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Roderick Cox's BSO Debut

Roderick Cox
Courtesy of the Artist
/
Roderick Cox

Saturday, November 13, 2021
8:00 PM

BSO Principal Clarinetist William R. Hudgins is the soloist in Mozart’s timeless Clarinet Concerto, and Roderick Cox leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony.

Roderick Cox, conductor
William R. Hudgins, clarinet

MOZART Clarinet Concerto
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 3, Scottish

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview with Roderick Cox, including his approach to Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony and the career trajectory that led to his BSO debut with the audio player above.

Hear BSO Principal Clarinetist William R. Hudgins describe what makes Mozart's Clarinet Concerto timeless, as well as his earliest experiences of playing in the Boston Symphony:

bso211113-hudgins-edit.mp3

Transcript of Roderick Cox interview:

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Roderick Cox, who's here with the Boston Symphony for the very first time. Roderick, it's so good to have you here. Thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Roderick Cox It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Brian McCreath This is a program that wasn't originally planned for you. But when you came on to do this program, you changed one of the pieces, the symphony. And I'm interested in your choice of the "Scottish" Symphony by Mendelssohn and what it is that you wanted to bring to the BSO with that piece. Why the change of program?

Roderick Cox Well, for one thing, I absolutely love this piece. I think it's such a great juxtaposition between the A major Clarinet Concerto [by Mozart] and the parallel minor of A minor. And so because of the joyous nature of the Clarinet Concerto, I thought going into this sort of tragic, gray, veiled color of the "Scottish" is wonderful.

I've done this piece a number of times. I believe, previously, the piece on the program was Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, which I've also done, but it had been a couple of years and the "Scottish" Symphony was also a piece I was in the midst of doing with an orchestra in the UK, BBC Philharmonic. And so with my schedule and also me jumping in for Maestro Koopman, I felt this was probably the best scenario, to bring this work to the BSO and certainly a piece I adore and wanted to convey that to the orchestra.

Brian McCreath And so there's some, maybe, practical reasons. But also I do like this idea that the A major of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto now has the A minor of the "Scottish" Symphony. What is the way that - you mentioned the sort of character of the "Scottish" Symphony, the sort of dark and maybe foggy, I don't know if those exact words used - but how do you encourage a string section in the rest of the orchestra to sort of produce that kind of sound, that kind of atmosphere you want in the "Scottish" Symphony?

Roderick Cox Well, it's very interesting orchestrationally, because one of the wonderful things about this symphony, and this period, and Mendelssohn himself as a composer is that it is a sort of programmatic symphony. And perhaps we can think of Mendelssohn as not a composer at the very end of the of the Classical period, but at the beginning of the Romantic. And so he talked about his experience in Scotland, the atmosphere, the smog, the sort of gray skies and the sort of depressing weather. And he talked about visiting Mary Queen of Scots' castle, where she was housed and where her lover was killed. And so I think, because he writes for violas at the beginning, and not high strings or low strings at the very beginning, but also he writes for oboes in a very sort of dark part of the register. And so I always think that the color of the beginning should be inside the color of the oboe, and we should not try to sing above the oboe sound. And so talking to the violas and expressing the sort of character, that it's not something rich and expressive in the left hand, but it's actually kind of gray and expressionless. And what's interesting about this symphony is that so much of it is about just dark colors.

So most of the time in a symphony, especially a minor symphony, when you're going into the subordinate theme or the subject number two, you enter into the relative major key of some sort. But however, he continues to sing in minor. But he gives us these glimpses of hope in C major, even in the opening bars - and C major is obviously, it doesn't get more pure of a key than C major. And so the idea of just playing with colors throughout this symphony, is something I try to certainly explore.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. Tell me a little about your path. This is your first time here. I don't know if you've even been to Boston before. Maybe, I don't know. But, tell me about your initial interest in orchestral music, especially. Was it a particular recording, or a particular artist, or a particular composer who sort of sparked that initial interest that set you on this path to show up here at Symphony Hall now.

