Last week, the Metropolitan Opera named Boris Allakhverdyan as its new principal clarinetist, capping what had been an extended musical chess match involving several top orchestras.
Allakhverdyan has been the associate principal clarinetist of the Kansas City Symphony since August 2009. He will now be one of the Met's two principals, alongside Anthony McGill, who has made a name for himself as an orchestra player and a soloist, performing at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The 29-year-old Allakhverdyan succeeds Stephen Williamson, who was the other Met principal clarinet, from 2003-2011, until he left for the Chicago Symphony, albeit briefly: In February, the New York Philharmonic hired him away in order to fill the seat held by Stanley Drucker occupied for 60 years (the Philharmonic had its own hiring complications, detailed here).
Perhaps there's bound to be some head-scratching among audiences who aren't aware of the fact that the Met Orchestra has traditionally had two principal players of each instrument, plus multiple associate principals in some cases. The deeper bench is necessary, according to the Met, because the orchestra performs as much as seven times a week, unlike a traditional symphony orchestra, which gives three or four weekly performances.
Additionally, some Met players and members of the staff speak in terms of A and B orchestras, the A team being loosely defined as the principals that music director James Levine currently favors most. Some call this an over-generalization, and a Met spokesman denied such an arrangement exists. As conductor Will Crutchfield detailed in a 1990 New York Times article, there is a lot of mixing and matching within this system, but the terms are nevertheless acknowledged. This, he wrote, means that one orchestra tends to work more with Levine, while another is relegated to guest conductors.
The Kansas City Symphony congratulated Allakhverdyan in a news release on Thursday and the Met confirmed the appointment Friday.
Allakhverdyan was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, of Armenian descent, and took clarinet lessons from his father starting at age nine. Soon after, his family moved to Russia. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory in 2006, his Artist Diploma Degree from the Oberlin Conservatory in 2008 and his Master of Music degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2010.
"I always loved opera music and the fact that my father was a principal clarinetist of Baku Opera Orchestra played a huge role in it," Allakhverdyan said in an e-mail about his decision to take the Met job. "I grew up listening to opera excerpts played by my father."
7/1 Update: This post has been updated with details on the Met's system of multiple principal players. The reason for the dual principals lies in the number of performances a week, according to a Met spokesman.