Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Clarinet Tête-a-Tête

Clarinet Tête-a-Tête

Alexander Fiterstein debuts a new piece by longtime collaborator, composer-pianist Michael Brown

Interview by Bret McCabe

Woodwinds Associate Professor and Chair Alexander Fitertstein didn’t know he would be debuting a new piece at his upcoming Sylvia Adalman Faculty Recital  but he kept his fingers crossed. “When we started talking about the recital, I wasn’t sure that there would be a new Michael Brown piece, but he surprised me a few weeks ago,” Fiterstein says of pianist-composer Brown, with whom the clarinetist has collaborated for approaching 12 years. They met through mutual friends among New York’s chamber musicians, soon started performing recitals together, and Fiterstein regularly invites Brown to his summer clarinet academy in Minneapolis. 

Brown’s “For Alex” receives its world premiere at the free November 7 recital, which also includes Henri Rabaud’s Solo de concours, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major, Francis Poulenc’s Sonate pour clarinette et piano, and Béla Kovács’ Sholem Aleichem Rov Feidman.  Peabody Magazine briefly caught up with Fiterstein to check in with the Zimro Project, the ensemble he founded that incorporates Jewish art music into chamber music programs, musician self-care, and this Adalman program, which he describes as “almost like a tasting menu for the audience to try different things.”

Headshot of Alexander Fiterstein

As a faculty member, do you see a teaching element to programming a recital?

You definitely want to have a mix of works that are more substantial with lighter pieces. The Brahms and the Poulenc are cornerstones of our repertoire—big pieces, major composers. And then I included some pieces that might be surprising to people. 

The first piece by the French composer Rabaud is actually more of a student piece but I really like it. I think that in recent years programming has become more about expanding the repertoire, featuring composers that are less well known. Less familiar music is being searched out and rediscovered. That kind of programming is becoming more of something we do—it’s not just going to be composers you recognize, you’ll have some surprises. 

The world premiere is a surprise, and the final piece on the program is also very interesting because it has a personal connection to me. I met both the composer and the person that it was written for. I met the composer Béla Kovács, a very well-known Hungarian clarinetist, teacher, and composer, at the Carl Nielsen competition in Denmark. He was one of the judges back in 2001 and I ended up winning that competition and got to talk to him a little bit. He had just started writing these homages to different composers, and they have become a big part of the clarinet repertoire. He’s written homages for Debussy, Strauss. They’re mostly for solo clarinet, the pieces are written in the style of the composer, and they’re very entertaining.

This piece he wrote for Giora Feidman, who is a klezmer clarinetist, and it’s kind of in the style of Eastern European Jewish music. I spent a few days with Feidman, got to see him up close and play for him. He’s a very interesting artist who’s still performing in his 80s now, and the piece has a very unique style that really captures a master klezmer musician. I’m looking forward to performing it. 

What makes the instrumental pairing of the clarinet and piano interesting for you?

Oh, it’s great. The form of a classical recital is often a solo instrument with piano—violin and piano, cello and piano, for example—and that setting really creates an intimacy because it’s just two musicians. But with the piano there it can become much bigger than just two people, more symphonic in nature—especially in the Brahms sonata for example. 

A few days ago you posted on Instagram a note about “things you can do to revitalize your playing,” which included listening to a new piece, cleaning or repairing you instrument, taking in the outdoors. Do you think it’s important for teachers and working musicians to remind their students the other ways to improve their music besides practicing? 

I think it’s important to stay inspired, to listen to new works, and also to experience other art forms. For example, walking through the Walters Art Museum is very inspiring. Being out in nature is restorative, especially during the fall season. And yes, the more practical things like getting your instrument repaired so it’s in top form for your performances. We sometimes get caught up with just practicing our instrument but there are other activities that can benefit our overall state of mind and our music making.

What’s next for the Zimro Project? 

There’s a recording coming out in a few months of music that was commissioned in part for the Zimro Project. It’s eight short klezmer pieces that were arranged for clarinet and string quartet by Lev Zhurbin and will be released on an album with the Muir Quartet on Parma Recordings. 

Note: Pianist-composer Michael Brown delivers a career workshop November 8 at 10:00 am for Conservatory students and interested attendees.