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Chicago Symphony Honors Retiring J. Lawrie Bloom With Solo Commission

by Harold Quayle

“I feel like I have spent my whole career trying to build respect for the bass clarinet and here was something I could do for the bass clarinet and nobody else was going to get this offer from Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony.”

Those words from J. Lawrie Bloom, the bass clarinetist of the CSO for the last forty years, were referring to Maestro Muti’s offer to commission for him a composition for solo bass clarinet and orchestra to celebrate those four decades, now about to close with Lawrie’s retirement at the end of the 2019/2020 season.

In four concerts, February 20 through 23, the commission was brought to fruition as Lawrie and the orchestra played Ophelia’s Tears: Concertante Elegy by French composer Nicolas Bacri with Maestro Muti conducting.

Bacri, Lawrie said, was without question his first choice as composer. He had already composed a work about Shakespeare’s Ophelia, whose life spirals downward as a result of her rejection by Hamlet, Ophelia’s Mad Scene for soprano and clarinet. Lawrie met Nicolas in Paris in February of 2019, and played for him, on the bass clarinet, the clarinet solo parts from the earlier work. Hearing this was “quite a revelation,” said the composer. “I rediscovered the instrument thanks to him, because I had too narrow a conception of this instrument.” Soon Lawrie was back home and receiving fragments of the new work. By April it was complete with the composer’s assurance that if Lawrie wanted something changed that was possible. None, said Lawrie, other than adding a breath or perhaps starting a crescendo earlier or later.

Lawrie describes the result of the commission: “Muti was clearly pleased with the piece when I played for him before orchestra rehearsals and the audience and my colleagues were more enthusiastic than could even have been imagined. Nicolas has written a magnificent piece for us, and it will get many performances, I’m sure.”

Howard Reich, in his review for the Chicago Tribune, wrote of the world premiere performance, “The intrinsically dark colors of the bass clarinet, when cast alongside Bacri’s large orchestral forces, meant that Ophelia’s agonies were expressed equally in dolorous passages for bass clarinet, atmospheric tone painting from the orchestra and intensely lyrical writing for the two together. Soloist Bloom consistently defied the presumed limitations of his instrument, drawing amber colors and legato lines that are far more difficult to produce on bass clarinet than this performance suggested.”

And what did soloist Bloom have to say about the entire enterprise?
“It’s an honor, it’s a ride and it’s incredible fun.”

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