Interview with Chris King

An interview by Andrew Roberts

Chris KingI was both delighted and somewhat sad to be asked to take part in Chris King‘s final concert as Principal Clarinettist of the Ulster Orchestra on Friday 27th March 2009. It was great to hear him play the Dvořák cello concerto so beautifully on his Vintage Martel clarinets.

Chris joined the Orchestra as Sub-Principal Clarinet in 1966, following his studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London. He was appointed Principal Clarinet at the end of 1970 and, apart from the 1974/75 season spent in South Africa with the Durban Symphony Orchestra, he has been with the Ulster Orchestra ever since.
Chris had always been a mentor and friend of mine since I first worked with the orchestra 22 years ago. His distinctive sound has made me look at clarinet playing in a new light. His playing combines the highest standard of musicianship with a sound that projects across any orchestra and is simply magical. His enthusiasm for music and the clarinet is an inspiration to anyone who cares about clarinet playing at its very best.

Some months after this concert, I managed to catch up with Chris in Belfast for a chat about his love of the clarinet.

I began by asking Chris about his early musical experience.

CK My first instrument was a Hohner chromatic harmonica which I had first heard in the 1953 film Genevieve played by the great Larry Adler. My first experience with the clarinet came a little later when I visited my Uncle’s house and discovered a clarinet (an old Selmer simple system I think) which had been left neglected. I was a bit naughty and took it home with me without telling him, which got me into trouble when he found out!

My Mother took me to a local music shop in Kingston-Upon-Thames to try to find a teacher for the clarinet and I ended up with a guy who played the accordion very well, but also had a pair of clarinets which he also played.

AR So how far did he manage to get you with the clarinet?

CK Well, after a while he was preparing me for my college entrance exams and I turned up at the Royal College of Music. The panel included Thea King , who started out by telling me off for putting the A clarinet down on top of the piano in case it fell off. It didn’t go well. After that I auditioned at the Guildhall and managed to get a scholarship place, which was a good thing as my Father had said it was the only way I would be able to go to music college, as he wouldn’t pay for it.

AR So who was your teacher at Guildhall?

CK I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teacher called Wilf Kealey, not well known as an orchestral player but a marvellous teacher and a wonderful human being. I missed him enormously when he died. He was a student of the rather more famous Charles Draper.(he can be heard on the clarinet classics label Historical Recordings Vol 2) Draper made a wonderful sound on his Martel clarinets. These instruments were of a slightly larger bore with some unique undercutting in the lower joint which left only half of the body under the tone hole. This resulted in a sound that we rarely hear today.

Later I studied with Yona Etlinger who was a fine but very strict teacher. He made a very good focussed sound which I liked.

AR So what happened next in your career?

CK Well I worked in a card factory for a while until a bassoon colleague managed to get me involved with him in a trio which led all of us to be employed by Oxfordshire County as teachers. In 1966 I heard that Maurice Miles was going to form a new Orchestra in Northern Ireland and he wanted me to audition for a place. After some time I got a telegram to say they were offering me a job. I later heard that the delay was because they had offered the job to Murray Khouri, a New Zealander, but he had turned it down as he was in demand in London. That meant that they offered the Principal job to Peter Eaton (the clarinet maker) and me the second.
Peter stayed for 4 years as Principal but left to pursue his mouthpiece and later clarinet making. At that point I was appointed as Principal.

AR So did Peter influence your interest in mouthpieces?

CK Oh yes, he was so passionate about mouthpieces and the whole clarinet thing including voicing every note, he was inspired by Jack Brymer, who was the voicer par-excellence. Brymer always talked about using the head voice- like a singer does to improve the depth and resonance of your sound. The idea is that you effectively lengthen the resonance tube into your throat and soft palate area rather than just say 4 inches of tube for a note, to make it have similar resonance to notes with a much longer tube length.

Head voicing is when you are able to almost make the soft palate area almost tickle to force the sound up in to that area for extra resonance.

This helps to give one projection, and as I am not physically strong enough to produce a big sound, I have had to find ways to be heard in the orchestra whilst being less physical about it.

AR I remember being amazed when I first heard you as I sat at the  back of the Ulster Hall that your sound would carry all of the time, never dominating, but always a present clarinet sound with real depth.

CK Well that’s because it is an amazing acoustic!

AR Well may be, but sitting next to you really changed my idea of how the clarinet should sound, moving away from the “big” sound close to, in favour of one which may seem smaller close up, but it had focus and depth and resonance in the hall.

CK It has a lot to do with the head voicing that Sidney Fell used to talk about, although I never had a lesson with him , my second player  Roger Lloyd, was always talking about Sid’s way of describing the importance of the soft palate in sound production. So I started to think along those lines for myself. Sid was such a fine teacher having many famous students including Les Craven and my second players Roger Lloyd and Lorraine Schulmann.

When I joined the Orchestra I was still playing on 10-10 clarinets, I did have a pair of Martel instruments for a while but they weren’t in such good condition and I had to get rid of them in the end. I used them on some of the early recordings with the Ulster Orchestra like the Harty Irish Symphony and violin concerto.
As I listened to recordings of other orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, I found the sound they made so different.  Then I heard a recording of Ralph Maclean on his Buffet clarinets. I remember also hearing an American student at the Guildhall who had some of the early Buffet clarinets from Robert Carree’s time in the early 1950’s which didn’t have plated keys, and they sounded marvellous. This was very interesting to me and made me explore the possibilities and I got some Buffet R13 clarinets from Buffet Page’s Walk through Tony Lucas. I believe and they were pretty good instruments at the time.

There was also another model I was quite taken with, the S1 but some people felt they were a flawed design and I didn’t really have enough money to have a second pair. But I remember your old teacher John Fuest, had a pair.

