“A Perfect Excuse” (another clarinet story)
In this installment, I continue transcribing Nicholai Kiryuchin’s famous stories. As brief background, he had a long and distinguished career as Principal Clarinet of the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra that spanned for more than 30 years. Equally distinguished as a major clarinet pedagogue, he has nurtured several generations of aspiring clarinetists in Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where I was very fortunate to have been a member of his studio. Prof. Kiryuchin had a great habit of keeping up the creative spirits of his students by sharing with us the unforgettable stories he accumulated over the years of his distinguished musical career.
The events in this story took place when my teacher was a young lad, himself an aspiring conservatory student. As the most promising trainee of his professor’s studio, he was recommended for a gig at the Mariinsky Theater to cover for a second clarinetist, who had caught a bad cold during an opera production. It was a great opportunity, and my teacher practiced his part diligently. He was particularly eager to impress the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, a distinguished musician and professor of the Conservatory.
An example of the classic Italian operatic tradition, the score had a major clarinet solo in the end of the first act. My teacher was really eager to see and hear the principal clarinetist to play that solo up close. The orchestra started the introduction, and oh horror—the clarinet entered one bar too early! All the conductor’s convulsing grimacing, trying to correct the error, was for naught. With his rich powerful tone, projecting to the very last balcony of the massive theater hall, the clarinetist carried out the solo with expression and fortitude. Accompanied only by the strings, he was too consumed by his own playing to sense any discrepancies. The string instruments reacted to the mishap in a variety of ways. Some truly experienced musicians, who have seen it all, quickly ascertained the situation, and directed their stand partners to skip a bar to synchronize their playing with that of the clarinet. Other string players, who also realized that something was amiss, for some reason decided that they were one bar ahead and compensated accordingly, skipping a bar backward. Finally, the rest of the string section continued to play their parts without any adjustment.
The resulting cacophony would likely make either one of Schoenberg, Webern, or Schnittke jealous. The tenor, utterly confused by hearing that mess, nevertheless started singing relying entirely on his gut feeling, and his part sounded like a survivor’s monologue after a nuclear holocaust rather than the dramatic lament about unshared love, intended by the libretto. It goes without saying that the act was ruined beyond repair.
Once the curtain went down and the discombobulated audience briefly clapped before taking a break stroll around the theater, the livid conductor rushed over to the clarinet section. This was a pretty serious infraction with nothing good coming for the principal clarinetist. Indeed, the consequences could range from outright dismissal from the orchestra for gross incompetence to being banned from playing any future productions with the principal conductor. My teacher, sitting at the second stand, was terrified not knowing to expect from the upcoming verbal interchange between the conductor and the principal clarinetist.
Right before the conductor got to the clarinet section, my teacher witnessed the principal clarinetist doing something very strange and completely unexpected. He used his thumb’s long nail as a knife or a screwdriver to pick up a large pad of his clarinet’s lower joint, fully detaching the pad in the process. “What have you been smoking?! Because of you, the entire act is ruined! I am so buried in shame, I don’t know how to face the audience!”—bellowed the conductor, utterly irate. “Don’t you see—my pad fell out!”—yelled the clarinetist in reply in unreserved exasperation and waving the detached pad at the conductor. “If I don’t fix it right now, I’ll be out of commission for the rest of the performance! I really need to fix this pad without delay!” The conductor, who was trained as a violinist, was taken aback. He only had a vague idea about how wind instruments functioned and the role of pads in the clarinet’s mechanical workings. “Oh, well. Do you think you can fix it?” “Yes, I have my repair kit with me. However, you may need to lengthen the break by about 10 minutes just to be sure.” “Oh, that should not be a problem.” The conductor instructed one of his aids to postpone the next act by 10 minutes and left for his dressing room.
The principal clarinetist quickly put the pad back in place with the help of a cigarette lighter, and as he was checking whether the pad properly covered its hole, he shared the following piece of wisdom with my catatonic-looking teacher: “Quick gumption is an orchestral musician’s best friend!”