A careeer on the clarinet keeps Valdepenas busy
February 11, 2004
Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas doesn’t want to give his sons – 12-year-old cellist Josue and 8-year-old violinist Alejandro – too hard a shove into the musical path. But neither does he want his budding musicians to stray from the path completely. So when the younger boy asked why he had to practice every day, Valdepenas didn’t make demands, but asked, “Well, you have to brush your teeth every day, right?”
Valdepenas wants his sons to know the same pleasure he gets from music. And he can only hope that his sons are blessed with the same combination of talent, luck and fate that he has seen in his musical life.
A native of Torreon, Mexico, in the northern state of Coahuila, Valdepenas didn’t start with a burning desire to play clarinet. As a seventh-grader in Anaheim, Calif., where he and his mother moved after his parents divorced, Valdepenas had his eye on playing trumpet in the school band. The world had other plans.
“By the time they got to the V’s, they were out of trumpets. So I got clarinet instead,” said the 48-year-old, a member of the Aspen Music Festival and School faculty for 19 years, and current director of the Aspen Wind Ensemble. “Fate!”
Even with the clarinet in his hands, Valdepenas didn’t see the instrument in his long-range plans. Because he didn’t own a clarinet, and had to borrow one from the school – and give it back at the end of the school year – he didn’t make much musical headway. “In the summer, I’d forget everything,” he said. But he did show talent: By the end of each school year, he’d have worked his way from the back row of the orchestra to the front.
At Cal State-Fullerton, music was a fallback option. “After my first year, that was my calling, I guess. I couldn’t stand anything else,” said Valdepenas. That’s when the luck kicked in. Valdepenas’ teacher at Cal State, Kalman Bloch, was principal clarinetist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a mentor about whom Valdepenas cannot say enough.
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“He was terrific, a musician from the old school,” said Valdepenas, who would go on to master’s studies at Yale. “I was motivated to work hard, and everything else took care of itself. It was the right place to be, somehow.”
And Aspen was the right place to be in the summers. Valdepenas spent three years as a student at the Aspen Music School, studying both clarinet – with Dick Waller, who Valdepenas credits as another fine teacher – and conducting with Murry Sidlin. When he auditioned for a spot with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the early ’80s, Valdepenas found out just how solid his education had been.
“I didn’t even know where Toronto was. And lo and behold, I got the job right out of school – which hardly ever happens,” he said. “Again, I was lucky. Fate. But I think this place really prepared me for that. If not for Aspen, I don’t think I would have been hired.”
Valdepenas now knows Toronto well, having lived there for 22 years. He has built a varied and substantial career from Toronto. He is principal clarinetist with the Toronto Symphony and conductor of the symphony’s Youth Orchestra, and Valdepenas is particularly enthused about the appointment of his friend Peter Oundjian as the symphony’s director-designate. He teaches at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Professional School, and each year he travels to Mexico, where he says the wealth of talent, especially on clarinet, is at odds with the minimal learning opportunities. He is a member of the Amici chamber ensemble, a group that has a concert series in Toronto, commissions a new work each year and occasionally tours.
Valdepenas also records frequently. His recent projects include a clarinet concerto for a two-CD set of all of composer Jacques Hetu’s concertos, due out this month, and two Amici recordings – one featuring all of the numerous works composed for the combo by their regular collaborator Chan Ka Nin, and another of works by Spohr, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, and Carl Frühling.
Assuming they heed their father’s advice about music, Valdepenas’ sons have the vast cello and violin repertoire to look forward to exploring. Valdepenas, on the other hand, has had to settle for the more limited clarinet repertoire. But he looks on the bright side: “Compared to the other woodwinds, our repertoire is very rich,” he said. “We had Brahms write for us, and Mozart. The other woodwind instruments are not so lucky to have that.”
Brahms’ work for clarinet – often written for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and including the cherished Quintet for Clarinet and Strings – Valdepenas considers perhaps the best composing for the instrument. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto, and works by Debussy and Copland have also given Valdepenas much joy.
“The major masterpieces are few in number, but there are a lot of good pieces,” he noted. “And repeating repertoire is not a problem, because you often repeat it with different people, and that’s very interesting. And when you repeat a piece, you always come to it differently. Your performance of a given work is of that minute. It’s always changing, always evolving. It always has challenges.”
Valdepenas has also commissioned a good amount of work for clarinet. And he keeps a close watch on the new pieces added to the repertoire. Among those is John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto, which Valdepenas played in Aspen in 2000 and has made a part of his regular repertoire.
“It’s quite an experience – lots of brass,” he said. “It’s antiphonal, the last movement, coming from a lot of different directions. A hair-raising piece. It’s definitely a very effective piece; it went into the clarinet repertoire very fast.
“A kid brought it into class today. I was amazed. Very few people in the world play it, because it’s very hard. The piece has gotten around.”