Youth is served as Madison Symphony opens season

Madison Symphony celebrates itself, rightly so
Joseph Morris

The life of the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s principal clarinetist, Joseph Morris, just seems to overflow with celebrations these days. As he celebrates his twenty-fifth birthday September 23, Morris is in rehearsals for the last major concerto he has yet to play with an orchestra, the Clarinet Concerto of Aaron Copland, written for Benny Goodman. But a bigger celebration has been in progress for about four weeks: Morris married Elizabeth Beilman at the end of August, and happily reports that the honeymoon is definitely not over.

Perhaps of greater import to the average MSO subscriber, the honeymoon with Morris himself as the orchestra’s first-chair clarinetist is hardly over either, even though he is about to begin his third season. When longtime principal Linda Bartley announced her retirement from the orchestra in 2012, it triggered a response that indicated just how far the MSO had come in expanding its regional reputation. More than forty aspiring players applied for the opening and of the five finalists, the top three were all from southern California.

In a relaxed interview over coffee on the Square this past Monday, Morris admitted that in 2012 he was becoming part of a group of students who “took practically any and every audition that came up.” Morris was a year and a half into graduate work at the Colburn School, after having completed four years at USC. But the chance to play for the Madison Symphony was more than just “any” audition: While in the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckinridge, Colorado, Morris crossed paths with Naha Greenholtz, at the time the new concertmaster of the MSO, and while spending two summers at the Music Academy of the West, the orchestra was managed by Megan Aley, daughter of MSO principal trumpeter John Aley. And then there were his future in-laws, alumni of Madison East and West high schools. All of the above indicated in various ways the Madison Symphony was more than “just another regional orchestra.” (And the connections just keep coming: Morris’ new brother-in-law, Ben Beilman, will be soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on October 2. Catch him while you can: He’s scheduled for his Carnegie Hall debut later this season).

But it wasn’t until the opening concert of the 2013 season that Morris actually heard—and played with the ensemble that John DeMain has carefully nurtured into an ensemble of true distinction. “I’ll admit that, even though I got the position, I was going to see how it all went at first,” Morris recalls. “That first concert featured Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shereherazade.” Both works feature prominent and sometimes splashy clarinet writing; Morris wowed his new colleagues—and they did the same to him.

“I’ve played with a number of orchestras around the country and it was clear to me that the MSO is in a class of its own in terms of regional orchestras. It’s a huge treat to get to perform with many of the veteran players of our woodwind section. It is a very positive environment and any of us can address issues amongst ourselves, a rarity in some ensembles. When I started playing with the MSO I quickly realized that this was a group that was going to make me keep working to contribute my best, and that I was going to have a wonderful chance to learn under someone like John DeMain.”

Morris started clarinet at the age of nine, in northern California not far from San Jose. “I remember we had a ‘choose your instrument’ day in the fourth grade, but my choices were limited to flute, clarinet and trumpet. My father told me in no uncertain terms that the flute wasn’t for boys, and the trumpet seemed too simple with just the three valves … so I chose the most complicated looking contraption.”

Clearly the Morris’ instincts were correct, regardless of the reasoning, and in a few short years he was part of a youth orchestra that rehearsed in Davies Hall, the home of the San Francisco Orchestra, mentored on occasion by their director, Michael Tilson Thomas. Before he graduated from high school he was studying with Yehuda Gilad in Los Angeles, and continued studies with him at the Colburn School. This writer first encountered Gilad in 1989, performing in a chamber festival he founded at Pepperdine University, the Strawberry Creek Festival. It is no surprise that Gilad has achieved a legacy of turning out a number of significant young players in the last couple of decades.

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is a brilliantly structured work, an unbroken movement of just under twenty minutes that moves from deceptive serenity with long lines for the soloist accompanied by the string orchestra (which also includes harp and piano), a transitional cadenza that introduces the “Goodman” element, and a bracing fast finale based in part on Brazilian folk themes. When yours truly was high school aged, there was only one recording: Goodman was the soloist, Copland conducted and no record company would think of trying to compete with it for years. Now, of course, several successive generations of clarinetists have claimed it for themselves, and I asked Morris what Gilad’s approach was in teaching it.

“Yehuda would never let us listen to any artist’s recording of a piece that we were preparing ourselves—but he would encourage us for example to listen to other works of Copland, or other recordings of Goodman. Now I play it with Goodman in the back of my mind, but what strikes me about the piece is that the first movement is so hard to keep it serene and flowing; in a piece that sounds harder technically, like Carl Nielsen’s concerto, you’re so busy with it that, you don’t really think about breath control and phrasing the way you have to in the Copland.”

Whether you go at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday or 2:30 p.m. Sunday, it’s likely that Morris will make it all sound easier than it should. Better still, he is likely to create a special musical memory to kick off the season. And of course, we get the added treat of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 where all of Morris’ musical friends get to show off, too!