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Music Preview: PSO clarinetist votes 'no' on vibrato for classical works

Wednesday, January 31, 2001

By Mark Roth and Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

When Michael Rusinek sits down this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to play Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto, he'll show off almost all of the instrument's features -- languorous slow passages, lightning runs, syncopation, tonguing and slurring, wide-bodied low notes, piercing high notes and even a vertiginous upward slide.

PSO principal clarinetist Michael Rusinek says that using a vibrato when playing the instrument is "like putting ketchup on a really good steak." (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

But there is one thing listeners won't hear -- a vibrato.

Even though the piece was written in 1948 for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who premiered it with his own gentle vibrato, PSO principal clarinetist Rusinek said he won't be using one, partly because he doesn't really consider the concerto a jazz piece.

But it goes beyond that. Rusinek, like most other classical clarinet players, rarely if ever uses a vibrato, the quavering sound that varies either the pitch of a note (done by vibrating the jaw and lips), or its intensity (done with contractions of the diaphragm) or both.

This might seem to be just one of the many things that separate classical and popular music, except for one oddity: The clarinet is virtually the only instrument in the orchestra that is still played without a vibrato.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians says the almost universal use of vibrato in classical music really didn't take hold until the 20th century. Even through the late 1800s, string sections of classical orchestras often played without the vibrato that everyone is familiar with today.

But after vibrato spread through most of the orchestra, the clarinet, for some reason, became one of the only instruments where it continued to be shunned.

Pittsburgh Symphony

Featured performers: Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and violin; Michael Rusinek, clarinet.

Program: Copland's Clarinet Concerto, Haydn's Concerto No. 2 in G Major for Violin and Orchestra, Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major and Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino."

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $18-$59. 412-392-4900.


The 32-year-old Rusinek, who grew up in Toronto and went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, says he can think of only one other classical instrument where the vibrato/no vibrato debate persists -- the French horn.

Like most top clarinetists, Rusinek learned that vibrato is verboten from his teachers, including his very first one, when he was about 10.

"His feeling about vibrato was that too often, players use vibrato to cover up flaws in their tone," Rusinek says. "So if you have a beautiful tone, it doesn't need vibrato; it's like putting ketchup on a really good steak."

The teacher's feelings were "a huge influence, so it shaped the way I approached the instrument."

That approach has paid off for Rusinek, whose artistic abilities are becoming well known. "He is such a revelation," PSO music director Mariss Jansons said recently. "This is a man who immediately understands musical views. He's unbelievable in his understanding of the mood and the colors."

If Rusinek is not going to venture a vibrato on the Copland concerto, he will certainly not use it in his other featured piece in the Friday-Sunday concerts -- Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major, which was written more than a century and a half earlier.

Rusinek's views about clarinet vibrato are not fanatical -- but the same can't be said of some earlier participants in the debate.

Paul Drushler, a clarinet player and music history scholar who once taught at the State University of New York at Brockport, has studied the vibrato wars involving the instrument and says some of the pronouncements border on ranting.

Take this excerpt from an article written by Russian virtuoso Simeon Bellison for the magazine Clarinet in 1953:

"Vibrato is as dangerous a sickness as diabetes. ... But if ever America stopped being stubborn and followed the example of Europe, it would get rid of shaky playing once and forever ... If the plague persists, boards of education must call a conference of musicians to attack the problem and everything related to it."

Bellison's article was written near the end of the big band era, in which clarinet front men and soloists like Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Hamilton in the Duke Ellington Orchestra were highly popular, and they freely used vibrato.

For that reason, Drushler -- who thinks occasional vibrato on the classical clarinet is just fine -- ventures that "at least 80 percent" of the bias against vibrato is its "association with other things considered negative, like jazz or pop music."

Rusinek doesn't look down on other forms of music, but he thinks there is a definite connection between vibrato and ethnic music, like the rollicking klezmer songs of Yiddish folk tradition that he sometimes plays.

"I am a huge fan of Klezmer music, and when I play things that are in that style, I play with a little bit of vibrato. And the same when I play things in the jazz vein."

The reason vibrato is more acceptable in Klezmer and jazz music, Rusinek says, is "maybe because it's more directly connected to the vocal tradition. When you listen to Klezmer clarinet players, they are so vocal, it's like singing or speaking or telling a story. Jazz is the same way."

Nat Hentoff, the noted jazz music critic and Village Voice columnist, says that for him, the lack of vibrato in classical music shouldn't be ascribed to bias toward jazz as much as the fact that most classical composers probably did not intend for the clarinet to use a vibrato, and "when you play other people's music, you have to go by their directions."

Hentoff says the celebrated jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus "told me he could have played bass for any classical orchestra -- his technique was prodigious -- but he didn't want to spend his life playing other people's music. You really are constricted when you are a symphonic player."

Finally, Richard Stoltzman, one of the best-known clarinet soloists in the world, says he thinks the no-vibrato rule might have something to do with the fact that jazz clarinet soloists are often in the spotlight, leading bands, bending and swaying, interacting with the audience.

His first teacher when he was growing up in Cincinnati was a free-lance clarinetist who played classical and jazz music, and so Stoltzman learned to use a vibrato from him.

Later, when he decided to pursue a classical career, "it was kind of daunting for me that when I started getting into serious classical music teachers and I'd play with a vibrato, they'd say, 'Oh no, oh no -- no vibrato.'

"Maybe they felt like this kid wants to be popular, so he's using a vibrato," Stoltzman speculates.

In his solo career, Stoltzman has become known for using vibrato on several classical pieces, as well as on his CDs of jazz and other kinds of music.

His own recording of the Copland concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra uses a noticeable but very delicate vibrato, particularly in the slow opening passages.

Stoltzman's status makes him fairly bulletproof from criticism, but he says others have suffered a crueler fate.

One of them was British clarinet virtuoso Reginald Kell, who was known for his consistent use of vibrato. Even though Kell was highly acclaimed in the middle of the 20th century, Stoltzman says he understood Kell "had sort of been thrust into a bitter retirement by dint of an onslaught of aspersion by the clarinet fraternity" over his vibrato.

"The fraternity" isn't likely to hurt Stoltzman, though.

As a soloist, he says, "I'm not really part of the clarinet fraternity, as it turns out. I don't hang out with other clarinet players. I spend so much of my time with string players that I try more to connect with their music," which is filled with vibrato.

The clarinet vibrato controversy is obviously not on most people's radar at all, and even many classical music fans may not be aware of the no-vibrato bias.

"I think clarinet players notice, and they like to talk about it," adds Rusinek. "But I also think that clarinet players often get too hung up on the dressing and not the heart of the issue." Vibrato or no vibrato, he says, a musician should "talk about what you can do to play ... in a more musically effective way."

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