First published on 21 Feb 2013. Updated on 3 Mar 2013.
of the clarinet Sabine Meyer talks to Time Out Shanghai about her life, her career, and making a
background instrument centre stage
Some instruments are born to solo status,
others have solo status thrust upon them. Big Band musicians may see clarinets
as staples, but in orchestras they languish behind the conductor, knocking
elbows with the oboe and making stars out of the strings. However under Sabine
Meyer, a new solo instrument was born. This month, the first lady of clarinet
comes to Shanghai.
Born in Crailsheim, Germany,
a four-year-old Meyer started playing piano and organ in the village church,
but at eight, her clarinettist father decided she should diversify. ‘I kept
playing all the instruments, but it became clear that I had more talent and
also more fun playing the clarinet,’ she recalls. ‘Between me and the clarinet,
it was love at first sight.’
Along with her brother Wolfgang and her
now-husband Reiner Wehle, she started studying at Hannover’s prestigious
Hochschule für Musik und Theater; she then made international headlines when
conductor and music director Herbert von Karajan defied the Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra’s unofficial ‘no oestrogen’ policy by bringing her on board.
The members eventually voted against giving
her permanent status; they blamed her tone, von Karajan and other observers
cited her gender (Meyer refused to comment). Nevertheless, the best revenge is
a brilliant solo career. Meyer has collaborated with over 80 orchestras in Germany
alone, as well as a Who’s Who of international ensembles; she has raked in
awards, churned out quality CDs and changed the instrument forever.
As for her role as clarinet saviour, she
demurs. ‘It wasn’t my purpose to [reclaim] the instrument, it [was] about
making good, honest and serious music,’ she says. ‘I played nice programmes and
tried to develop new things both in solo concerts and chamber music.’ In 1983,
she formed the Trio di Clarone with her brother and husband. ‘It is a wonderful
thing to play with other musicians, to work and discuss music with them,’ she
says. ‘Working with my husband and brother is special; we know each other well
and value each other as people and as musicians,’ she continues. ‘We do not
need much time rehearsing as we often sense what the other is thinking without
talking about it.’
The couple also developed a popular
training programme designed to go beyond fancy fingering. ‘We also train breath
control, sound shaping, articulation and intonation,’ she explains. ‘[We want]
students to develop a body-conscious, cantabile
(like singing) playing.’ Her husband’s book Clarinet
Fundamentals (Schott, 2005) is also available in Chinese.
For her part, Meyer concentrates her creativity
in programming. Her Homage to Benny
Goodman (EMI, 1999) is half classical, half jazz.
worships [Goodman] as an excellent musician and personality,’ she says. ‘We
thank him for commissioning and inspiring Bartok, Hindemith and Copland to
write for the clarinet.’
However, she insists she is not imitating
anyone. ‘I am a classical musician and I don’t see myself as a jazz musician at
all,’ she says. ‘Benny Goodman was a jazz musician on the first hand, but
always had this desire for classical music. The idea of this CD was to draw a
connection between classical and jazz.’
programme is classical but not mainstream, being devoted entirely to Carl Maria
von Weber. A German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic whose
short life spanned from 1786 to 1826, Weber is best known for Der Freischutz, arguably the country’s
first nationalist opera. Weber also influenced other composers and broke new
ground himself; in composing incidental music for Gozzi’s Turandot, he was the first Western composer to utilise a
genuine Asian melody. A brilliant pianist, it seems he was no slouch when it
came to the liquorice stick.
‘Weber’s clarinet concerto is one of the
most beautiful and important works of clarinet literature,’ says Meyer. ‘It was
deeply affected by Weber’s friendship with the German clarinettist Heinrich
Joseph Baermann. Weber had a good knowledge of the instrument,’ she continues.
‘He lets it shine and sparkle in all its facets.’ Better than anyone, Meyer
Meyer is at Shanghai Concert Hall on Friday 15