Roderick Cox Well, I've been to Boston once, actually, about seven or eight years ago, and I remember coming to a concert, so I've heard the BSO one time. And it's an interesting life that you can think, OK, you hear the orchestra once, and a couple of years later, you're standing on stage working with them. So it's such a privilege, an honor to certainly be here, even given the unfortunate circumstances.

I grew up in Macon, Georgia, to a family that was very musical, but not necessarily into classical music, more into church music. I was in the choir, my brother was in the choir, my mother was in the choir, everyone was in the choir. But I was also fortunate to be a student in a public education system where music was important. So I was able to play an instrument throughout elementary and middle school and high school. I thought it was the coolest thing to be a part of an orchestra or a band, mostly band, because I'm in the South, and it's sort of a football/band country. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and the camaraderie one has by being in a musical ensemble, a band.

And so I thought I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I started out studying music education, and so I actually learned to play many of the instruments in the orchestra and took exams on those instruments. So I try to sympathize with the musicians when I'm on the podium. But it was, interestingly, and I've never met Michael Tilson Thomas before, and so I haven't expressed this to him - but I remember the the San Francisco Symphony's Keeping Score series. I own, like, every DVD. I love those DVDs. They would start with going through the history of the piece, and then he would travel to a part of the world where the piece was written. And I thought that was so cool, because I was at the stage of not traveling, but I thought it was so cool that you could travel as a musician to Russia and Germany and all of these places. But it was the particular DVD of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, and how he explored the life of this composer and how his life, and his background, and the struggles he had as a composer was very much conveyed and connected to the music. For instance, Mendelssohn's "Scottish" is about his lovely outer experiences, but for Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, it's very much about an inner experience, an inner struggle.

And when I was studying at Northwestern University, I was with some friends, and we were playing a drinking game, actually. And they asked, "What is one piece you'd love to conduct before you die or passed away?" And I said, "Tchaikovsky 4." And I immediately realized that I wasn't on the path to doing this because I was studying to be a teacher, a high school teacher. And I said to myself, "Wow, I mean, it would be such a life of regret if I continue on this path and never, ever get to conduct this piece." So, that's when I decided I wanted to be a professional orchestral conductor. And I went into my teacher's office and told them about my new desire to conduct orchestras, and that's how it began. So, a little late for me, I suppose, compared to a number of my colleagues who found out, probably, at the age of 12. But I found out over a college drinking game that this is something I wanted to do.

Brian McCreath That's totally great. That is fantastic. And yes, those MTT San Francisco DVDs, the one that I really love is the Mahler one. I know if you looked at the Mahler episode, oh my gosh, Mahler 1, yeah, yeah, oh my...

Roderick Cox I wish they continued to do them. But I suppose he's gone now.

Brian McCreath Well, yeah, he's moved on to his next things. So, tell me about your work - you're based in Germany now, and I understand that you've recognized a need to open opportunities. You say that you were in a public school, well-resourced for music. That is not so much the case for many places and maybe fewer and fewer. So, tell me about how your initiative helps, maybe, rectify a little bit of that.

Roderick Cox Well, my initiative, the Roderick Cox Music Initiative really stemmed out of my own experience, because even though I was fortunate to be in a public school education system where I had access to music and musical instruments, the problem with our art form is that it's not a problem getting young people interested at the beginning, it's maintaining that interest over a long period of time, especially through high school, and especially when it starts to get really expensive for not only the kids, but also the parents.

And so, when I wanted to go to study in college and pursue music very seriously, I needed a French horn, because I'm a horn player. And my mom couldn't afford it at the time. And a local education program called the Otis Redding Foundation, which is after the famous soul singer Otis Redding. His wife, Zelma Redding, who still lives in Macon, Georgia, purchased me a new French horn with no strings attached. And that just really opened up my imagination and really made me work even harder, because I had an instrument that I could play on, and that I could progress on. And so, as I continued to establish myself as a conductor, it felt a little empty to tell young people, "Oh, you can do this, follow your dreams and work hard and study hard." And that be it, because that's not really realistic or practical because they also need some funds and some help and some angels and support. That's what we all need. And so my initiative is there to help raise money to just give them a little bit of help, a little edge, a little financial assistance if a young person is wanting to go study at a prestigious arts camp or participate in a prestigious youth orchestra. And it's been so incredible to see how, you know, buying a kid, a new bow, or a new instrument, or paying for them to go to a summer camp has really broadened their horizons as young people. And this initiative is not very old. It's about three years old. And so I'm now seeing these young people, from 14 years to 16 and 17, and to see this new excitement, this new light within their education process has been fulfilling.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. Wow, what a story. Otis Redding, drinking games, MTT, man you got it all going on. That's great. Roderick Cox, it's so good to have you here. I'm really, really thrilled that you're making your BSO debut this week, and welcome to Boston.

