Byline: Musica Viva

Ahead of his performance alongside Paul Wright, Sophie Curtis and Gladys Chua at Perth Concert Hall on 10 March, we caught up with clarinettist and Chair of Woodwind and Contemporary Performance at the University of Western Australia, Dr Ashley Smith, to discuss Debussy, Louise Farrenc, the do's and don'ts of chamber music, and returning to the stage with Musica Viva.

Are you looking forward to getting back on the concert stage? What have you missed most?

Throughout these Covid times, Perth musicians have been amongst the luckiest in the world. Although I performed substantially less than usual in 2020, I honestly don’t feel like I can say that I’ve truly left the stage to the extent of my friends in Melbourne and the USA. In fact, I relished the special opportunity to be in the practice room learning new repertoire purely for passion. My favourite  project of the year was learning and recording Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study, a piece regarded as the Holy Grail of the bass clarinet repertoire. Without the pandemic, I honestly don’t think I would have learnt that piece in this lifetime.

The Debussy is one of the best-known works for clarinet, and a popular student work. When did you first play it, and what’s it like to play it now?

Premiére Rhapsodie is probably my favourite recital piece for clarinet and piano. The intricacy of colour and texture that Debussy achieves between the two instruments remains unmatched. Because of my love for the piece, I was very trepidatious to learn this piece when I was a young student and put it on the stage for the first time only at the very end of my studies. I’m very glad I took this approach as it has meant that some of the bad technical habits of my younger self don’t find themselves creeping back in when playing this piece.

Tell us a bit about the Louise Farrenc. How did you come across it and what can audiences expect?

I came across the music of Louise Farrenc largely through the championing of her music on ABC Classic. Her chamber music is glorious and holds it own alongside the music of her male colleagues. Anyone who knows me will attest that I am the world’s biggest fan of Beethoven, but I believe Farrenc’s Op.44 is a more interesting and well-crafted piece than Beethoven’s early Op. 11 Trio written for the same instrumentation. Farrenc’s Op. 44 stands apart from the works that sit either side of it within her output. It reverts to a slightly more restrained and cooler classical approach to gesture and form – it has the same sense of the crystallization of ideas that is found in Mozart and Beethoven at their best. She also knows how to make the clarinet and cello sing. I’m super excited that my students in the UWA Symphony Orchestra will get to play her third symphony at the Perth Concert Hall later this year.

Tell us about the musicians you’ll be performing alongside in this concert.

Paul Wright has been a wonderful mentor throughout most of my student and professional life - he has always been one of my favourite musicians and is still an inspiration. Sophie and I studied in the same year at the UWA Conservatorium. Sophie was a beautiful musician from the outset – I still remember her performance of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 when we were at university.  One of the highlights of my undergraduate student days was playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with Sophie. Gladys and I are colleagues at UWA and have worked together in ensembles and as duo partners since we both returned to Perth in 2014. Gladys is Perth’s ‘yes’ pianist - you can turn to her when you need something played exquisitely… and tomorrow!

What are some do’s and don’ts of performing chamber music?

The art of performing chamber music comes down to a single word – listen. The greatest lesson I had to learn as a chamber music student was to be less musically stubborn and more open to the ideas of other and whatever may happen ‘in the moment.’ It’s actually a pretty good lesson for life.

What’s next for you this year?

The performance I’m most excited about is Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in May. I’m also excited to  be releasing a new recording of works for bass clarinet. It will include Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study alongside the premiere recording of works by Perth composers Elise Reitzer-Swensen, Chris Tonkin, James Ledger and the late Roger Smalley.

Ashley Smith will be performing alongside Paul Wright, Sophie Curtis and Gladys Chua at Perth Concert Hall on 10 March.