what Rosen calls a reluctant revolutionary.

The problem of structure is not something that he really resolved in the end, but what the twelve-tone method gave him was a basis for saying, “Okay, this is the correct note and it shouldn’t be a different note.” If you write tonal music, 90% of your notes are pre-determined—but if you get rid of that, it could be this note or that note or even that note, etc. That’s why he needed the method. What’s interesting, though, is that in most of his twelve-tone pieces, you can find things which look like mistakes. Now, he always said that they’re not mistakes and I’ve had fights with people who want to correct certain parts of the piece which don’t follow the rows but the thing is, when the rows are followed, it sounds pretty bad. So, I think that Schoenberg actually used his ear. If a piece is basically made up of thirds and all of a sudden you have fifths, it sounds weird, because that’s a fifth and a second. So, he changed it. Even though the twelve-tone method brought him certainty, what was paramount was always the ear.

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