Roderick Cox Thank you. Thank you very much.

Transcript of William R. Hudgins interview:

Clarinetist of the Boston Symphony, this week, not in the section, in front of the orchestra, the soloist for Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Bill, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

William R. Hudgins ,Oh, it's very nice to be here, Brian and thanks for interviewing me. I'm very pleased to have had the opportunity to play, this week, a concerto. It's not often. In fact, I was figuring it out the other day. I played this Mozart concerto two other times with the Boston Symphony. And so it's been about once every 10 years. But I really enjoy the chance to do it.

Brian McCreath And it's not the only concerto you've played with the BSO. We were in touch last summer, well, a year ago last summer about the Copland Clarinet Concerto that you played at Tanglewood once. And so it's not only Mozart, but Mozart [is] definitely the anchor concerto for the clarinet repertoire, I think it's fair to say. What is it that makes the Mozart Concerto that kind of piece? I mean, certainly, as I just mentioned to you, I'm a trumpet player, so the Haydn Trumpet Concerto sort of always is the anchor for the trumpet repertoire. But what is it about the Mozart Concerto that allows it to hold this place as sort of the preeminent clarinet concerto?

William R. Hudgins I think it's because it's Mozart, because it's a great composer. There, certainly, you know, there were the Weber concertos, there's a couple of those. There's the Copland that you mentioned. There's other things that are in the repertoire that are important for clarinet players. But I think, you know, the Mozart became the concerto that you use when we're auditioning for orchestra jobs and everything. And it's clearly because of the music possibilities, the depth of the music possibilities within the music that Mozart wrote.

I feel like there's a little bit - this is late Mozart - so there's some of the opera-type depth in the feeling of the music. And so, when we listen to auditions, say, when we're listening to a clarinet player, play them, if you were listening to the Weber or the Copland, sure, you're going to get lots of technical bravura, so to speak. But you're not always going to get kind of the depth of feeling, which I think for orchestral players is a very important thing because lots of times when we're playing the orchestral repertoire, the different wind players come in to add some kind of depth to what the orchestra is doing. So that's what we're looking for when we're listening to a young clarinet player play the Mozart as an audition. And then, of course, as a chance to get to perform this work, then it's just so much fun to look for the depth within it, and then try to really get that across to the audience.

Brian McCreath Yeah, but the depth that does come across, as you say, it's a late Mozart, pretty much the latest Mozart in terms of completed pieces, and comes from that time when opera had really completely kind of worked its way through everything he was writing at that time.

So, you've played it a few times with the BSO [and] I'm sure in many other situations. How do you find that depth, new every time? You're not just imitating the last time you did it. What is it that you're looking for? Are there particular moments in the concerto that you're always sort of trying to explore? Or are there times when you realize that you hadn't really explored a particular part in the kind of depth you want to?

William R. Hudgins Well, I think it comes over time. I think, you know, I've been so lucky to play in the Boston Symphony, where we get great, great colleagues. And then, of course, other great international soloists and great conductors. And so I feel like every year I'm learning more and seeing things in slightly new and different ways. And I love the growth of that in my musical mind, that I can still see new things.

So, you know, it's kind of like, they talk about chocolate. Lots and lots of people like chocolate. They like the taste of it. You know, the people that study these things that know about taste, they say one of the reasons why lots and lots of people like chocolate is because there's so many different tastes within it, that different taste buds from all different people taste different things. So, there's, like, all this stuff in there that different people notice. And I think it's kind of the same with the great music, the great composers, that there's all this stuff in there, and you're always kind of looking for it. And sometimes things just pop up out of the blue and you realize, "Oh, I could look at it that way," or something like that.

