Happy birthday, Mozart

It would be hard to plan a concert for the end of January and not do some Mozart. The great composer's birthday was Jan. 27, 1756.

Not to worry. Clarinetist Jon Manasse will be the guest artist when the Rogue Valley Symphony presents the third concert series of its 2010-2011 season. Manasse will be accompanied by the orchestra in a performance of Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto."

Concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, in the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St. Music Director Martin Majkut and Manasse will give pre-concert talks one hour before each performance, along with a free lecture to be presented at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, at SOU's music hall. The lecture will include a demonstration by Manasse.

Majkut and the orchestra also will perform another of Mozart's works, Symphony 41, or "Jupiter," and Grieg's Holberg Suite.

Mozart's concerto was the last piece he ever completed, just two months before his death in 1791. It was voted his greatest composition several years ago in a poll.

Manasse says in a phone interview from New York that he hated the clarinet as a boy.

"I never heard it played in a way that attracted me until age 11," he says. The playing was by the great clarinetist David Webber, who would be Manasse's teacher all the way through the Juilliard School. Webber had played under Toscanini and Stokowski and was known for his Bel canto-style (Italian for beautiful singing) purity and phrasing.

Manasse is principal clarinetist of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, both in New York City. In 2008, he was appointed principal clarinetist and ensemble member of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, also in New York.

He serves on the faculty of both the Juilliard School, his alma mater, and the Eastman School of Music. Last season, he performed the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann's "Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra."

He also is an avid chamber musician, performing frequently in New York City and around the world. When he's not performing solo, he continues to tour with the renowned pianist Jon Nakamatsu as half of the Manasse/Nakamatsu Duo.

Mozart wrote his clarinet concerto for Anton Stadler, another clarinetist who excelled at the expressive subtleties of the instrument, which is known for its intimate character. Stadler played a custom-made "basset clarinet" that could hit lower notes than the standard instrument, and Mozart wrote for him. But his publisher transposed the piece for the normal clarinet, and that was the version that was popular for at least a century and a half. More recently, the trend seems to have reversed.

"I'm playing the version without the low notes," Manasse says. "A lot of people are using that instrument now. I feel almost like I'm a novelty."

But, he adds, "It's not as though the piece has been suffering."

Part of it was featured prominently in the film "Out of Africa." Another part shows up in 2010's "The King's Speech," in a scene in which a therapist is working with the future King George VI.

Manasse points out that Mozart must have fallen deeply in love with the clarinet to feature it as a solo instrument.

"That's unbelievable as a new instrument," he says.

Of the other works on the program, "Jupiter" is one of Mozart's most popular. The outer movements are exuberant, joyous and optimistic, while the inner movements are more restrained.

The "Holberg Suite" is a dance suite for strings. It was written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Danish/Norwegian humanist playwright Ludvig Holberg.

Tickets for the SOU show cost $33 and $40; tickets for the Craterian show cost $26 and $33; and tickets for the Grants Pass show cost $23 and $30. A limited number of $10 seats will be available for the Medford and Grants Pass shows, and student tickets cost $5 at each venue. For tickets, call 541-552-6398 or visit www.rvsymphony.org.

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