AR Yes John enjoyed playing them and I believe Kevin Banks (Principal of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) still plays on an S1 Bflat.

CK Some people claimed the bore was larger but I heard also that all the Buffet clarinets had the same bore size with the differences being in the taper and so on.

AR I recall when the whole of the UK were playing 10-10 clarinets and in a very short time after their introduction, Buffet managed to secure the vast majority of players. Allegedly, they gave out many pairs of instruments for players to try, and quite a few disappeared, but as a result they managed to get the largest market share.

CK Yes that’s right, when I first got my Buffet clarinets there were very few people using them, I can’t remember the time scale, but  many people changed over and despite the excellent work of Geoff Acton, the 1010’s never recovered.

It was a shame that the 10 10’s were not developed the same way that Buffet managed. People just couldn’t find the perfect instruments for themselves from the 10 10’s that were being produced. Tony Lamb is apparently still looking for the perfect pair even now and he has stayed loyal to them after all this time, and he sounds wonderful on them. Peter of course has gone on to develop his instruments along the 10-10 route.

AR So how long did Roger Lloyd remain your second clarinet?

CK Well until he became the Manager for the orchestra, then Lorraine Schulmann then came in as second clarinet, she was another Sid Fell student. When she left Paul Schumann came over in 1982 from the BBC Northern Ireland orchestra, after it was dissolved- that caused the BBC musicians strike. The Ulster orchestra still plays for the BBC under the agreement which helps to keep it afloat financially. However, they seem to now put on more and more music with less and less time to prepare it.

I found pretty gruelling as most of the stuff we recorded wasn’t in the mainstream repertoire, and we might end up recording maybe 6 new pieces in one day. Anyway, I always preferred playing in the Ulster Hall rather than the studio, as we seemed to have a real sweet spot sitting just in front of the organ, which allowed us to be able to play comfortably without ever having to force the sound. This really allowed me to develop my sound as I always got good feedback from any new mouthpiece from the hall, and you knew instantly if it was going to be good or just junk.

I couldn’t have done all the development of the sound without the Hall, it really is the orchestras greatest asset. There are only a few halls with an acoustic as good, the Musik Verein in Vienna, Boston Symphony hall and maybe the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

AR You have always been interested in some of the older mouthpieces like the Kaspar’s and Chedeville designs, do you have a favourite?

CK Well I’d always heard about the legend of the Chedeville, never thinking I might one day own one, but I must say that now I do have one, I can see what all the fuss was about! It might not be a prime example as it has been re-layed, but itb still has some magic about it. I have had a few Kaspar mouthpieces over the years, but now I just have one from each era, a Chicago, Cicero and an Ann Arbor. They say that Frank L Kaspar took on Frank the younger, his cousin, as a student , in the early 1950’s. It has caused a lot of confusion as they both had the same name. Many players have used these mouthpieces and they have developed a cult status, they weren’t always good, and some have been relayed too often, maybe most were less good as he wasn’t so consistent.

AR So what about your present clarinets?

CK I now have another pair of Martel clarinets, like the one’s Charles Draper used. Draper also formed the Louis clarinet company in London when Martel’s went out of business following the death of one of the brothers in the First World War in about 1920. The Martel’s were made in France near Nantes, but when they stopped production Draper formed the Louis &Co, which produced copies of the original Martel’s. Reg Kell played on what were so called false Martels, which were stamped Hawkes and son, but they were imported from France and could have been from Selmer or Martel, but they had a typical French bore of the time 14.85 which made them very flexible.

AR Tell me about your relationship with David Hite, the famous mouthpiece maker

CK I think it was Dickie Addison who first told me about David so I just phoned him up. We got on very well and spoke on the phone on and off for about 20 years and eventually got to meet up in Florida when the orchestra was on tour in the US in 1992. David sent me some of mouthpieces to try and I liked them, the early ones were really very good. I don’t have many of them left now I passed some on and wrecked a few in my passion for re-laying them! I ruined quite a few, particularly in the early days, when I just tried to do it by feel with no measuring tools.

AR So are we likely to see some Chris King mouthpieces in the future?

CK Well I’m not sure…. there are so many mouthpieces out there I’m not sure there would be much point.

AR Do you think there has been a substantial change in the sound of the clarinet since your teacher’s teacher Draper?

CK Yes I do, I find it very hard to tell players apart now. They don’t seem to have the individual voice that there once was. It might be just down to equipment, so many players just end up playing on a standard Vandoren B40 which has a cushioned sound from the wide tip and rails which works with a 2 ½  reed which produces a “nice” acceptable sound but I find they are very restricted in colour and you are stuck with what you get.

AR There is a great tradition in France for everyone to play a Vandoren mouthpiece, it has always seemed odd to me as they have little scope for individuality in the sound. I think this tradition is much of the reason for such slow progress in the development from the clarinet makers too

CK The Vandoren has always been a fall back mouthpiece for us all but I personally don’t think that the bore is even right for a Buffet clarinet. And why can’t Buffet provide us all with a decent mouthpiece of their own? Of course Vandoren have also produced a supposed Chedeville style mouthpiece in their 13 series, but I can tell you that it isn’t anything like my original! Having said that, the 13 series is their best mouthpiece, at least it plays nearer to 440 pitch, which means players don’t have to compromise their sound so much to try to play in tune.

AR Well Chris, now you have retired what will you be doing with yourself

CK Well I still play about with my clarinets and mouthpieces. I listen to lots of music and collect old wax cylinders for my 110 year old phonograph!

AR Thank you for your many years of fabulous playing and I hope you will continue to enjoy music and playing the clarinet for many years to come.

Andrew Roberts