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Q&A with Julian Bliss

One of the world’s greatest clarinettists, Julian Bliss joins the Orchestra of Opera North in Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 15 September as soloist in TWO clarinet concertos: Artie Shaw’s showpiece for the instrument, as performed in the 1940 Fred Astaire film Second Chorus, and Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, Strings and Harp.

As he looks forward to returning to Huddersfield, Julian tells us how jazz and symphonic music come together in these works…

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Artie Shaw and Aaron Copland were both second-generation Jewish immigrants to the US, but they approached their Clarinet Concertos from very different musical backgrounds. Can we hear this in the works? 

Artie Shaw’s Clarinet Concerto has a strong improvisatory feel about it, which of course makes a lot of sense as it was written by one of the greatest jazz clarinettists of that time. The main sections have their roots in the blues: there are cadenzas and interludes between sections, but the 12-bar blues is the backbone of the piece.

The Copland concerto, on the other hand, definitely uses harmony that you could associate with jazz, but it does not follow a traditional jazz pattern. Instead, it’s more… well, classical in its approach, and more progressive and complex in the harmony. The cadenza feels like an improvisation to me, and you hear themes for the first time that become substantial later on.

When I’m performing it, I imagine that these ideas just came into my head and I’m trying them out in the cadenza to see what works. There are similarities between the works too: Benny Goodman (who commissioned the Copland concerto) and Artie Shaw were both incredible clarinettists, but with slightly different approaches to their playing. They both helped cement the clarinet as a band-leading jazz instrument, and inspired, and continue to inspire, a vast number of clarinettists around the world.

Won’t it be a feat of endurance to perform these two pieces in a single concert?

I’ll let you know afterwards! Yes, both pieces require a fair amount of stamina, but like anything, if you’re in shape then it shouldn’t be a concern. In my opinion the first, slow movement of the Copland is the most tiring as the focus is on long phrases and a quieter dynamic. Playing up high on the instrument at a louder dynamic can also be tiring, something that happens later on in the Copland and also in the Artie Shaw. I actually feel great after I’ve given my all on stage and put every ounce of energy into it!

Are there any challenges for a classical musician performing jazz? 

The main one I hear is people saying ‘I can’t improvise’. Anyone can improvise, but in jazz I think people are afraid to try because they often don’t have the harmonic knowledge that you need. When I was growing up and learning music theory, it was very geared towards classical music. If you decided to learn jazz later on, there was this extra harmonic world to learn and understand. Why don’t we learn it all at once? To me it makes no difference if you never play a note of jazz in your life, understanding harmony and chord progressions in a deeper way can only make you a better musician, no matter which genre you play. You performed in Huddersfield at the age of eight as soloist in Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Second Clarinet Concerto, in the presence of the composer. What are your memories of the experience? 

After my performance I went out into the hall where Sir Malcolm was sitting. He was a man of few words, but he commented that he liked the performance and then gave me a £50 note! I was so excited and have never forgotten that. I remember it being one of my first concerto performances and so there were a lot of feelings and emotions surrounding that: mainly excitement, and I remember not being at all nervous! Being back in the hall is definitely going to bring back memories and I’m very happy to have the chance to return, slightly older now, and I’d like to think a bit wiser!

Julian Bliss performs clarinet concertos by Artie Shaw and Aaron Copland as part of An American in Paris, opening Kirklees Concert Season 2022-23 at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 15 September 2022. Opera North’s Music Director Garry Walker conducts the transatlantic programme, named for Gershwin’s musical tribute to the French capital, and also featuring HK Gruber’s Manhattan Interludes, and Duke Ellington’s blues-drenched Harlem.

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