World-class debut

A West Coast premiere and visiting soloist are highlights of symphony’s season finale

Clarinetist Jon Manasse rehearses with North State Symphony a few hours before their Laxson concert.

Clarinetist Jon Manasse rehearses with North State Symphony a few hours before their Laxson concert.


Review: North State Symphony’s The Bold and the Beautiful. Saturday, May 15, at Laxson Auditorium.

“He’s the best,” offered Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, during a recent phone interview. Pickett was speaking of classical clarinetist Jon Manasse, several days before Manasse was to make a special appearance with the symphony on May 15, in Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium.

“I’ve never heard a clarinet player who can do everything he can. I mean, Richard Stoltzman, he’s the most famous—but Jon’s the best.”

Pickett didn’t need to convince me. I have known about Manasse, a 40-something, clarinet-playing whiz-kid-turned-superstar, for at least a decade. Manasse was the youngest winner of the International Clarinet Society Competition; is a graduate of Juilliard, where he now teaches; and is currently principal clarinetist for New York City’s American Ballet Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. So it was a big thrill to find out he was coming to Chico to be the featured soloist for the West Coast premiere of prominent contemporary composer Lowell Liebermann’s new Clarinet Concerto. For Pickett, it was a real coup.

Pickett, who also conducts the Juneau (Alaska) Symphony, explained it this way: “As it turns out, I share an agent with Jon Manasse. And so does Lowell Liebermann. … Our agent said, ‘I think it would be really great if Lowell Liebermann would write a concerto for Jon Manasse.’”

Clarinet Concerto had its world premiere by the Dayton (Ohio) Philharmonic Orchestra in November 2009. It was just a matter of time before Pickett had the opportunity to conduct the piece, first in Juneau in January, and then this past Saturday night, as part of the NSS’s last concert of the season—a concert titled The Bold and the Beautiful, featuring the Liebermann piece-in-three-movements book-ended by Haydn’s “Lo Speziale Overture” and Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8.

The Haydn overture—a fairly short work with an A-B-A form—opened with the double-bass section’s commanding, bowed runs complemented by the sweetness of the violins. The slow, stately-yet-gentle B-section, underpinned with more arco bass, led to the liveliness of the third section, which showcased the quickness and agility of the violinists.

After the Haydn, Manasse appeared on stage—dressed handsomely in a black, long-sleeved shirt and black trousers—and situated himself front and center.

After an introduction featuring bells and high woodwinds (but no orchestral clarinets), Manasse put his horn to his mouth and began on a low note that sounded the way warm butter and maple syrup taste on homemade pancakes, and played a run that went up high on the instrument.

“Very pretty, relaxed,” I wrote in my notes early in the first movement. “Evokes a feeling of wonder, beauty, a sunrise, morning.”

The concerto, as it turned out, was the perfect showcase for Manasse’s stunning talent on the clarinet. (Liebermann and Manasse attended Juilliard together—there’s a lot to be said for having someone who knows you write a concerto for you.)

Manasse had the opportunity, throughout the course of performing the highly accessible, yet refreshingly new-sounding piece, to show his superior skill at playing runs and arpeggios up and down his instrument, as well as his ability to coax amazing beauty from slower passages. He can hop around the instrument, tonguing and slurring notes high-to-low and the reverse, with such facility it’s almost unbelievable. Manasse’s tone is exceedingly gorgeous (I do not exaggerate), and his ability to re-enter the piece after a break is notable for the way it’s not noticeable—until you realize he’s playing again. A master of subtlety, you could say.

And he’s so nice to watch—his body language shows that he clearly is moved by the music.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to famous Czechoslovakian composer Antonin Dvorak; he is, as my brother might say, “no joke.” And the symphony’s performance after the intermission of his Symphony No. 8 was wonderful.

But Manasse-playing-Liebermann stole the show, in my opinion. Like Pickett had told me, “For the North State Symphony to get to do the West Coast premiere, it’s really cool. This should really go to an L.A. or San Francisco symphony. It’s that caliber—world-class.”