Preview: PSO solo turns into quest for the right clarinet

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Michael Rusinek loves a challenge. It's not enough that he prevailed in a highly competitive classical music world, punctuated by becoming the principal clarinetist of the renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (in 1998). When he gives master classes around the world, he pushes himself to learn and use the native language. And he will give it his all to beat you in golf and hockey. (He is Canadian, so the latter is serious business.)

"I think Michael Rusinek is one of the best in the world," says PSO music director Manfred Honeck. "He is one of those soloists that you stop when you hear his sound. His ability to play everything is amazing -- the color in the sound and his technical security."

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

With: Manfred Honeck, conductor, Michael Rusinek, clarinet.

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Tickets: Start at $20; 412-392-4900 or

But Mr. Rusinek has been handed a monumental challenge leading up to a concert this weekend: to solo in a well-known clarinet concerto but on a different instrument. It was in late summer when Mr. Honeck asked him to solo in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major on the obscure basset clarinet instead of the standard one. The name makes it seem like not much of a change, but it is.

"I have always wanted to perform the concerto on the basset clarinet," says Mr. Rusinek. "But since there are very few pieces that use it, it becomes an expensive instrument to have in one's arsenal just for the odd performance here and there."

Mozart wrote the work in 1791 for the basset clarinet, an instrument that can play four notes below the lowest pitch on the modern clarinet. But the basset fell out of favor soon after, even though it was championed by clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart composed the concerto and his brilliant Clarinet Quintet. A modern clarinet is more than capable of expressing the solo, but it cannot do everything Mozart asked.

"There are a lot of places [in the concerto] where we either ascend from or descend to its lowest note," says Mr. Rusinek. But to complete many of the scales or runs in the piece, a standard clarinet must jump an octave at some point. A basset clarinet can finish these in one continuous sweep. Essentially, Mozart's original intentions for the melody have been heard only rarely since its premiere.

Just getting the ancient instrument was trying. "My hunt began in earnest at the beginning of September," he says. "First I called Selmer and Buffet, the two largest makers of clarinets. Neither manufacturer had one for me to even try."

He then contacted an instrument maker in Toronto well known for making basset clarinets. But he usually modified modern clarinets to create bassets, elongating the longer lower half of the instrument. "I didn't have a clarinet I wished to sacrifice, since the modification is permanent, nor could I find one to purchase on short notice," says Mr. Rusinek. "That wasn't going to work."

Next, he spoke to famed clarinetist David Shifrin, who sent him one to try. "It wasn't right for me ... so I sent it back," he says. Finally, he found one, but even that was problematic. "This year I joined the faculty of Curtis Institute of Music, teaching chamber music, and it turned out that one of the Curtis students had recently purchased a new basset clarinet. I am borrowing his instrument for this performance."

But that wasn't quite the end of the story. He had to get one of the keys redesigned to be more ergonomic (with the student's permission). "It took a lot just to be in possession of an instrument that I could play."

Once Mr. Rusinek got his hands on the basset, he found his fingers had to be retrained. "I am so used to the version I have played for 30 years that to get used to different notes was a real challenge. The second issue was learning where the keys on the instrument are." While the low notes on a standard clarinet can be played by both hands, the lowest on the basset clarinet have keys only on one side. "If you approach a series of notes from the wrong side, you get snookered and there is no way to proceed," he says.

That meant Mr. Rusinek rarely saw the light of day on the PSO's recent European tour.

"He took it on the tour and was practicing in the hotels all the time," says Mr. Honeck, who knows a bit about learning new instruments under pressure. As a young man he switched from violin to viola to win an audition for the Vienna Philharmonic.

Mr. Rusinek may have been stressed, but for patrons, his heroics all lead to one wonderfully odd situation: the PSO premiere with a basset clarinet of the concerto, which the orchestra has performed many times before.

The concert program also includes Mason Bates' "Mothership" for Orchestra and Electronica and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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