Richard Stoltzman really wants to feel that he's connecting with his audiences – even if it means resorting to nudity.
In an interview with Naomi Lewin, the veteran clarinetist at first rebuffed a question about a mid-concert streaking incident from his past. But the interrogation began with a remark he made before his WQXR Café Concert, which featured jazzy duets with his wife, the marimba player Mika Stoltzman.
In introducing the concert, Stoltzman recalled a recent school outreach performance, in which he found himself before a room of distracted students, all glued to their iPhones and other electronic devices. "First of all, you don’t perform until you have the attention of the people who you are going to perform for,” Stoltzman explained. "These kids, they came because they were told to. And nobody told them, ‘by the way, take off your earphones and don’t use your cellphones.’”
The clarinetist has long been known for getting audiences to pay attention through non-traditional means, particularly through occasional crossover projects with artists like Judy Collins, Wayne Shorter, Mel Tormé, Gary Burton and George Shearing. His latest such effort, which he calls "New Genre," takes place on Thursday at Weill Recital Hall and features a host of jazz artists including Mika Stoltzman, whom he married last year.
But there was a moment, in a 1974 concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that has entered clarinet lore. After some pressing by Lewin, Stoltzman explained why he decided to streak naked across the stage.
"It was a very frustrating motivation, having played these great concerts with Felix Galimir,” Stoltzman said, referring to the great Viennese violinist. “We were playing the Adagio from Alban Berg’s Kammerkonzert. We were playing in a very establishment kind of chamber music concert and I know how hard we had worked on the Alban Berg piece.”
Stoltzman and his colleagues had barely left the stage before the applause had ended. “I saw Felix backstage and he looked so slumped over. Here I am in my own city. Here we were playing these great composers and the response is so dispiriting – there was no visceral reaction from the audience. Are they alive? What’s going on here?”
“So that’s what got me started.”
The incident was hardly covered in the local news media, and aside from a 1979 article in People magazine, it has seldom been mentioned since. But to a large extent, it was indicative of Stoltzman’s free-spirited early years, when he was a member of TASHI, classical music's answer to a progressive rock supergroup. Also comprised of violinist Ida Kavafian, pianist Peter Serkin and cellist Fred Sherry, the quartet's members shunned ties and gowns for ponytails and love beads (its name is a Tibetan word meaning "good fortune.")
Like a '70s rock band, TASHI had a reunion tour, in 2008, which Stoltzman recalls fondly. “Our first one was in Portland,” he said. “I saw it was packed with all people that looked like me, with gray hair. Some of the guys still had headbands and they had their LPs with them. They wanted us to sign their LPs.
“I thought, 'this is unbelievable.' We sat down and they wouldn’t stop clapping. I think they were clapping more for themselves than for us. I think they felt like, ‘we went through a lot. We love music and we wanted to have our own champions and people who carried the torch that we believed in and you guys did it.’"
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise