Up from the Orchestral Depths: Clarinetist David Howard (January 2, 2012)
Written by Maria Nockin
Published by Fanfare
Los Angeles native David Howard is the bass clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has been with the orchestra since 1981, when he was hired by then-music director Carlo Maria Giulini. Recently, he recorded a compact disc containing works by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Johannes Brahms. When I spoke to him in September, he had just finished a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl and was settling into an easy chair.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents were both pianists. My father, Orrin Howard, wrote program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years and still does so from time to time. He taught and wrote about music for much of his career. He was a music critic for a time, as well. My mother, Shirley Effenbach, still teaches piano. I think they hoped I would become a pianist, but I only made a short and unhappy try at it. An even shorter trial period was what I gave the violin, because I could not keep it under my chin! At that point my father called Mitchell Lurie, a friend who lived in our neighborhood. A preeminent clarinetist, he passed away two years ago.
My father asked him for help with a son who could not learn either piano or violin. Lurie set me up with one of his students. It worked out well, and a couple of years later I was taking lessons from Lurie himself, who was one of the great clarinetists of the 20th century. He was also a wonderful teacher, and later on I was lucky enough to teach alongside him at the University of Southern California. He was my most important teacher. His playing of the Brahms Quintet is the standard all clarinetists hope to achieve.
Q: What did you do after high school?
A: I went to UCLA for a year and then transferred to Yale. From the latter I would go to New York City on weekends, because Lurie had told me I should study with Leon Russianoff, who taught at the Juilliard and Manhattan schools of music. It was just what I needed. I graduated from Yale with a degree in Russian literature. That and two dollars would have gotten me on a bus! All through college I knew I loved the clarinet but was not sure I wanted to make it my career. At Yale, I studied with Robert Bloom, the most influential mid 20th-century oboist. He was a truly great musician and I was lucky to have had that time with him. He had studied with Marcel Tabuteau and he spawned a great generation of oboe players. Many of Bloom’s students are just now retiring from major orchestras.
While I was still in school, I got a job with the New Haven Symphony, which is a fine orchestra. The audition had been for second clarinet. After I played, the late Erich Kunzel, then music director, asked if I played bass clarinet. Without hesitating, I said “Yes,” even though the sum total of my experience with it was one Mahler symphony. With a borrowed instrument, I scrambled to sound like a professional bass clarinetist.
I stayed on in New Haven for a year after I graduated and I eventually became their principal clarinet. Then I got a job with the New Jersey Symphony, which was a great opportunity for me. The other woodwind players were also bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! Unfortunately, that orchestra had a pattern of folding and after my second year there, it happened. Although I had been principal there, too, I was left high and dry by the collapse. At that point, I decided to return to the West Coast and take some auditions. A year later, at the age of 25, I had my job as bass clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I had not even owned a bass clarinet until six weeks before my audition, so you know how lucky I was. I had done what I always tell my son not to do: I crammed mightily!
Q: Where do you teach?
A: The Thornton School at the USC is a fabulous place and its clarinet studio is very strong. I have a half-time teaching load, which is as much as I can handle as a member of the Philharmonic. There, I’m the secondary clarinet teacher to Yehuda Gilad, so I teach some clarinet and some bass clarinet. I also coach chamber music and I have a class in orchestral repertoire. The latter is a thinly disguised course in “How to Get an Orchestra Job.” At USC, we have placed a disproportionate number of clarinet students in orchestra jobs. We’re really proud of that. Unfortunately, more and more orchestras are disbanding and students are paying a great deal of money for a music education. It is not a good combination at all.
I also give master classes and have given them recently in Helsinki, Stockholm, Caracas, Beijing, and Tel Aviv. Master classes are good for the students because a different teacher brings a new set of ideas to the youngsters’ constellation of concepts. It really is a healthy challenge for them to have to sort out some new ideas. They have to figure out what to absorb. They may not get all of the teacher’s ideas at first. The new concepts may percolate inside of the student to be understood and utilized later. Sometime in the future, pupils may see the value of ideas you gave them in a master class. No one should seek ideas from every possible teacher, but within reasonable limits, master classes can certainly be valuable. They promote curiosity, flexibility, and openness. Most driven students are motivated to get another set of ears.
Q: What has happened to the tyrannical conductors of yesteryear?
A: They are fast dying out. That type of leadership has gone out of fashion. There are many colorful stories that come out of the past years of autocratic conductors who did not have to answer to anyone for their behavior. You hear wonderful recordings from their era, but you seldom hear what happened along the way to that excellent performance. Of course, in the symphonic world, the rise of unions had an effect on the behavior of conductors. They really cannot afford to be autocrats anymore because they no longer have the right to hire and fire as they please.
Even guest conductors have to remember that players have something to say about whether or not they will be asked back. The age of the tyrannical conductor is pretty much over. The Fritz Reiners, George Szells, and Arturo Toscaninis of this world drove their orchestra players crazy, but they also drove those musicians to become spectacular ensembles. What they created was incredible, but the price was steep. I think the opera world, however, is still a place where tempestuous behavior can occur. It’s a tradition that dies hard.
Q: How much can a music student learn from recordings?
A: You can learn an immense amount about phrasing, nuance, and tempi. The one problem I find is that the tempi from recordings I listened to as a kid are indelibly printed on my memory so that anything different seems wrong to me. That is not a good thing because there is no single way of playing anything. But, on the whole, I’ve learned a lot from recordings. I recommend that my students listen to them so that they know what’s happening in the outside world concerning their music. Students should not use recordings as models, but they should listen to them so that they hear what the possibilities are.
Q: Where are your former students now?
A: Many are playing in orchestras, and I get e-mails from all over the world that tell me what they are doing. I love that.
Q: How did you choose the music to record on your compact disc?
A: After we had played the Brahms Quintet live in our chamber music program at Disney Hall and I was walking off stage, one of the Phil’s management people stopped me. He said, “That was great. Would you like to hear the recording?” I had not realized that all the chamber music performances were being recorded, and from that moment on I have been grateful that I did not know that before playing the Brahms. Playing for a microphone is very different from playing for an audience.
Thus, the Brahms on the disc is very different from a studio recording. It turned out well, so I talked with Bob Attiyeh of Yarlung Records about putting another live recording with it. We then added the Ustvolskaya. Bob is an extremely talented sound engineer and he wanted to add a piece or two that would be played specifically for that recording. We chose one by 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky, who is a good friend. A professor at Cornell University in New York, Stucky is one of the most respected composers in the world. He had been the L.A. Phil composer-in-residence for a very long time, under both André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen. His music is colorful, engaging, and brilliantly orchestrated. Best of all, he wrote pieces that were not merely commissioned by us, but designed just for us. He actually told us that we were the orchestra that he had in mind when he wrote for any ensemble. It was great for us to know that we had that kind of impact, but it also gave us the responsibility of living up to what he expected of us. He wrote the clarinet piece on my compact disc to challenge young players, but let me tell you, it is challenging for all ages!
The other was Nachtlieder by Salonen, the orchestra’s longtime conductor. He is a brilliant composer with wonderful musical ideas and a great command of instrumental color. He has also written a number of pieces for us and with us in mind. Having that kind of cross-pollination is an unusual opportunity. He affected our skill set by challenging us. Nachtlieder is an early piece. He wrote it in his 20s and it sounds like the Second Viennese School. He has come a long way since then. He is very much his own man and his work shows that. The piece we play on the CD is not derivative. It is the music of a young man. Galina Ustvolskaya is a relatively unsung Soviet-era composer who had a working relationship with Shostakovich. Her piece is brooding, but evocative, and very relevant today.
We recorded both the Stucky and Salonen pieces at Zipper Hall, a wonderful chamber music venue in the Colburn School across the street from the Disney. They rounded out our recording beautifully since we wanted to avoid producing yet another disc with the Mozart and Brahms quintets. We actually did a live performance of the Mozart, but I did not want to put out the usual recording. We wanted to be different.
Q: Do you have a private life?
A: I do. If I didn’t, I would cease to exist. I need a life away from work. My girlfriend and I have a home on the west side of Los Angeles. Between us, we have three grown children who come in and out.
Q: Do you have any physical problems that result from the loudness of the music in the orchestra?
A: I don’t, because I use a judicious amount of musician’s earplugs. Everyone in a symphony orchestra has some sort of an acoustic cross to bear. My seat is about two rows in front of the percussion section. There are some dangerous areas, such as near the piccolo or trumpet. I understand that Australian orchestra players have contracts that address decibel levels on the stage. That is a very valid point and they are trying to protect their musicians. By the time I retire I will have played in symphonies for more than 40 years. That is a very long time to be listening to loud sounds.
Q: How do you see the future of classical music?
A: I see that managements are already using new technology to appeal to a new demographic. The adaptability of the purveyors of classical music will determine its future. A decade ago the average age of Los Angeles Philharmonic subscribers was much too high. Now, thanks to Salonen, Dudamel, and Disney Hall, it is back down to a reasonable age. We are also happy to see subscribers bringing their children and grandchildren. The public schools have stopped teaching music and that is why the future of classical music is in peril. It is hard to develop an audience if people are not exposed to it as children. Luckily, our version of El Sistema is going well. I’ve done a few things for them in the inner city. Gustavo, after all, is the best spokesman in the world for El Sistema. Working for him is wonderful, and we are really very lucky to have him.
STUCKY Meditation and Dance. USTVOLSKAYA Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. SALONEN Nachtlieder. BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet • David Howard (cl); Vicki Ray (pn); Johnny Lee, Lyndon Taylor, Kristine Hedwall (vn); John Hayhurst (va); Gloria Lum (vc) • YARLUNG 78874 (65:68)
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.