Versatile British clarinettist Julian Bliss talks to Limelight about jazz, Messiaen and why he wants to try his hand at Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, ahead of performances at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, with Camerata in Brisbane and Toowoomba, and in Parramatta in Canberra with NZTrio.

You were performing as a concerto soloist – and in front of royalty – when you were a teenager. What were some of the challenges of achieving such success so young?

I was always trying to improve my craft and have always wanted to be able to do everything straight away. It was in the early 2000s that I first realised that it takes many years to get to where you want to be. It was a challenge not to allow myself to get frustrated when something technical wasn’t exactly how I wanted it. Days, months and years of hard graft is the only way to improve and it is a constant journey. There are still many aspects of my playing that I’m trying to improve and hone.

Who are some of the musicians who have inspired you?

Sabine Meyer is very much up there. I really think she transformed the way I play. She always made everything sound so easy and effortless and that’s something I wanted in my own playing. It was through studying with her that I learnt almost to forget about the technical aspect of what I was playing and allow myself just to listen and to feel the music. After all, that is what is most important. More recently, the jazz saxophone legend Wayne Shorter has been very inspirational for me. The way he speaks about music and his life is so refreshing and eye-opening.

Julian BlissClarinettist Julian Bliss. Photo © Nick White

You play both jazz and classical – does performing in one style feed your approach to the other?

I think they each influence the other. Obviously in jazz you have a lot more freedom, so being able to take that sense of freedom into the classical world is quite interesting. On the other hand, you can bring the technical facility of classical into the jazz world. I see them as both the same: you are still improvising when you play classical music, you just have prescribed notes to play!

Is variety something you try to foster in your repertoire?

I listen to a wide range of musical styles and I’ve always wanted to experiment and try new things. I’m currently starting to explore using the clarinet alongside electronics which is great fun and very interesting. As musicians, it’s important to try new things which can inspire a new approach in other areas of music making.

Are there any composers who particularly speak to you?

I love Rachmaninov. I can listen to anything he has composed and it’s simply genius. I have a dream of learning his Second Piano Concerto one day and performing it. That might take me a few years though! Other than Rachmaninov, I’m always drawn to big, powerful orchestral works: composers such as Strauss, Mahler, Dvořák etc.

With Camerata in QLD you’re playing D’Rivera and Copland – what led you to pair these two composers together?

Paquito is one of the greatest jazz sax and clarinet players. He is also one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve met. Copland’s Concerto was written for Benny Goodman, so the link between the two is easy to see. Being Cuban, a lot of Paquito’s music has Latin elements which will be fun to explore.

You’re performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, and later in Parramatta and Canberra with NZTrio. For you, what are the biggest musical challenges of this work?

It is a huge work. You need a lot of stamina to perform it and you need to be in the right head space. There are times where you don’t play for ten minutes or so and then need to be right back on it. You need a huge amount of focus for the piece. The circumstances in which it was written [it was premiered in the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII-A 1941] give some indication of the gravitas of the piece.

What is it about the piece, do you think, that continues to capture audience’s imagination?

Normally when speaking to audiences it is the circumstances in which a piece was written that often capture the imagination of the audience. I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like to perform that piece, in the rain, on instruments that were not great and most importantly to perform it the emotional state they were in at the time. It’s quite incredible.

What have you got planned for the future?

Lots! I have a number of new projects I’m working on. I love working with composers on new repertoire for clarinet so I’m commissioning as much new music as possible. I’m also continuing to develop my band. We have a new program based on the music of George Gershwin, and we are also starting to perform original material. Who knows where the future will take me, but I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun.

Julian Bliss performs at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, July 27 to August 5, with Camerata at QPAC, Brisbane, August 10 and Empire Church Theatre, Toowoomba, August 11, and with NZTrio at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, August 25 and Canberra Theatre Centre, August 28