Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings

  • Bass clarinet and string orchestra
  • Also for B-flat clarinet, or alto saxophone
c 16'15
I Levity 5'00
II Loss 7'15
III Emphasis 4'00
Listen to a recording
Version for Bass Clarinet and String Quintet
Reviews | Comments

October, 2004 concert by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra
Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, guest conductor
William Helmers, bass clarinet

The centerpiece was the premiere of James Grant's Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings, commissioned and performed by William Helmers of the MCO. Grant exploits all of Helmers' great skill and the virtuosic potential of this instrument, which appears so rarely in the solo spotlight.

But this concerto is more than a showcase for Helmers and the bass clarinet. Grant here has made music that is structurally smart, emotionally probing, rhythmically clever and harmonically subtle.

The clarinet darts about the strings like a bird in a forest in the first movement, "Levity." In the second, Grant casts the soloist as a lonely wanderer speaking a soliloquy in a landscape of Impressionist chords. Any one of those harmonies is gentle and beautiful, but they slowly gather surprising climactic force. The wrenching climax justifies Grant's long, melancholy denouement. Strings and woodwind scamper and chase through the lively, ever-unfolding melodies of the finale, "Emphasis," which is more than a mindless romp. The momentum builds to some hair-raising hyena howls that had the audience howling back in approval when the 15-minute concerto ended.

- Tom Strini | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Commissioned by
  • William Helmers, bass clarinet
Year of composition
Program note

Commissioned by and dedicated to clarinetist William Helmers, the 16-minute Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings  is presented in the conventional three-movement concerto form (fast – slow – fast).

Throughout the piece—and in true concerto fashion—the soloist explores the capabilities of the bass clarinet while facing expressive and technical challenges not always associated with the instrument. Meanwhile, the string orchestra, far from humming away quietly in the background, does its share of heavy-lifting as it weaves a colorful, multi-textured fabric around the solo line.

Each of the three movements reflects a state of being familiar to us all: Levity bubbles over with gregarious enthusiasm; Loss throbs with poignancy, grief, and pain; and Emphasis certainly makes its point.

NOTE: the Concerto is also arranged in versions that feature either B-flat clarinet or alto saxophone in the solo role.

For information on the chamber version of the Concerto, go to Sextet for Bass Clarinet and Strings.