Singing with your instrument
‘Along with the concertos by Mozart and Weber, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is among the most important ever written for the instrument.’ Now there’s a statement, one that Calogero Palermo – since 2015, one of the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s two principal clarinettist – stands by.
‘It’s a very beautiful work, the very first clarinet concerto ever written by an American, although the European influences are very much present,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s also a real solo work. You have to have a good sound and master a variety of styles. The first movement, for example, is very lyrical. I love that movement very much because it reminds me of the years when I played in the opera orchestra in Rome. The cadenza acts as a bridge between the two movements and again is quite virtuoso and not so classically written. The last movement has more jazz influences.’
Those jazz elements are not so surprising, given that Copland wrote the concerto at the request of Benny Goodman, the clarinettist who excited a furore with his own big band, but who also asked composers like Copland and Béla Bartók to write works for the clarinet in the leading role. ‘Goodman also aspired to being a classical clarinettist,’ Palermo says. ‘That’s why he came knocking on these classical composers’ doors. The great thing is that both the Copland concerto and Bartók’s Contrasts have since become real repertoire pieces for the instrument. They’re also serious “classical” works. Although Copland did employ jazz elements in the concerto, he resisted the urge to turn it into a jazz concerto.’
‘Performing as a soloist with all your colleagues behind you is an emotional experience’
Palermo is delighted to be performing this very concerto with his colleagues from his own orchestra behind him. ‘I performed the Mozart concerto and a Weber concerto with the Orchestra Teatro dell’Opera di Roma when I was principal clarinettist there. I find that performing as a soloist with all your colleagues behind you is an extremely emotional experience. And it will be no different with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The musicians of the orchestra are so amazingly good. Plus I recently turned fifty and have also been active as a professional clarinettist for thirty years. It’s a great honour and a milestone in my career to be able to perform my favourite concerto with this orchestra at this particular time. The work also fits perfectly with the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Made in America theme. It’s all very exciting, and I can’t wait.’
‘Opera taught me everything about what it means to sing with your instrument’
Although Palermo is a great soloist, in addition to being a very successful teacher (he is the author of works including the didactic method Soli d’orchestra focusing on solo parts for the clarinet from the orchestral repertoire), he considers himself an orchestral musician through and through. And his curriculum vitae bears that out. After completing his training at the conservatory in Palermo and going on to continue his studies in Geneva, he was immediately appointed principal clarinettist with the Orchestra del Teatro V. Bellini in Catania in Sicily. A year later, in 1997, he joined the Orchestra Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, where he says he felt right at home: ‘I can still remember the feeling I had when I played the clarinet solo from “E lucevan le stelle” for the first time. And then when the voice enters… Opera taught me everything about what it means to sing with your instrument.’
But Palermo says the call to perform the great symphonic repertoire became too strong to ignore in 2008. Leaving Rome behind, he joined the Orchestre National de France as principal clarinettist. He says, ‘It was fantastic being able to perform all those great symphonies. I loved it, but my wife didn’t take to life in France and wanted to return to Rome.’
In 2012, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma welcomed him back with open arms like a prodigal son, and he resumed his post. ‘The uncertainty came in 2015 as a result of budget problems,’ he says. ‘The permanent contracts were converted to freelance contracts. Although it was all rolled back quickly enough, the damage had been done. All I could think of was leaving.’
Another factor in his decision to leave was the fact that Palermo had had a very positive experience as a substitute with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. ‘I received an invitation to play in the orchestra for a week in October 2014,’ he recalls. ‘The programme included Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Andris Nelsons conducting. I instantly fell in love with the orchestra’s style of playing. When the orchestral musicians told me they were looking for a first clarinettist, I said to my wife, “This orchestra is so good. I can’t let this opportunity pass me by.”’
And so it went. Palermo was appointed principal clarinettist the very next year, and he and his wife moved to Amsterdam. He says, ‘When I arrived, I spoke only Italian, French and English. Now we’re so settled here that a few months ago, I started to study Dutch in earnest.’
The man who says he chose the clarinet all those years ago because he thought the instrument looked so beautiful has no desire to leave the Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘This orchestra is so fantastic. And I’m not saying that because I now call it my orchestra. It has a wonderful sound, but is also very flexible in the way it performs. We have a different conductor nearly every week, but the orchestra still retains its own identity. It’s often the case that everything’s just right, right from the first rehearsal. I know first-hand that it doesn’t always work that way. In Rome, the first rehearsal was often a very painstaking process. With the Concertgebouw Orchestra, though, it’s just right from the start. I think that’s also because we’re one big “family”, there’s a high degree of mutual respect and we approach one another constructively.
And then, of course, there’s the Concertgebouw. The hall is so deeply embedded in the orchestra’s DNA that it retains its sound at any venue, even on tour. That’s down to the musicians. But if you ask me, we sound best in the Main Hall.’
Calogero Palermo’s clarinet
‘I play a clarinet built by Buffet-Crampon, the Prestige model. It may not have the highest range, but I love the sound, which is big and lyrical. I like the Prestige because it’s a flexible instrument. I’ve replaced my clarinet a few times over the years, but always with the same model. The last time I needed a new clarinet, I looked at other options and ended up asking Buffet-Crampon to change some things. In the end, everything stayed the same – only the colour of the valves changed.
I’m also loyal when it comes to the reeds I use, which are made by D’Addario. I also use an Italian-made Licostini mouthpiece. This combination has a big sound, but feels very light when I’m playing. It’s the perfect combination for me. I’ve thought about making my own reeds, but it doesn’t actually make much sense for the clarinet. I understand that as a bassoonist or an oboist, you have to cut your own reeds, but the quality of the reeds available for the clarinet is so good that I see no need to do it myself.’