An interview by Andrew Roberts
Following the retirement of their long serving Principal Clarinet, Chris King, The Ulster Orchestra appointed Francesco Paolo Scola, known to all as Chicco (pronounced Cicco), as the new Principal Clarinet in July 2010.
I spent some time talking with both Chicco and Paul Schumann, the orchestra’s second clarinet player, during rehearsals for Mahler’s epic 5th Symphony in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.
Francesco Paulo Scola
You’re Italian, but where exactly were you born?
I was born in an area of Palermo, Italy, known as Z.E.N. (Zona Espansione Nord) which is like the Bronx in New York – a very rough area of the city and very near the coast. If the clarinet hadn’t helped me to escape from this area, I really don’t know what I might have become. The area had many problems with violent crime and drugs – a constant danger.
So when did you start to play the clarinet?
When I was eleven years old, in the middle school which was a special school which gave students lessons on instruments twice a week in the afternoon instead of normal lessons. A friend told me not to go to this school because if you didn’t make good progress on the instrument you wouldn’t be allowed to move up at the end of the year- so I decided not to play an instrument as I liked to play football! But my classroom teacher in my previous school said I must play an instrument as she thought I would do well with music and told me not to listen to my friends. So I went along for an interview to see if I was suitable to play an instrument, my hands and teeth and so on, and they asked me which instrument I wanted to play. I told them I wanted to play the pianoforte, like many children around the world. But they told me that it was not possible to do this as there was only one place available and that was for clarinet. So it was that or nothing! I said OK, I will try, but I wasn’t happy about it but as soon as I played the first note on it I fell in love with the sound it made. Billitteri Nicola my first teacher, soon realised that I was interested in playing well and soon gave me a better instrument to play, a Buffet Evette.
At what age did you go to a Conservatoire?
At 14, before that, my teacher encouraged my love of music and suggested entering competitions to develop as a musician. He also gave excellent advice on technique so I was well prepared when I auditioned for the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini Di Palermo where my teacher was Giovanni Vilardi. Giovanni was a very generous man who gave me advice on life as well as music.
Did you play in the town bands as well?
Yes, I learned so much from playing in the banda as the clarinet parts were often very hard with many notes to play in marches and so on, but it was not so good for sound!
Did you have other teachers at the Conservatorio?
Yes, I had a great musician flute player, Luigi Sollima, for wind chamber music. He was from a very famous musical family in Italy, he was a great influence on my musicianship and clarinet playing, and eventually we formed a wind quintet Soni Ventorum in which we played together – this was actually my first professional work.
When you had taken your final diploma in Palermo did you study anywhere else?
No. Actually, I did an audition in Palermo for the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana but they didn’t give me the job. They said I played well but I was very young and didn’t have the experience yet, so I said, “Excuse me, but if you don’t give me the chance where will I get experience?”
Four months later I auditioned in Rome, for a much more important position and was offered the job of second clarinet with Rome Opera! Later I moved up to play Principal in the orchestra working with people like Riccardo Muti and Placido Domingo, it is amazing how much better an orchestra can play with a fantastic conductor.
The Principal Clarinet when I arrived was Calogero Palermo, who was a great influence on my playing. He was a great musician, always knowing the whole score, and he made the ideal sound for me.
How long were you in Rome Opera?
I was there from 2004-2009 and was very happy, but I was looking for opportunities to play symphonic repertoire having sat in the opera pit for several years.
Was that why you looked for symphony orchestra positions elsewhere?
Yes, and the first one that I saw was for the Ulster Orchestra. They were looking for a new Principal Clarinet so I auditioned in London and then played with the Orchestra for a several weeks. After playing the Shostakovich 9th symphony they offered me the position – I was delighted!
What clarinet and mouthpiece do you use?
I have played on Buffet RC Prestige for twelve years on my A clarinet and 5 years on my B flat. I use a Vandoren M30, which I have relayed myself and use Vandoren Reeds mostly strength 3 ½.
What do you like about playing in the Ulster Orchestra?
The people are so friendly and nice, a different approach, much less Latin! Rehearsals are much quieter and conservative. In Italy if the players don’t like what the conductor says they will argue back much more in their hot blooded way.
I am really enjoying playing next to Paul Schumann and we work well together as a team. We play on the same instruments so it is easy for me.
How did you start playing the clarinet?
I began playing when I was 12 years old, my Father organized it as a result of the 1962 hit Stranger on the shore played by Acker Bilk. I wonder how many other people began playing the clarinet as a result that!
Who was your first teacher?
My Father arranged lessons with the local teacher Roy Upton Holder, who then me taught me until I was seventeen and then I went to the Royal College of Music in London.
