What was I thinking? When Mozart was my age, as Woody Allen might have said, he’d been dead for 23 years; when Brahms was my age he announced his retirement from composition and drafted his will. And the final works of both composers included Clarinet Quintets. Actually, there are more Clarinet Quintets than you might realise, and composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and my friend Ian Munro wrote them, seemingly without any ill-effects, but still…

Omega EnsembleThe Omega Ensemble at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Pudence Upton

In 2005 I was in Brisbane for performances of a new piece I’d written for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. During a rehearsal break I found myself chatting to a young clarinettist who told me that he was founding an ensemble, because he had lots of colleagues who wanted to play chamber music and opportunities were limited. Naturally enough I offered to write a piece, and we agreed to keep in touch.

David Rowden did indeed found his Omega Ensemble back then, one of the best and most imaginatively programmed ensembles around, with an impressive history of premiering new works alongside greats of the chamber music tradition thanks to the support of philanthropic organisations (like Ars Musica Australis) and individuals. So when I ran into David a couple of years ago and we revived the commission idea and he suggested a clarinet quintet, I approached Kim Williams AM. Kim has been a generous supporter of the ensemble, and of my own work, and, having been a clarinettist and composer himself, was very taken with the idea and immediately agreed to commission the piece.

Gordon KerryComposer Gordon Kerry. Photo © J Mueller

What inspired Mozart and Brahms to write their late masterpieces was, in both cases, the opportunity to write for a musician of rare gifts. Mozart had Anton Stadler whose instrument was ‘capable of imitating a human voice’; a century later, Brahms befriended Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing he likened to a nightingale. I am very lucky to have been able to write for David, and the fine musicians with whom he surrounds himself, and to have had to opportunity to write a substantial piece for them.

A score excerptA score excerpt from Gordon Kerry’s Clarinet Quintet

The piece is 20 minutes long, and falls into five movements linked by clarinet cadenzas that unfold over soft unmoving chords. The possibilities of the string quartet are manifold, allowing for a variety of textures and moods, brief alliances between smaller groups, and the song of the clarinet threads through the piece from beginning to end.

The Omega Ensemble will give the world premiere of Gordon Kerry’s Clarinet Quintet on September 12 as part of the Sydney Opera House’s Digital Season

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