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An instrumental bond

German clarinetist Sabine Meyer, on tour with the Tokyo String Quartet, has a connection to the woodwind that encompasses generations.

January 24, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Since its heyday around the time of Mozart, who attributed to it a "glorious effect," the clarinet has had a pretty hard time. Among its greatest champions were composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and Charles Stanford, who aren't exactly burning up concert programming these days.

The instrument is now associated more with New Orleans jazz, or the Yiddish form klezmer, than with classical music. "How do you stop an oboe from being stolen?" goes one musician's joke. "Put it in a clarinet case."

German clarinetist Sabine Meyer has spent the last couple of decades trying to change that perception.

Meyer, 46, who will perform with the Tokyo String Quartet tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall, comes about her affinity for the instrument naturally: Her father and grandfather played the clarinet, her brother still does, and she sometimes performs with her clarinetist husband.

The Houston Chronicle has written of her "velvety tone and seductive phrasing." The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs cites her ability to "point phrasings and shade dynamics with keen imagination and a feeling of spontaneity" and praises her live recordings especially.

Meyer speaks very hesitant English, but she can be oddly poetic when she does. "For me, it's very important to have a good feeling for the instrument," she said this month from her home in Germany before leaving for the U.S. to tour with the Tokyo players. "The body and the instrument have to work together: It's best not to have too many overtones. It's very important to be at one with my instrument, like a singer, who has his instrument inside his body."

The clarinet is often described as having a mellow, introspective or bittersweet sound, but Meyer believes it offers a wide range of possibilities.

"It is very flexible, has many colors and a big dynamic, from the pianissimo to the fortissimo," she said.

Part of what bedevils performers who play less central instruments than the violin or piano is the shallowness of their repertoire. But Meyer said she's been able to carve out a rich career for more than two decades by playing in orchestras, as a soloist in concertos and in various chamber music configurations. And while she's recorded plenty of Mozart, her recordings also include contemporary composers such as Toru Takemitsu and songs associated with Benny Goodman.

Indeed, although there are fewer pieces for the clarinet than for, say, the violin, some are beloved and enduring. Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, for instance, is considered by many the masterpiece of his chamber music. Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, used in "Out of Africa" and other films, was recently voted Britain's third most popular piece of music in a poll by the radio station Classic FM.

"The most important thing about that piece," Meyer said, "is that he did not write a solo part and then an orchestra part. The solo and the orchestra part work together with a very close connection."

Similarly, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, which Meyer will play this week, includes a slow movement that she calls one of the composer's most beautiful.

The pairing of the high-toned, almost ethereal clarinet with the Tokyo String Quartet, an ensemble whose sound is often described as muscular or masculine, seems on the face of it like an odd one.

But the quartet's cellist, Clive Greensmith, says Meyer makes a good match.

"The first thing you notice about her, as a string player," said Greensmith, who has previously toured Europe and Japan with Meyer, "is that the quality of the sound she goes for is extremely complementary for string instruments -- not an excessive use of vibrato, and there's a human quality to the tone, an open, vocal quality. And I find her a wonderfully tasteful player, noble and pure instead of heart-on-sleeve, but still very expressive."

As expressive as she is, there's one thing Meyer prefers not to discuss.

Her entry into the wider classical world in the early '80s received ample publicity because it nearly sparked a war between the Berlin Philharmonic and the famously tempestuous Herbert von Karajan. The conductor tried to install her in the almost solidly all-male orchestra against its members' wishes and made various threats until management relented. She was eventually hired but lasted for just a year.

"It's history," she said. "It's very difficult and complicated. It has nothing to do with music -- it was only politics."

Either way, Meyer, and her clarinet, had the last laugh.


Tokyo String Quartet with Sabine Meyer

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 tonight

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (949) 553-2422 or


Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Price: $22 to $42

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or

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