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Alto clarinet playday - Stapleford Granary, Cambridge

Alto clarinet playday - Stapleford Granary, Cambridge

This article was posted on 11 Jun 2022.

As an alto clarinet player, I am used to having various alto jokes told to me, but when a group of 14 enthusiastic alto and contraalto players met in Cambridge on 14 May for the fi rst-ever playday event for this kind of ensemble, there wasn’t a single alto joke made.

So, how did this event come about? I have been honoured to play alto clarinet in the British Clarinet Ensemble (BCE) for more years than I wish to recall. When my long overseas tours as a Trinity College London examiner came to an unexpected halt due to the pandemic, and my teaching moved online, this gave me some much-needed time at home with my clarinets. I attended some online American seminars, and this reinforced a feeling I had had for some time – the alto was in decline.

For some time, when given out new music at BCE, the alto parts had started to be marked ‘optional’ by an increasing number of composers, and I was starting to receive ‘can you bring your B fl at to the next rehearsal’ emails. We have a regular group of four loyal alto players in the BCE, but I was noticing at pre-pandemic conferences that European clarinet choirs had fewer alto players, and some were substituting the more blendable basset horn in its place. This is also happening in the USA and Canada, and concern was growing among the alto community. When a clarinet becomes ‘extinct’, it rarely comes back.

There are several reasons for this. In quick summary, midpriced instruments don’t really exist, meaning purchasing an alto involves spending a lot of money straight away or buying an older instrument from somewhere like eBay and hoping for the best! This compounds the alto’s unwarranted reputation for unpredictability and diffi culty, and players either give up or don’t bring the instrument out to play. Some clarinettists describe the tone as ‘marmite’, not liking the slightly saxophone timbre in the voice. Ensembles often cannot aff ord the costs of providing a good reliable instrument, and the situation continues to decline as manufacturers cannot take the risk of producing mid-range niche instruments.

But times are changing. ‘Alto Clarinet Conversations’ started as an experimental forum to discuss this situation, and it is still going strong. Players from around the world join regular Zoom calls to discuss equipment, diffi culties, tuning, high notes, fi ngerings, and so on. It has been satisfying to see the willingness of alto players from across the world to reach out and off er support and guidance to other players. So, as the Covid restrictions started to lift, the idea of a UK playday was mooted, grew shoots and actually happened!

I won’t bore you with all the stress and organisational angst involved in organising a playday. I’d never organised one before but had seen it done many times, and those organisers now have my total respect! I think on the day there was some initial nervousness as to how the ensemble would sound – would it be a dull, ‘muddy’ sound? However, the ensemble quickly gained warmth and an unexpected clarity, and Shea Lolin, our MD for the day, soon got to work on bringing out the structure and lines of the pieces as well as reinforcing the usual clarinet articulation and dynamics issues.

Anne Clark

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) cassgb.org. Tel: 01642 769 558

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