Bass Clarinet Goes Rogue: Alicia Lee’s “Conversations with Myself”


New Focus FCR 302

OK, I admit that using the term “rogue” is a stretch. But titles of reviews should help draw the reader to it. And “clickbait” is the new “catchy”. But, in another sense one doesn’t generally think of the bass clarinet as a standalone recital instrument, even with electronics. Increasingly, it seems, new music purveyors are liberating instruments once unthinkable outside an orchestra or chamber ensemble. Jazz players have long used the bass clarinet as a solo instrument alongside the ubiquitous family of saxophones and the flute as the woodwinds that comprise most jazz ensembles,

Classical music has been slow to accept the bass clarinet until relatively recently. I don’t know when the first use of a bass clarinet either as a standalone solo or as part of a chamber ensemble occurred but certainly post 1950. Without getting in to the “whys” of this one can simply embrace the increasing presence of this instrument and its fascinating players.

Here, we get another of the subgenre of “COVID Isolation music”, itself a category worth further exploration.

There are five selections with composition dates ranging from 1983 to 2020 and composers from the still underappreciated Isang Yun to a new name, Hidiaki Aomori, a composer and friend of the soloist. And the remainder are risen and rising stars including the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, Grawmeyer Award winner Unsuk Chin, and the prolific Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.

The Fujikura work opens this isolated recital with a melancholy piece which appears to be a set of variations and has the character of a cadenza calling upon both technical and interpretive skills of the performer. And do I hear a nod to minimalism at the end? “Contour” (2020) is a fine opener where Lee displays her technical skills and insight to the composer’s vision.

Then its back to 1985 with one of the technical peaks of Boulez’ work at IRCAM, “Dialogue de L’Ombre Double” for bass clarinet with inscrutably complex electronics. This once leading edge example of the avant garde in its day actually sounds a bit dated but the soloist here seems to humanize the piece with her warm interpretation. And, despite what you may hear in the other tracks here, it is the only one using electronics on this disc.

Isang Yun (1917-1995), the late prolific Korean master is beginning to get more of a reckoning, and this 1983 piece, “Monolog for Bass Clarinet” is a fine entry to the expanding recorded oeuvre of this mid/late-twentieth century embattled and neglected genius. This piece speaks deeply of alone-ness.

Unsuk Chin (1961- ), a rising star and Grawmeyer Award winner is represented by a bass clarinet solo from her much lauded opera “Alice in Wonderland”. This stand alone solo, titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” is a maze of hallucinatory nods to Gershwin, Carl Stalling, and perhaps Prokofiev (in a “Peter and the Wolf” sense) using multiphonics and seems to expand the possibilities of this instrument to limits which might only be transcended with electronic assistance.

Hideaki Aomori‘s “Split” is a rather personal addition, a submission from one friend to another, a gift from one alone to another alone. It is another fine solo work which sits stylistically somewhere between the technical extremes of Boulez and Unsuk Chin and the more melodic work of Fujikura and Yun.

This is a very personal disc on many levels and it is a fine calling card by which to introduce listeners to this fine musician.

Political Classical: Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No. 4 “Akiko’s Piano”


As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.

It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.

This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.

The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.

What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.

On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.

The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.

This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.

It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.