Eleanor Weingartner, clarinettist

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?

My interest in music I got through my parents. My father was a lover of classical music — he listened to recordings at home and was an avid concert goer attending symphony as well as chamber music and contemporary music concerts. My mother enjoyed sitting down at the piano and playing Clementi and Kuhlau sonatinas. She was also very enthusiastic about some of the music of my early childhood like the Swingle Singers’ Bach’s Greatest Hits and the Beatles, as well as Big Band from her youth. Thinking about a career in music really came from the coincidence of our family winding up in Evanston, the town just north of Chicago in the mid ‘70s.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Robert Marcellus retired from playing and moved to Evanston to head the clarinet studio at Northwestern University. It became a magnet for aspiring young orchestral clarinetists who came to study with Marcellus as well as with Clark Brody, the Chicago Symphony’s principal clarinetist. Both Marcellus and Brody had been students of the renowned French clarinetist and pedagogue, Philadelphia Orchestra’s Daniel Bonade. It was amazing to have them both in the same city. Each had worked with many of the outstanding conductors of their day—among them, Hungarians, Georg Szell in Cleveland and Fritz Reiner in Chicago.

Marcellus’ take on the clarinet was that the greatest music written for it was the orchestral repertoire. The solo and chamber repertoire that he considered of value was select, in comparison to the vast repertoire of great symphonic works that had an important role for the clarinet.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Once I began my graduate study as a Master’s student at Northwestern University, my focus was to get an orchestral job and that was my greatest challenge for a number of years. High on the list of current artistic challenges is exploring the solo repertoire —particularly clarinet with piano.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I performed a concert of clarinet and piano pieces many of which are in the cd, Voyage: Clarinet and Piano Around the World at a recital in the foyer of a museum in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. We were neither entirely indoors nor out of doors. The pianist and I felt a connection with the audience and in the surprise endings of some of the pieces, there was laughter –we were collectively enjoying the humor in the unexpected turns the pieces took. It was a lovely collective experience.

Another performance that stands out in my mind took place when my orchestra, Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional was on tour in Austria several years ago and the highlight for many of us was our Vienna concert in the Konzerthaus. The entire orchestra was looking forward to performing in a hall that has both a wonderful acoustic as well as an incredible history and connection to great music and great musicians. We were primed for doing our best and for enjoying the experience of playing in a hall with such an illustrious past.

I am particularly fond of a number of the works I recorded on a cd of music for soprano, clarinet and piano, Jessica Rivera Sings Romantic Music for Soprano, Clarinet and Piano—we chose repertoire that included the most well-known pieces for that combination—Schubert, Shephard on the Rock, as well as the Six German Songs by Spohr with their virtuosic writing for the clarinet. We also played three beautiful songs written by my father in law (originally for his voice and guitar) in an arrangement in which the clarinet and the piano accompany the soprano in a way that supports the beautiful, very evocative lyrics. Because these words had been written by my father in law, I felt a strong and personal connection to the songs. I loved the opportunity in that cd to have the clarinet play so many different roles. Another work included on it was Eucarista from Oswaldo Golijov’s La Pasion Segun San Marcos. The clarinet and voice are alone in dialogue without the presence of the piano. That arrangement evokes a stark mood radically contrasting all the other works on the cd.

Which works do you think you perform best?

One of the things that most fascinates me in music is the manipulation of rhythm and pacing. I enjoy seeing how a composer sets up a sequence and expectations in a given phrase or section and then varies it to lead the listener to an unexpected place. An example of this is in the last movement of Lutoslowski’s Dance Preludes.

In slow movements, where the rhythm and pacing are often quite straight forward, I enjoy the tension that is created by letting a melody unfold calmly and deliberately. I also enjoy the challenge of portraying sweetness which is often one of the elements of middle movements where melody is of the highest importance. One such slow movement is the second movement of Gordon Jacob’s Sonatina.

I also enjoy looking for theatrical changes in color, atmosphere or character and heightening those changes through articulation, tonal variations and changes in dynamic or dramatic intention—all of these with the objective of connecting with the listener and drawing her/him in to the work. Sehnsucht from Spohr’s Six German Songs is one piece that gives the clarinet such an opportunity:

I love movements in classical works that clearly derive from folk music and popular forms of their time. The Minuet and Trios from the Mozart Clarinet Quintet seems to be to be a good example:

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

There are several things in my day to day life that I think tie in to my life as a performer. One is that I try to find the humor in situations whenever possible. There are so many circumstances that one can’t control, and keeping a sense of humour seems to be one of the best ways to deal with them. I feel like keeping things light makes it more possible to approach performances with joy.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I have several wish lists and my repertoire choices tend to come from one or other of them:

One wish list is to delve into repertoire that is relatively unknown—either because it’s new or because it got lost in the shuffle and is not currently being played much. A number of the pieces the Voyage CD fall into that category. It is challenging and satisfying to find the charm and freshness in works that are less known or less frequently played. The Rosetti Clarinet Concerto in Eb Major, C62 is one of those pieces.

