The audience at a chamber music recital in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art must have wondered if they had blundered into Oh! Calcutta! The clarinetist, Richard Stoltzman, had just streaked quite naked across the stage. “I wanted to wake them up,” he shrugs. Since that memorable 1974 performance, classical musician Stoltzman has mellowed. Now 37, he may amble up and down the aisles clothed in jeans, sportshirt and what he calls his “dress sneakers. My performance is an interaction with the audience,” he explains. “I want people to see the real stuff, the sweat and breathing. If they want to be left alone, they shouldn’t come to the concert.”
As talented as he is bumptious, Stoltzman will be playing to full houses next week during New York’s annual Mostly Mozart Festival. He has been a local favorite since winning the Avery Fisher Prize for instrumentalists two years ago. He also has drawn sellout crowds as a soloist with major orchestras and chamber groups around the world. “I guess I have to like playing with others. I have no choice,” he observes. Except on records, where he has cut two solo albums. The Art of Richard Stoltzman is the latest.
The Stoltzman technique is subtle yet irreverent. “Sometimes I like the clarinet to sound like a clarinet and sometimes I like it to sound like a bassoon or oboe or string instrument,” he says. A classicist by training, he dares to be different by mixing jazz and improvisation into his repertoire. “The clarinet is associated with Dixieland and Big Bands,” he notes, “but Brahms came out of retirement to write for the clarinet.”
Stoltzman didn’t start out so convinced. “When I was a kid taking lessons at the neighborhood music store in San Francisco, if folks had said, ‘Oh, yuk,’ when I played, I probably would have stopped,” he recalls. But his father, an employee of the Western Pacific Railroad and a devotee of bandleader Lester Young, urged Richard on. He was taught to play the flute, oboe, sax and bassoon. After Ohio State and grad school at Yale, Stoltzman trained for three years with the renowned Kalmen Opperman. He then signed to teach at the spanking new California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. But for the first year, not one pupil signed up. “Folks don’t like the clarinet at the beginning,” he concedes. “It’s not a major voice, like the piano.” Eventually the professor got his students, but by then he had developed other interests. With Peter Serkin, son of pianist Rudolf, Stoltzman formed TASHI (Tibetan for good luck), a chamber music ensemble. A string of sellout performances and a hit album of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time followed.
Because travels with TASHI and other groups keep Stoltzman on the road 10 months out of 12, wife Lucy, a professional violinist (Richard was previously married to violinist Yoko Matsuda), is used to being a single parent to their son, Peter John, 2. “It’s not like Dick’s gone 9 to 5. He’s gone Tuesday to Saturday,” Lucy sighs. When he’s at home Stoltzman chimes in. “My life is reeds and Pampers, reeds and Pampers,” he laughs. He’s apparently happier in the kitchen, concocting caloric desserts, notably cheesecake.
The Stoltzmans recently faced that increasingly common problem: what to do when the wife gets offered a job in another city. Lucy has accepted a position as artist in residence at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and the couple just moved from Manhattan to a rented house near the campus. “All I had to do was change travel agents,” jokes Richard. Besides, he’s already booked on tours through 1980. “Music permeates everything in my life. For me,” says the dessert king, “music is a meal.”