You know, what was it they say that Michelangelo used to say, that the statue is already in the stone. I'm just taking away the excess so you can see it. And maybe over my lifetime, that's how I feel about some of these great pieces, is that all this stuff is in there. You just have to clear away the debris so that people really can see it and hear it.

Brian McCreath That's a fantastic perspective on these things. Yeah, yeah I mean, I can totally see what you what you mean.

Your experience as a concerto soloist - as I say you've I'm certain that you play concertos elsewhere from time to time - what's the difference in playing with the BSO, when you know everybody on stage with you? I mean, what's that like personally for you?

William R. Hudgins Well, it's comfortable, in a certain way. You know, I feel like I can do a few things kind of on the spur, and they'll pick up on it just because they know my playing, somewhat. You know, they've had to kind of follow me in other instances in orchestra and chamber music. So I have that certain freedom that I enjoy that way.

And it's just nice to be around friends to play. But I think there's always an interaction between the orchestra and the soloist, somewhat, and so you find it everywhere you go, certain things that you just can converse, so to speak musically with. So I think there's advantages to both ways. It's really nice.

Brian McCreath Sure, sure. You're coming up, pretty soon, on 30 years with the BSO. And I wonder if you can take me back to the time when you actually came into the orchestra and what the experience was like learning the sound of this orchestra. What did you have to recognize in the BSO way of doing things musically in order to sort of fulfill this job that you had just gotten?

William R. Hudgins Well, it's interesting. I may take too long talking about this, but I did study here in Boston with [former BSO Principal Clarinet] Harold Wright, and so I spent a lot of time during those four years I was here being in this hall, listening to this orchestra, listening to my teacher, listening to his colleagues. And that was a big part of my education, I think. I would come and get a rush ticket faithfully, you know, standing outside on Huntington Avenue, freezing cold some days, but just loving the fact that I could get a ticket that I could afford and come in.

But then I went away for quite a few years and played in South America, I played in Charleston, South Carolina, and then when when I came back to the Boston Symphony, I actually won the Second Clarinet job at first and I played next to my teacher, Harold, for a year. And so immediately, you know, I was brought back to what I had been used to from school. But also just getting the chance to play on this stage of Symphony Hall and starting to understand what I had to do with my reed, what I had to do with my clarinet set up, the mouthpiece and everything to make my sound work to its fullest extent in this space.

You know, I remember one time, right near the beginning when I was playing Second Clarinet with Harold, we did "The Age of Anxiety" by Bernstein, which starts off with a clarinet duet. And it's marked like triple piano, and it's very meandering and kind of lonely sounding. And we got to the dress rehearsal for that, and Harold turns to me and says, "OK, fast and loud." And, in one sense, that sounds kind of, you know, gruff or belittling what, you know, we were supposed to be creating with this music. But he was also telling me, "No, we're professionals. We're not going to mess around with this. We're going to give them what this music means. We're not going to walk on eggshells. You know, it's just two clarinets playing by themselves in this big space. And so you don't have to be, you know, super careful. You just have to play beautifully and with meaning and expression." And so that was one of the things I started to learn right away.

And you don't get a lot of time with this orchestra to rehears. You know, in some of the other smaller orchestras I was in, you would spend a lot of time rehearsing and slowly getting to the finished product. Here you need to produce the finished product almost immediately. And so getting used to that was also another interesting aspect.

Brian McCreath In your work with Harold Wright and other teachers that you studied with, what is it that, I guess, helped you to define your sound? I mean, you know, there are various approaches to the clarinet or, you know, sometimes there's an approach to, maybe the French way of playing clarinet, or the German way of playing clarinet. How much of your own particular sound is a result of filtering through those and the teachers that you had?