Another is, Four Hungarian Dances, by Kókai Reszö:

A second list is of new works that haven’t been performed at all or have had few performances. It’s exciting to put my energy into developing a first version of a piece. I premiered Eugenio Toussaint’s Concerto para Clarinete in 2010 and recorded it in 2012 on the cd, 21st Century Lyrical Clarinet Concertos:

More recently, I had the opportunity to perform and record a double concerto written for my husband, oboist, Miguel Salazar and myself by Argentinian composer, Eduardo Alonso-Crespo.

The remaining wish list I have is to play and re visit the masterpieces of the clarinet recital and chamber repertoire—Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Poulenc, Weber, Debussy. Clarinetists are exceptionally fortunate to have works written by these giants. When these composers were turned on to the possibilities of the clarinet, it inspired them to write great works.

Among these are the quintets for clarinet and string quartet by Mozart and Brahms and Schubert’s last song, The Shepherd on the Rock

There are also the sonatas of Brahms, his Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Schubert’s octet, Weber’s quintet for clarinet and strings as well as his works for clarinet and piano.These are pieces that I have performed but not recorded. Those as well as Francis Poulenc’s clarinet sonata, his sonata for two clarinets and his sextet for piano and winds are all on my list of possible future projects.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My orchestra’s hall is in the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Mexico City. Visually, the hall is spectacular and when we play with a small orchestra, our backdrop is a magnificent Art Deco stained glass mosaic of the two volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico, Popocatepetl and Iztlazihuatl.

I also like to perform at a modern circular hall with another tongue twister name, Sala Nezahualcoyotl, at the southern end of Mexico City which is the home of the Autonomous University’s orchestra. That hall, built in the ‘70s has great acoustics.

What I like in a space for chamber music is where there is a good acoustic with enough reverberation so you can hear the end of one note as you begin the next one, but not too much as to take clarity away from the music. I also like a space in which one can feel a connection between the performers and the audience. A lovely venue in downtown Mexico City which has these qualities is a beautiful room in the National Art Museum where there are weekly chamber concerts.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

This is a tough topic. I think solutions depend a lot on context. I grew up in the United States where performing arts organizations are funded privately for the most part. On the side of music education, most states have performing arts programs in the public schools. In contrast, in Mexico, most of the performing arts institutions are supported by state and federal government. However, government supported schools don’t have instrumental performing arts programs. In both countries, I have been involved with projects to introduce classical and orchestral music to young people, both by bussing students to the concert hall and by bussing musicians to the schools.

Mexico is a country of music lovers. In a city like Mexico City, because the cost of tickets for many events is subsidized, they are relatively accessible –if it costs a similar amount to go to hear a live orchestra performance as it does to go to the movies, the potential audience is greater.

In both Mexico and the US there is a big audience for orchestral music when there’s a popular element—like Star Wars or Harry Potter or video game music and programs like Carmina Burana. Events with those programs sell out. I imagine for a certain part of the audience, the excitement of hearing a live orchestra playing movie music helps create a more general interest in orchestral and classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences was an octet concert I was part of, out of doors in a makeshift concert setting –the backdrop being a beautiful building in the town of Povoletto in the province of Udine, not far from Venice. The improvised stage consisted of some wooden risers positioned using the building’s façade as an acoustic shell. The audience was also seated outside and we played a wonderful program of wind octet music in this idyllic rural setting. The concert was followed by a feast that was also served outside.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Getting to play the great repertoire, with enthusiastic colleagues. Being able to make a living at it, and on occasion being part of fantastic performances.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To relish the complex process of understanding the music you are playing (interpreting)—appreciating and contemplating what the composer is trying to get across to the listener.

Understanding and honing the many tools that each instrumentalist uses to be a performer—the mental and physical tools.

Eleanor Weingartner is an American clarinetist living in Mexico. Of her playing, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote, “Weingartner is… a virtuoso. Commanding and totally in control of her instrument.” She divides her musical activity into orchestral playing, chamber music and teaching. She is principal clarinet of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra (OSN) and a founding member of the wind octet Sinfonietta Ventus. With this ensemble, she has toured extensively and recorded four discs that include music in a range of styles, from 18th Century Harmoniemusik to works by contemporary Mexican composers. Weingartner was also a member of the contemporary ensemble, Trío Neos, with whom she toured and recorded.

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