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ASO preview: Composer Michael Gandolfi, clarinetist Laura Ardan search for “The Nature of Light”

Norman Mackenzie (left to right), Robert Spano, and Michael Gandolfi at  the premiere performance of "Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Norman Mackenzie (from left), Robert Spano and Michael Gandolfi at the premiere performance of “Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman.” (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will kick off 2013 on Thursday evening, and continue through Saturday, with the much-anticipated world premiere of Michael Gandolfi‘s new clarinet concerto, “The Nature of Light,” featuring ASO principal clarinetist Laura Ardan as soloist.

Gandolfi, who chairs the composition department at the New England Conservatory in Boston, has made waves in Atlanta ever since he was introduced to the city by ASO Music Director Robert Spano in 2006 as one of the “Atlanta School” composers with a performance of his “Impressions From the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.” The orchestra subsequently commissioned a greatly expanded version, “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” which premiered in 2007 and was recorded for Telarc Records.

“The Nature of Light” has an umbilical relationship with another ASO commission from Gandolfi, “Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman.” When writing the piece, Gandolfi wanted to take its opening material and develop it in an entirely different direction. But he thought that was too gnarly and complex for the intentions of the choral-orchestral piece. So he began to write two different pieces at the same time: the first movement of “Q.E.D.,” the commissioned work immediately at hand, and the more complex music that eventually became the first movement of “The Nature of Light.”

“There was something about it that seemed suitable for a clarinet concerto, even though I didn’t have a purpose for it at that point,” Gandolfi says. “So I just did it. I let it develop; I wrote it out.” The first movement of “Q.E.D.” and its fraternal twin were finished around the same time.

In a meeting with Spano about “Q.E.D.,” Gandolfi also took the piece for clarinet and strings along to show him. “At that point, I didn’t know it was going to be a concerto, really,” he recalls. He wasn’t sure whether it would remain a single movement or evolve into something more.

Laura Ardan (Photo by J.D. Scott)

About a year later, Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s vice president for artistic planning, contacted Gandolfi to convey the orchestra’s interest in commissioning the clarinet concerto, with Ardan as soloist. Ardan, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist since 1982, had previously been the featured soloist in concertos by Mozart, Weber, Debussy, Copland and other well-established works for clarinet and orchestra.

In the midst of it all, synchronicity was at play. Following the ASO’s premiere of “Q.E.D.,” Ardan caught up with Gandolfi outside Symphony Hall.

“I was playing the ‘Q.E.D.’ and I had one of these wonderful moments that we have sometimes, with big chills running down my spine,” she says. “I ran into Michael on the street corner afterward and told him how much I enjoyed it.” When she asked Gandolfi about writing some music for her, he told her he was already at work on a clarinet concerto.

“I had not talked to Robert about the genesis of it all, in terms of Laura’s input,” says Gandolfi. “But the fact is he had that well in mind, so the synergy of it all just fell in place.” The composer knew Ardan’s playing not only from the ASO but also from performances of his “Canzona Nova: Fractured Fairy Tale” by the Atlanta Chamber Players, which commissioned and toured it. “I really admired her playing,” Gandolfi says. “Had this piece not come about the way that it did, a clarinet concerto was in the making anyway. So this was a really great opportunity for me.”

He initially thought he would write three movements, with a goal of a 22-minute total time. The first movement was already 10 minutes long, and the next one he wrote came in at 12 minutes. “After I finished the second movement I was very happy with it. I had the length I wanted. Now I’m very pleased with the two-movement shape.”

Ardan confides that there’s an excitement for a musician to solo on a piece that’s never been performed before. “It’s just been wonderful to learn a piece that I don’t know at all,” she says. “This time, it’s going to have to be spontaneous. It’s all pure instinct, and that’s what’s so exciting to me. I get to let my instincts run.”

She uses a personal analogy to describe her relationship to Gandolfi’s music. “I was doing a backpacking trip this summer, and the night sky was reflected in this absolutely smooth lake. It took me awhile, because there were absolutely no lights out there, to realize that I could tell it was actually a lake, with depth underneath. There’s that sparkly stuff on the surface that I really like about Michael’s music. It’s so pretty and accessible. And then you see what’s underneath and behind it.”

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