High versus low. Friday night at Heinz Hall, this was not an antiquated and tiresome debate about culture or aesthetics. It was the soundscape of an unusual instrument and original intentions. Oh, and one outstanding performer: the basset clarinet, Mozart's and clarinetist Michael Rusinek.
Mozart wrote one of the most absorbing of all his works, the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, for the basset clarinet, an instrument whose range is four notes below the modern clarinet. In other words -- give or take lost manuscripts and editions and academic arguments -- one could make the case most of us have never heard it played the way Mozart wrote it. The basset horn didn't make it out of the 18th century, despite having a champion in the clarinetist, Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart penned the work.
This weekend, Mr. Rusinek left his principal position in the Pittsburgh Symphony to solo and left his modern clarinet, too, performing the work on the obscure basset. It was the musical equivalent of a Venus transit for clarinet fans (I am one) and classical buffs. The major difference was that phrases were able to dive down to the lowest range and it became clear that Mozart sought to contrast that with the ephemeral high. I love the concerto I have heard for years, but it was undeniable that the basset gave the work incredible propulsion and melodic interest.
This experiment, so to speak, only worked because the control was Mr. Rusinek's vast artistic abilities. The color we have come to expect was there, the clarity and mellow tone, too. And his phrasing, the true mark of an virtuoso, put the basset in rare air itself. It's not used to being played this well, at least since Stadler. Much of music director Manfred Honeck's crafting of the orchestra mirrored Mr. Rusinek's, but the conductor also just got out of the way.
The night began with the first piece by the PSO composer of the year, Mason Bates. "Mothership" is fun, and there is nothing wrong with that!
With the composer (and DJ) at the electric drumpad, this work combined driving, post-minimalist strokes with a techno beat, with two improvisatory solos in between. Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and bass player Jeffrey Grubbs provided those, but they were far too short to give true indication of how adept these too are in klezmer and jazz improv.
"Mothership" is not Mr. Bates' best work, but perhaps more than his compelling "Liquid Interface" performed here in 2010, it showcases the orchestra's ability to be inclusive. I still think Mr. Bates will have a lasting effect on the field because he performs his music, connecting even pop electronica to the older genre because it is, after all, a performance art.
The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Just as in turns gritty, fiery, melancholy and victorious as Honeck's take on the composer's Fifth.