by Marc Shulgold
One glance at the biography of Jörg Widmann may elicit a double-take. Under his name, the German musician is identified thusly:
“Clarinet/Composer/Conductor.” Impressive. Not that he became those three all at once, mind you.
His parents were amateur string players, but young Jörg would have none of that. “I started taking clarinet lessons in my hometown of Munich when I was 7 years old,” he said. “That instrument became very big for me – it seemed like it had become part of me. My parents were very skeptical.” But he stuck with it, eventually becoming a world-class player. It is as clarinetist that Widmann will appear with the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, as soloist in Mozart’s divine Clarinet Concerto on Sunday, July 28, in Chautauqua.
But what about the other two parts of his impressive bio? “When I was 10, I started composing – if you can call it that,” he quipped during a phone call from Germany. “At that point, I just wanted to make music. I liked to improvise, and I just had to find a way to write it down.” As his musical studies turned serious, he decided to focus on the clarinet, never taking any lessons in composition. “Is it really possible to study how to be a composer?,” he wondered.
Widmann’s casual approach to composition took a dramatic turn when he was 16. A school visit by the renowned composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) brought the young musician into a new world of possibility. “He asked me to write an opera,” Widmann said of Henze. “It was a crazy idea, of course. And with that opera, maybe I failed. But soon I began studying with him. And I became obsessed with opera.” That said, he’s penned only two of them. Among his long list of published works are orchestral pieces, two violin concertos, an oratorio and, not surprisingly, numerous chamber and orchestral works with clarinet. These days he’s been immersed in writing chamber music. Widmann said he’s completed his Sixth String Quartet for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and is working on his Seventh and Eighth Quartets for the Juilliard String Quartet.
“For a long time, it was difficult to find my composing voice,” he admitted. Clearly that came with time. But what about his conducting career, which now takes him all over the world, including recent podium engagements in Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt and Stockholm. Currently, he serves as principal conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Widmann fell into that third phase of his professional life fairly naturally. He found himself absorbing every aspect of conducting through all those concert engagements with orchestras, and with his busy schedule of composing for them. Those experiences, plus the priceless gift of observing veteran conductors at work, became a crucial foundation before he began accepting invitations to step onto the podium. In fact, he pointed out, conducting has actually helped him open up his creative juices. “With the Irish Chamber Orchestra, I led all of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies, as well as all of his early String Symphonies. In looking through those youthful works, you can see his influences as he, too, was searching for his own voice.”
For inspiration as a composer, it’s hard to do better than playing Mozart. Widmann will be soloist at the second of two Mozart Mini-Festivals in Chautauqua (the first, on Sunday, July 21, features two Symphonies, the “Turkish” Violin Concerto and the Overture to Don Giovanni). The second Mini-Festival, led by Music Director Peter Oundjian, includes an early Divertimento as well as the “Jupiter” Symphony. In between comes the work that Widmann has played countless times.
“It is one of the most miraculous things,” he said of the Clarinet Concerto. “I mean, just the slow movement, how it stays in the major until that moment when a phrase near the end lands in the minor. It was written in Mozart’s last year, and somehow you feel an autumnal sense, like a farewell. There’s a touch of melancholy in all that joyous music.”
Jörg Widmann will appear as soloist in an all-Mozart concert at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 28 in Chautauqua Auditorium. Peter Oundjian will lead the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra. Information: (303) 440-7666 or ColoradoMusicFestival.org.