The Great Clarinet Summit Shines A Light On An Oft-Overlooked Instrument

Posted on April 6, 2018 by Amelia Mason

The clarinet is not generally considered the most heroic of instruments. In classical music, that honor belongs to the violin. In jazz, it’s the saxophone; in rock, the guitar.

But the clarinet, a single reed woodwind that is slender and knobbly like a long finger, once enjoyed a more noble pedigree in American music. That was during the heyday of big band swing and the reign of Benny Goodman, the legendary clarinetist known as the “King of Swing.” And, while the instrument’s reputation has since dimmed, its champions know the truth. The clarinet contains greatness.

Enter the Great Clarinet Summit. The concert, which takes place on May 11 at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium as part of the MIT Sounding series, features some of the most accomplished clarinetists living, along with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble in its final concert of the year.

The event, says Fred Harris, director of MIT’s wind and jazz ensembles, is in many ways a defense of one of jazz’s most oft-overlooked instruments. The clarinet may be the woodwind that children begin with before transitioning to the sexier saxophone, but that humble starter horn “can play quite low, and it can play quite high. In some ways it’s akin to a viola range,” Harris says. “Great players can get this incredible, almost inaudible sound. … You can get the most intimate sound out of the clarinet, from the nature of it, and the most powerful sound.”

At the Great Clarinet Summit, there will be plenty of soloists who are capable of just that. The concert features Don Byron, a world-renowned clarinetist and composer as inventive as he is adept; Billy Novick, Boston’s premiere jazz clarinetist; and of course MIT’s own Evan Ziporyn, Head of Music and Theater Arts, and Eran Egozy, Professor of the Practice in Music Technology, both of whom are accomplished players of, what else: the clarinet. Perhaps most notably, there’s Anat Cohen, the Israeli-American virtuoso who is widely recognized as one of the most vital clarinetists working today.

Of Cohen, says Novick, “any aspiring clarinet player should come to this just to hear her play.Cohen possesses a pure tone and effortless lyricism. “She’s pretty phenomenal,” Novick says. “She’s got just a mastery of the instrument and great imagination.”

At the concert another soloist will be joining the veterans: Ini Oguntola, an MIT undergraduate and a rare and exciting talent. Novick, who is also Oguntola’s clarinet instructor, says that the MIT junior is one of the most natural and expressive improvisors he has ever encountered. “He never fails to surprise me. … It all seems pretty fresh and in the moment,” Novick says. “I feel like I learn more at his lessons than he does.”

The program will feature its participants in various combinations, with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble front and center. The MIT Wind Ensemble will also make a guest appearance to aid in a movement from Byron’s eclectic “Concerto For Clarinet and Wind Ensemble.”

In a packed program full of impressive people, it would be easy to miss its most innovative piece: a new composition by Jamshied Sharifi designed to be playable by clarinetists of all levels, from the novice to the master. And participation is open to all. (If you’re interested in joining the community play-along piece, email clarinet_summit@mit.edu.)

Harris hopes—in part—that the piece will inspire people to revisit an instrument that they may not have touched since childhood. “The thing that drives me more than anything is education,” he says. “I just dream of seeing these people hauling out their instruments from the closet.”


The Great Clarinet Summit

Friday, May 11, 2018 / 8:00pm
MIT Kresge Auditorium
48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA

Tickets are free in advance for MIT students/faculty/staff ($5 at the door), $15 for general admission, and free for participants in the clarinet play-along piece.

Reserve tickets