From Where I Sit

An article by Andrew Roberts for CASS magazine

From where I am sitting, currently a hospital bed, I found myself thinking about Jack Brymer’s autobiography From where I sit. This book gave a fascinating insight into his life as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra. If this book is out of print, I am sure there will be a copy residing in the CASS library.

Jack’s other famous book, The Clarinet, has been a mine of useful if somewhat didactic advice for the would-be clarinet player, including some thoughts on a list of repertoire, which was startlingly small!

The famous Jack Brymer voice, which can be heard on the Bernard Walton Brahms quintet recording (Testament records), still rings in my ears following an audition I took several eons ago.

I had chosen to perform the Schumann Fantasy Pieces whilst competing for a coveted competition, which shall remain nameless! I was delighted to find that one of the judges was the renowned Jack Brymer that was until that famous voice boomed from the back of the hall, “Is that the B flat Clarinet you are proposing to play the Schumann on?” Isn’t it amazing how the British language has evolved over the years, you no longer hear the voice of the BBC, epitomised by Jack ‘s fruity pronunciation of the Queen’s English.

In that moment my heart sank, as the question of which instrument one should play this work on has been contested for many years. On my arrival home, post audition, I duly checked in “The Clarinet” and there were his words “This work should never be performed on the B flat clarinet!”

Some years later during my time at the RNCM another Principal Clarinet of the LSO, Gervase De Peyer, performed the then little known Jean Françaix Concerto on the A clarinet. His reasoning was that as the B-flat version was written in the key of B major ( always a challenge) and was extremely difficult as a result, it was quite logical to perform it on the A clarinet in C major and duly wrote out the part.

There are many examples of performers playing a particularly difficult passage on the other clarinet, in the orchestral and chamber music repertoire, necessitating the use of the dreaded transposition.

Like all the other musicianship skills, this is only easy with regular practice, but practice it we should. Even in the days of Sibelius and other music writing software, there will always be some lesser known work with a section requiring an unusual clarinet, or perhaps leaving practically no time for a change of instrument. There are many examples of this but one of the most famous would be the D-clarinet part of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel or the D-clarinet part in the original Firebird suite of Stravinsky.

In all my years of playing I have only ever had the chance to play a D-clarinet once, it is a very rare beast. Parts are usually available for the Strauss but I haven’t seen one for the Stravinsky.

Perhaps this column should have had the title “How not to do an audition” as these further examples of mishaps en route can demonstrate.

On auditioning for an orchestral position one can predict certain works will need to be prepared in advance, or as sight reading. On this occasion with a National Opera company, the candidate had prepared the Smetana Bartered Bride Overture well, only to find a “helpful” transposition in B-flat had been provided. It is originally in C. This is very confusing, as generally one isn’t expected to play whole excerpts from memory, so reading and transposing at sight is the norm. This did not go well! Remembering what you were used to seeing and then seeing completely different notes is a real brain teaser. Who needs a Nintendo DS to keep their brain going?

Whilst undertaking a bass clarinet audition for a symphony orchestra, the rather surprising inclusion of a large chunk of Wagner’s Tristan und Isoldecaused some havoc amongst candidates. Bass clarinet writing often presents the question of whether to go up the octave when changing from Bass clef to Treble clef. This is much worse if the part is Bass Clarinet in A as it then means a transposition of a 7th up! (This is a great question for the orchestral musician’s favourite pastime – conductor baiting.) Imagine then the embarrassment of the candidate when it dawned upon them that the Wagner excerpt should in fact, have been a 7th higher…….oops!

Perhaps my favourite audition story comes from an increasing trend for auditions to take place behind screens. A certain well known player had a rather bad night before, followed by a long journey to the audition resulting in the distinct feeling that it may not go well. Having discovered during the audition that it was indeed not going well, he began to wonder just who might be behind the screen to witness his peril. As he was leaving the room he gradually approached the screen hoping to get a clue from their silhouettes as to possible identities of the panel. As he got nearer, a voice from beyond enquired “Was there anything else?” to which came the brilliant reply “ Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”!