At the RCM I studied with Thea King, I was very green and knew nothing about the clarinet teachers. I was lucky to have been allocated Thea as we got on very well; she was such a great musician. She often accompanied me as she started at college as a first study pianist herself, swapping to the clarinet later.
I remember you telling me about her giving you a telling off for smoking at that time…
Well.. yes! She was married to Frederick (Jack) Thurston (who died from lung cancer) so she had strong views on why I should give up, which I have now! It was not well known at that time that smoking could cause cancer and everybody seemed to be smoking.
What did you do when you had left the RCM?
I was 20 years old then and after the summer holiday I got quite a lot of teaching for the local authority including on guitar. I also managed to stay on in the local youth orchestra in Harrow, which gave me valuable orchestral experience every week covering a wide repertoire.
It seems to be a rare thing nowadays for youth orchestras to rehearse weekly as we both benefitted from. I was a member of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, which played really challenging pieces….
I was very grateful for the opportunity to play as I didn’t have much professional playing experience and the few years after college were mainly spent teaching.
I did some auditions for Covent Garden and the Royal Philharmonic, which were quite harrowing experiences. In 1974 I saw an advert for the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, which was for all the wind positions on a freelance basis. I thought I would do the audition for to get some experience, not thinking for one minute that I would consider moving to Northern Ireland, which was at the peak of its troubles in 1974-75. But I was young enough for it not to bother me too much so I went into the audition thinking “what the hell”. As a result of this I did a blinding audition and a few days later got the phone call to ask me to come over to do a trial for the orchestra. Within a few days they rang me again and offered me the job as Principal.
My parents were very dismayed at the prospect of me moving to N I, but as I pointed out to my Father, it was his fault I was playing the clarinet anyway!
So what happened next?
I played with the orchestra for 6 years and then, as a result of the BBC cuts, the orchestra was disbanded and I was made redundant. I didn’t relish the prospect of full time teaching again, but I did a further 2 years teaching in NI.
So what happened after those two years?
The Ulster Orchestra advertised the second clarinet position, but Lorraine Schulman was appointed at that time, replacing Roger Lloyd who had become the Orchestra’s General Manager, quite a promotion!
However, Lorraine left after a short while and I was then offered the job in 1982 as second clarinet and bass clarinet. After the original audition I got the feedback that I lacked experience on the bass clarinet, but that must have changed in the interim as my job description now is Principal Bass clarinet playing second and first clarinet as required.
So does that mean that you get a doubling for playing E flat, or does your contract now include you playing Saxophone as well, like many other orchestras in the UK?
No, I do get extra money for those instruments fortunately, as they do involve a lot of extra work on the player’s part. It seems crazy to have someone cover all of the instruments in a second clarinet chair, when there are many specialists in the market who probably need the work, like yourself!
So you joined the orchestra and Chris King as the clarinet section, did you know any other players from your BBC days?
The only player who made the move straight to the Ulster Orchestra from the BBC was the Piccolo player Libby Bennett, who sits in front of me to this day. The rest of the wind section had left when the BBC orchestra was disbanded and we were the only two to stay in NI.
How many years did you sit next to Chris King?
27 years, and in that time he would sometimes go off and I would sit up and play Principal. Occasionally he would swap round with me if there was a jazz style piece, which he wasn’t comfortable doing, things like Rhapsody in Blue so I would play first and he was happy to play second, as we had real respect for each other.
We haven’t mentioned your jazz playing yet, but it is something you are well known for in NI.
I play regularly with the Principal Trombone, Second Trombone player (on keyboards) and a Percussionist from the Ulster Orchestra, doing quite a few jazz gigs, and I do enjoy the freedom of expression that it gives me.
You must have felt sad when Chris retired, what are your best memories of your time with him?
I had enormous respect for Chris‘s playing and I was lucky to sit next to him for so many years hearing many great works played in his distinctive style. I tried to emulate the magic of his playing, particularly in romantic tunes, which was his real forte. Few could manage to play the beautiful lines with such elegance. Things like the solos in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony or the beautiful recording he made of the Debussy Rhapsody will stay with me for a long time.
So now your life includes teaching again at Queens University and the Methodist College in Belfast and working with your new Principal Clarinet, Chicco Scola…
Yes, I now teach players of all ages and abilities which I enjoy, and I am happy to say that I really enjoy sitting next to Chicco, who is a very fine player and a worthy successor to Chris King. He is a natural player with a lovely sound and a great technique, with some really interesting musical things to say. We get on like a house on fire which is a good thing, he is good fun to work with, I think it is important to have fun in music, and we have developed a great rapport.
We both play on the same instruments, Buffet RC Prestige’s which makes life easier, and I use a Vintage Kaspar mouthpiece with whatever reeds work at the time! I am looking forward to a continuing happy relationship, in the professional sense, with Chicco and the Ulster Orchestra.