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Composed: 2005
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 trumpets, 3 horns, euphonium, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvil, bass drum, hi-hat cymbals, large gong, tam-tam, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone), harp, strings, and solo clarinet
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In 2003, the young Swedish clarinet virtuoso Martin Fröst received a grant from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust to be used to develop his musicianship. “The first thing that came into my mind,” he says, “was to commission a piece. That was a quite easy choice.”

And Kalevi Aho, in retrospect, at least, seems an easy choice to compose the work, although it was Robert von Bahr, the founder of BIS Records, who ultimately suggested Aho to Fröst. “Kalevi is a humble man with a strong voice, with something important to say as a composer,” Fröst says.

A prolific composer of music in almost every genre, Aho intends to write concertos for every orchestral instrument, and he is almost there. “There are the same kinds of challenges for every instrument,” he says. “You have to know the instrument very well, and then you have to find the soul of the instrument.”

That meant a close collaboration with Fröst, who told the composer about the clarinet’s extended contemporary techniques. “The clarinet is a really flexible instrument, you can do lots of things with it. It doesn’t have limits, really,” Fröst says. “The big composers who have survived, they have written for clarinet in a very singing way, and that’s a big difference between classical stuff and modern. You are really free to develop new sounds and sound techniques.

Which Aho does, vividly and effectively, in this Concerto. He wrote it in Autumn, 2005, and Fröst gave the premiere in London in April 2006, with Osmo Vänskä conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Aho describes his Clarinet Concerto as follows:

“The Concerto has five movements, which are played without pause. The beginning (Tempestoso) is very dramatic and powerful, but the first movement also contains a beautiful, slow middle section. The second movement consists of a virtuoso solo cadenza, which is dominated by the mysterious tremolos of the clarinet.

“The cadenza leads to the center and culmination of the Concerto, Vivace, con brio, which is the most virtuosic movement for both the orchestra and for the soloist. Here the time signature changes almost every bar, and therefore this rhythmically capricious movement is also quite difficult for the conductor.

“After a big culmination comes the slow, melancholy, and songful fourth movement, Adagio, mesto. The Epilogue of the Concerto is slow, too; the atmosphere of the last movement is unreal and mysterious. The solo part at the end consists largely of the broken, multiphonic sounds of the clarinet. The Concerto fades away into silence.”

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.