Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Throughout my degree studies, clarinet was my principal instrument and I was fortunate to have studied with outstanding (even legendary) teachers – Stanley Hasty at the Eastman School of Music throughout my graduate studies (1971-74) and William C. Willett during my undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at Fredonia. I also had about a semester’s worth of lessons with Leon Russianoff in New York City between my undergraduate and graduate studies, and appreciated a taste of his uniqueness as well. All of these were highly influential in the formative years of my career in music performance and teaching, but Dr. Willett proved to be a singular special influence because he was the only clarinet teacher I had who also performed classically on the saxophone occasionally. And although I did not play the saxophone classically during the years I studied clarinet with him, the impressions of sound and artistry he left on me with his saxophone playing enriched my efforts shortly thereafter, especially in graduate school when I delved into classical saxophone seriously and it became more or less a “co-major” for me alongside clarinet. Shortly after finishing graduate work at Eastman, though, I made the acquaintance of the legendary saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, and from then until his death in 2001 he was a significant influence as well as a valued friend.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Unfortunately, that is an easy question for me to answer, and touches something I have often wished I could have structured differently. Most of my solo performances over the years were faculty recitals, and I committed myself to performing at least one every academic year that I taught at Syracuse University (1980-2015), as well as in the three years of substitute teaching I did at other music schools before that. The main challenge I faced was preparing these recitals with no interruption in my teaching schedule or in an unrelated part-time professional position I had in a family business. The challenge was heightened by the fact that I always played multiple instruments on my faculty recitals, so it was especially difficult to feel as comfortable and fully prepared for them compared, for instance, with how I always felt about preparation and performances during the summer at various places when a near-full-time lesson schedule wasn’t dominating most days.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Especially memorable performances that come to mind include performing the clarinet work “Premiere Rhapsodie” by Debussy with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra under Frederick Fennell in the Eastman Theatre in the spring of 1973 during my doctoral studies, performing Karel Husa’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone & Wind Ensemble a couple times at Syracuse University, and more recently John Williams’ “Escapades” (a veritable concerto for alto saxophone) with Symphoria (Syracuse symphony) in early February 2020, just before the pandemic cancelled everything almost everywhere. I was not aware of that piece prior to being invited to perform it 33 days before the concert, and it’s quite challenging, but our one rehearsal and concert went very well.
As for recordings, number-one on that list is the eight-volume series of CD recordings done under the title “Single Reed Expressions,” which was produced by Mark Records and released by Naxos in early 2016. One on-line reviewer called the title “unfortunately geeky,” and perhaps it’s not an especially creative or inventive series title in some people’s estimation, but it embodies in the simplest way the content of the CDs—eight discs of 70 or more minutes each, about evenly divided between clarinet and saxophone literature (most with piano), reflecting a wide variety of styles from early 19th century to 21st century, and including several of my own compositions. As far as we have determined, these recordings represent the first time a single performer has recorded advanced “classical” literature on both clarinet and saxophone, the “single-reed” instruments, on the same discs.
Otherwise, I am also very pleased with the recording of Karel Husa’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone I was able to do with the Syracuse University Wind Ensemble several years ago. Dr. Husa seemed to like it very much, and I was so glad we could do that recording prior to his passing.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I’ve never really thought much along those lines, but the default here might be pieces for either clarinet or saxophone that employ non-conventional sound resources (without electronics or additional devices), such as quarter tones, mutiphonics (sounding as the simultaneous production of more than one tone), fingered timbre variations, and other non-traditional sounds. My background in this includes doing my doctoral dissertation on the subject, and I’ve had the opportunity to play quite a few pieces using these unusual sounds on both clarinet and saxophone.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Interesting question! All of us in the performing arts want to deliver “inspiring” performances, but I think of that more as performing at such a high level musically that it is the audience that finds it inspiring, and perhaps not in the same way for each person in the audience. As for delivering such performances, I believe our expressive approach for each piece is well determined in advance, so polishing the accuracy and continuity of the technical demands is typically where most of our preparation time ends up being focused. But continuity certainly includes moving from gesture to gesture in a piece with a well-proportioned and well-integrated musicality, and so my most valued “off stage” preparations are when I become fully comfortable with a new piece of music far enough ahead of a performance so that I can transition into just performing it beginning to end in the studio to get used to the larger continuity. Then the day of the performance, providing the audience with that high-level, potentially inspiring rendition of a work is fully achievable.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
For most of my solo recitals, where I’m choosing the programme, I try to select varied repertoire from multiple style periods, which I think appeals to most audiences when there isn’t much variation in the instruments being heard. Almost all of my recital performances include selections for both clarinet and soprano and/or alto saxophone, though, so that certainly adds an element of variety.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
From what I’ve personally observed over the past 20 years or so, professional classical music organizations (i.e., the symphony orchestras, chamber-music groups, even opera companies) should continue and perhaps expand their programming efforts to appeal to the broader interests of potential audience members in their communities. This can be done, and indeed is being done, without compromising commitment to the core “classical” literature, as I have seen through my involvement with Syracuse’s professional orchestra Symphoria. Getting the symphony introduced to young people is also important, and they do a great job with that outreach.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have particularly fond memories of a rather ground-breaking concert I was part of in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City back in June of 1982. One of my closer saxophone colleagues in a neighbouring state, who also did some conducting, organized an 18-piece saxophone ensemble of fellow professionals from around the country and was able to secure a date there. I served as “concertmaster” of that group, playing soprano and sopranino saxophones, and also composed the opening piece for the concert. As best as we could determine, it was the first time in the history of the saxophone (invented about 1840) that a full consort of saxophones (S-A-T-B-Bs) performed a “classical” program at such a major venue. Since then, these large saxophone ensembles and choirs have dotted the globe in many places and venues, but our Lincoln Center concert was quite a “first.” My colleague named that group The Saxophone Sinfonia, and it continued to perform, and even did a couple recordings, until his untimely death in 1996.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
What comes to mind is engaging in high-level performance (and, for some of us, teaching) motivated by a heartfelt commitment to sharing with others—your collaborating colleagues as well as your audience (and especially students). I hope we don’t individually get so focused on propelling our own success that we neglect that important sense of giving. Music lends itself wonderfully to genuine sharing, and we are very blessed in that.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Learn how to practice, and don’t neglect your practice time even on those days when you least feel like practicing. There is great joy in music making, but the truly rewarding experiences are inevitably products of conscientious and consistent preparation, going about things exactly the way your teachers are prescribing and not taking short cuts or short changing your practice time. Aspiring musicians must fully embrace the faith that the more thoroughly they improve and refine their skills, the more they will come to enjoy their own playing or singing. Indeed, the road to success must be paved with lots of patience and self discipline.
Ronald Caravan (born 1946) is an American clarinettist, saxophonist, teacher, composer, and arranger.