William R. Hudgins Well, it's kind of an interesting thing, actually, to be playing the Mozart this week, because, when I was young, you know, in junior high school, in another state, not in Massachusetts, I was a student of a clarinet teacher who was a fanatic about Robert Marcellus, who was the former Principal Clarinet in the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell for many years. And there was a famous recording that they put out of Szell conducting and Marcellus playing the clarinet on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. And my fanatic teacher, you know, made me listen to that over and over and over. And so that was probably a big start to how my concept of the clarinet sound came about. And then, of course, years later, I'm studying with Harold Wright, who many people would say is a quite different player than Robert Marcellus. But what I discovered was that there was a core to their sound that was very similar, that in fact, that core, in fact, was it, that there's a real compactness and fullness and depth in the center of the clarinet sound, which is not a thing for all clarinet players across the world. There's quite different sounds, different places you go.

But Harold would talk a lot about playing the clarinet. He said you have to make your pianissimo be so full and compact in the soft playing that it goes to the very back of the hall so that somebody could hear you playing in a hushed manner far away. And he talked about his teacher, [former Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Clarinet Ralph] McClain, who would go into a closet and shut the door, and then tell his students to go down the hallway away from that door and listen to see if the core of the sound was getting to him there. So, that had a lot to do with it. I think it was a wonderful beginning that I did listen to Marcellus, although on a recording, a lot in the beginning and then to hear Harold up close and live as a student and live in Symphony Hall, that was a big, a big thing for me.

Brian McCreath Tell me about the BSO now in these last few years with Andris [Nelsons, BSO Music Director] and the ways that the orchestra has been, the ways that it's maintained its core sound, as an ensemble, and also ways that it's been stretched. What has Andris done with the orchestra that has moved the BSO beyond what it was before he got here?

William R. Hudgins Well, it's fun. Andris is, on the podium, he's, first of all, physically, he's a tall man, a big man. And so there's this presence that kind of starts to almost expand the size of the orchestra sound just from that. And he makes grand gestures that pull, I think, a lot of different dynamics to the far and small end, you know, big or small side of how big the dynamics can be. But then often you'll hear Andris also saying he loves that beautiful, ethereal string sound that the strings can get in this orchestra, and the fact that you have such a wonderful hall that lets that develop.

You know. I never heard the orchestra live before Seiji Ozawa. But under Seiji, there was this beautiful, delicate, and quite, almost ethereal sound that he could get sometimes. Other times, you know, he would get lots and lots of energy and vitality and strength, of course. I think Andris has kept on in that same vein. Maybe because he has such a big personality on the podium, sometimes we get, I don't know, do we get bigger than we did with Seiji? I don't know, maybe sometimes. But, you know, each of the great conductors has a presence that pulls different things out of the orchestra. So, in some ways, probably you're a better judge of that than I am since I'm sitting inside it, and the people who are in the hall hear it from out there.

Brian McCreath That's fair. Sure, I can understand it. But as a player, one specific thing that I'm curious about is how much all these Shostakovich symphonies have opened up different avenues of the BSO that weren't there before. Is that an experience that you've had at all?

William R. Hudgins I think it is. I think it probably goes in waves. You know, as an orchestra works on the big works of different composers, you start to take on a little bit of those composer's personalities, if you will, somewhat. And certainly with Andris doing so many of those, or doing all the Shostakovich symphonies, you know, Shostakovich was caught in such a of a weird time, with the way the political powers were in his country and the fear that was inherent in a lot of that society, and so in Shostakovich, of course, there's these moments where it's just manic, almost. And so of course, Andris has to get us to bring that out, to show really what's going on in Shostakovich's mind. So, maybe we take on some of those extremes that come from those Shostakovich symphonies, sometimes. Maybe some of that carries through to some other music, or maybe it slightly moves back. Now we're going to do a lot of Strauss, which is big, but in a different way, and maybe never gets quite... You know, Shostakovich has such an extreme of getting quite small and chamber music sometimes. And maybe Strauss doesn't exactly go there in most of the big works that we're going to play.

Brian McCreath Wow, that's a really fascinating look at how those composers can affect the sound. And maybe, maybe in a temporary way. As you say, maybe it sort of moves, you know, it's a dynamic thing. It doesn't ever stay in one particular place. But for this week, it's all about Mozart. So that's good. Well, Bill Hudgins, thanks for your time today. I really appreciate it.

William R. Hudgins Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much. I appreciate the chance to talk to everybody.

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