Columbus Symphony Orchestra Musician Commissions New Music for Clarinet

May 18, 2016

David Thomas is principal clarinetist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. He usually performs in concert halls. But recently, he gave a house concert in the east Columbus home of two of his associates.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist David Thomas talks about commissioning Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman to compose piano accompaniment parts to Paul Jeanjean's advanced etudes and performs selections with pianist Mariko Kaneda.

“I’ll be playing three etudes," Thomas told the audience. "The collection is a book of 18, and they were published in 1927 by Paul Jeanjean. And there’s almost nothing known about this composer, very little history.”

There may be almost nothing known about French composer Paul Jeanjean now, but Thomas is working on an innovative new music project that may well change that. The project might also give some of Jeanjean’s pieces the kind of opportunity that everyone in classical music craves – to leave the practice room behind and grace the stages of concert halls all around the world.

What is known about Paul Jeanjean is that he was a clarinetist working in Paris in the late 1800s and early 1900s and that he composed several sets of clarinet etudes for students at the illustrious Paris Conservatory.

"He’s known mostly for certain solo pieces that he’s written and these etude books. And this is sort of what he considered to be the most challenging etude book that he had written,” Thomas said.

Thomas has been playing Jeanjean’s etudes since he was in high school.

“I’ve always enjoyed the melodic nature of them and the playfulness of them, so they’re something that I’ve performed fairly often in recitals here and there. And while I enjoy performing them live in recitals, I just found that audiences didn’t seem to appreciate them as much as I thought they would,” Thomas said.

Thomas wondered if the single clarinet melody might be a little sparse for most people’s taste. So he came up with the idea to commission a composer to write piano accompaniments for several of Jeanjean’s most advanced etudes – his Etudes de Perfectionnement – etudes for perfecting one’s technique.

Thanks to social media, Thomas was able to find and reach out to a number of composers, including Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman.

“I just befriended a bunch of composers on Twitter, and I basically went to a number of their websites and listened to samples of their music, and I really liked Joseph Hallman’s composition style,” Thomas said.

Thomas asked Hallman if he would be willing to compose accompaniment parts for some of Jeanjean’s etudes.

“At first, I didn’t know what to think,” Hallman said in a recent phone interview. “I thought, writing piano accompaniments for etudes doesn’t sound that exciting potentially. But then I got the chance to learn the pieces, and I was very much pleasantly surprised with how beautiful they are, in fact.”

It’s not common for clarinetists to perform etudes – by Jeanjean or any other composer. As study pieces, etudes in general are intended only to be practiced as a way of perfecting one’s technique.

“Once a player gets to a certain level, they stop working on etudes and they work on concertos to be performed with an orchestra, or repertoire to be played on a recital or orchestral repertoire for auditions," Thomas said. "So the etudes are left in the practice room.” 

The combination of Jeanjean’s 1927 melodies and Hallman’s 2016 accompaniments turn Jeanjean’s etudes into something completely new.

“(Hallman) asked me what style he should compose them in, and I actually encouraged him to think outside the box a little bit,” Thomas said.   

“I, on one hand, wanted to remain sort of true to the style and time period of Jeanjean. On the other hand, I wanted obviously to create something new that wasn’t chained to all of those sort of literal suggestions," Hallman said. "So there are places where I prefer to leave the harmony sort of vague, so I may not complete a chord – I may be missing a note in a chord rather than filling out all the chord so you can hear the exact chord.”

Thomas has commissioned Hallman to compose accompaniments for 10 of Jeanjean’s 18 advanced etudes. At this point in time all 10 of the accompaniments are either completed or in progress. Thomas paid out-of-pocket to get the Jeanjean project off the ground. Now he’s raising awareness about his project in an effort to raise funds to complete it.  Here, too, social media have played a role.

“Recently, after several of them were completed, I decided, okay, now that I have something to show for them, I’d like to put them out there and maybe get some support to try to recoup some of that investment," Thomas said. "So I did a performance of three of them in February in Bethesda, Maryland, on a recital with my sister. And I recorded them – videotaped them – and then I edited them and put them up on YouTube. And Immediately I got some comments saying, ‘These are really cool pieces.  Are you going to commission accompaniments for them all?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I plan to do a number of them. Thanks for your support.’ So I got the idea that the more people heard these, the more they might be interested in supporting them. So I basically used my video performances of them and posted them Facebook and posted them to my blog or other social media accounts – and Twitter, as well.”

Thomas also has been raising funds through the crowdfunding site and in house concerts like the one recently in Columbus, where guests could drop cash or checks into a bowl on the living room table.

For Hallman, composing the etude accompaniments means that his music and Jeanjean’s music will potentially find a place in the concert hall.

"They’re generally pieces that people don’t get to hear because they’re something you play alone in sort of self-flagellation. So it’s a different experience, and it’s one that I’m glad people are having, because they’re beautiful,” Hallman said.

Thomas says his aim for the project is to give his fellow clarinetists 10 essentially brand-new pieces for their performance repertoire.

“I’m hoping that clarinetists will begin to take a little more interest in these pieces," Thomas said. "I think they are cool, if I may put it that way. They’re just cool pieces, they’re fun to listen to. And because of that, I hope that more clarinetists wake up to using these as legitimate repertoire, certainly in recitals, in public performances."