[Casa Magazine] Clarinetist Donald Foster Rifts Benny Goodman and Beethoven
By Daniel Kepl, CASA
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It's not often Beethoven is compared with Benny Goodman, but Santa Barbara Symphony Principal Clarinetist Donald Foster made a good point during a recent interview. The rhythmic originality of Beethoven's 7th Symphony is as dynamic and exciting as the jazz rhythms found in Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto, which was written for Goodman, and Darius Milhaud's The Creation of the World. All three works are on the Santa Barbara Symphony concert pair set for Saturday, April 12th at 8pm, and Sunday, April 13th at 3pm, in the Granada Theatre. Artistic and Music Director Nir Kabaretti will be on the podium. "What makes something jazzy is of course the rhythm." Foster explained. "The Beethoven, with its incessant rhythm was not necessarily a jazz foreshowing, but definitely was a rhythmic experiment."
Foster has been Principal Clarinet of the Santa Barbara Symphony for over 15 years, and holds the post of Principal with the Pasadena Symphony as well. He is one of an elite group of top-drawer musicians who play the Hollywood film studio orchestras. "That's one of the great joys of playing in the studio, getting to hear your colleagues," he confided. "And it never fails to boggle the mind what these peopole can do with no warning about the music." Foster was referring to the fact that studio musicians are called for a recording day or days, show up, and only then are shown the music. "You get a call to show up at Sony or Fox, and walk into a beautiful sound stage, exactly how it was for years. The acoustics have been marveled. You sit down, and there in front of you is a big fat book of music that you've never seen before. With intrepidation you crack it open and decided how your life is going to be for the next few days. The great flutist Jim Walker, who retired a couple of years ago, said studio work is 95% boredom, and 5% sheer terror."
Speaking of terror, I brought up the plentiful potential pratfalls in the Copland concerto, remembering that after an exquisite slow introduction, the piece races off at a gallop, with multiple meter changes and rhythmic convolutions whizzing by at dizzying speeds.
"It's one of the seminal clarinet pieces, commissioned by Benny Goodman," Foster reminded me. "Copland knew that he wanted to have something jazzy, but he didn't know what. He also decided that he wanted ot have soem kind of cadenza. but what really befuddled him was how to start the piece, and he ended up writing what he called a pas de deux--the opening section between clarinet and the orchestra--and it truly is like a slow waltz, it's just stunning. In the second half, when it's lively, it is not only tehcnical, but also rhythmically very challenging, lots of meter changes, and since it's only written for strings, piano, harp and clarinet, it's very intimate, so there's really not a while lot of room for error."
A reluctant clarinetist, I never liked the instrument very much, so had to ask Foster what circumstances brought him to it as a kid. "It's such a non-romantic story, in fact, it's laughable," he confessed. "There was no orchestra in my junior high school, so we were only allowed to sign up for band. We were told that we had to rent our instruments, and my mom and I went to the local music store, and couldn't believe how expensive everything was. I felt guilty, and ended up going between the clarinet and the trumpet, literally because they were the cheapest to rent."
The upside to the story, Foster made clear, was that he had been obsessing on music from an early age, and the match with clarient has grown into a successful career. One of Foster's greatest additional joys is as an educator at Moreno Valley College, near Riverside. "I teach courses for non-music majors, and this is truly my hidden love, if you want to know the truth. Teaching music appreciation, film music appreciation, or music fundamentals to non-majors has totally rejuvenated my mantra with teaching; that's my second love, so between that and playing, I have carved a path."