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The Surprise Soloist
LPO Still Buzzing From Dazzling, Last-Minute Concerto By One of Their Own
When a world-renowned soloist fell ill, the Louisiana Philharmonic called on one of their own. Elizabeth Gross talks to orchestra members about Christopher Pell's heroic weekend.
Anticipation for Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Eroica” concert on Thurs., Feb. 21, ran high. Beethoven’s “Eroica” is a favorite of many, and opportunities to hear world-class clarinetists like Jose Franch-Ballester don’t come often.
The concert began with American composer Michael Torke’s “Ash”, which created a bridge between Beethoven’s grand themes and Copland’s quintessentially American style. The piece was exciting to hear, relying on insistent repetitions in a rhythm that is just a little unsettling—as if the whole thing is spinning at an angle.
After applause came, there was an unexpected announcement from Maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto: the orchestra would take the intermission early because the featured guest soloist, clarinetist Franch-Ballester, was ill (and possibly unable to perform). With that, the lights came up on a concerned, disoriented audience. By the end of the intermission, rumors were circulating about what would happen next.
When Prieto addressed the audience again, he was excited. He announced that the LPO’s own principal clarinet, Christopher Pell, had volunteered to perform Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra. Pell, who is only 21 and is still completing his undergraduate degree at Julliard, had already enchanted the LPO audience this season with memorable solos from his chair. But performing a 17-minute concerto alone in front of the orchestra was an entirely different task. Prieto stressed that the orchestra had not rehearsed this piece with Pell.
Violist Matt Carrington shared what went through his mind during the “emergency intermission” between Prieto’s two announcements. Like others in the orchestra and the audience, Carrington had a crazy thought: Pell could play this. Besides the soloist, there’s no clarinet part in the Copland. Even though Carrington’s gut feeling was that Pell could do it, when he saw Pell preparing backstage he thought, “Holy crap this is actually happening.”
Pell took the stage looking a little pale, and in the silence before the piece began it seemed the whole hall held its breath. And then, the haunting melody that opens the first movement lifted into the air. Pell’s performance was magical and moving. The intensity of the audience’s attention (and the orchestra’s) during his virtuosic cadenza in the second movement was unlike anything this writer has been a part of in a lifetime of symphony-going. The orchestra (or, rather, the rest of the orchestra) sounded great, too. Prieto’s conducting was responsive and kept everyone together throughout—both in the delicate conversation between clarinet and strings in the moody first movement and in the bright, jazzy third movement.
The audience response was immediate—a leaping ovation, complete with the kind of hooting and hollering usually reserved for sporting events. But what made the concert so special was the response Pell got from the rest of the orchestra, who also leapt to their feet for Pell’s first bow, then stamped their feet on the stage during his subsequent bows. Maestro Prieto gave Pell a warm hug, and showed his own triumph by raising both fists in the air as he bounded offstage.
“It’s every orchestral musician’s dream to sort of step up and save the day and be in the limelight—and music-making captures the feeling of music when it can be so spontaneous and impromptu," Carrington said.
Copland originally wrote his Clarinet Concerto for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, a famous improviser. Through his beautiful interpretation and through the incredible circumstances, Pell’s unplanned performance brought that improvisational spirit to life.
After a brief pause, Pell attempted a discreet return to his seat in the woodwind section, but was interrupted by more applause. He still had to play the “Eroica”! Prieto took Pell’s extraordinary example as an opportunity to remind the audience of the high caliber of musicianship in the LPO as a whole.
The timing for Beethoven’s triumphant third symphony couldn’t have been more appropriate. Though I doubt anyone was thinking of Napoleon Bonaparte that night, one could certainly make an argument for the values of egalité and fraternité. The LPO’s performance of “Eroica” captured perfectly the democratic ideals that inspired Beethoven, and are also present in the LPO organization itself as the nation’s only full time orchestra that is self-owned and self-managed.
Pell stepping in at the last minute was nothing short of revolutionary in the world of professional orchestras.
“I have never seen this circumstance in my 40 years of professional playing, and it underscores the importance of live music. You never know what magic can happen," said Annie Cohen, a cellist and founding member of the LPO.
After the concert, the first question for the orchestra was “Who’s going to take Chris out to celebrate?” Violists Katie and Matt Carrington happily rose to the occasion. But before they headed out, Katie had to ask, “Wait—is he old enough?” (he is).
Pell performed Copland’s Clarinet Concerto again Friday night in Covington, as the guest soloist was still violently ill in his hotel. Friday night’s concert was also enthusiastically received.
Prieto has announced on the LPO’s website www.lpomusic.com that he will match all donations to the orchestra until March 31st of this year, inspired by Pell’s performance to ensure the LPO is able to continue to attract such extraordinary musicians.
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