I met the extraordinary clarinetist Bil Jackson when he premiered my Four Airs at Music from Angel Fire (New Mexico) in the summer of 2004. That summer, he also played the fiercely difficult clarinet part in my trio And Legions Will Rise, and I believe it was his enthusiasm for this piece which led him to commission—with the generous help of Kathryn Gould and Meet the Composer—my Clarinet Concerto.
Inspiration is often hard to come by, and I don’t rely on it as a rule. But flipping channels one night, I came across an HBO documentary called Section 60 and I immediately thought of the opening music of this concerto. Section 60 is the part of Arlington National Cemetery in which U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, and the film bears largely unsentimental but thoroughly devastating witness to the family members of these victims as they form communities at the burial site and attempt to come to terms with their loss.
I decided the first movement (Vigil) would be elegiac, meditative and lyrical, sometimes nostalgic, dreamlike and even tragic in places. It would act as a “book of memories” so to speak, and for the most part would be about introspection and looking back. By means of necessary contrast, the second and final movement (Surge) would be driving and headlong. Where in the first movement the clarinetist makes smooth melodic contours in rhythms that sound almost improvised, the second would involve angular, staccato bursts of notes and an almost robotic sense of rhythm. Where the first movement is about reflection, the second can only roll forward incessantly and inexorably.
I have always loved Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, scored for strings with harp and piano. Though I have made no attempt here to create a “companion piece” for Copland’s, I realized after a great deal of thought that this instrumentation was ideal for my purposes, though I added one percussionist who is assigned a variety of instruments.
Clarinet Concerto was given its premiere on April 10, 2009 with clarinetist Bil Jackson and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra led by Jeffrey Kahane.