The legions of us who played clarinet in high school and middle school know that it is a fickle beast, easy to play but nigh near impossible to play well. Well, Charlie Suriyakham is one of the few who has managed to tame the beast, making it sound like an actual instrument instead of some kind of sick goose crying desperately for help (this is coming, by the way, from someone who loves the clarinet). His mastery of the instrument is made more remarkable by the fact that he taught himself to play while living in Thailand, and had no formal training in the instrument before coming to the United States at the age of 18.
At his concert at Russell House last Sunday, Suriyakham was accompanied by Laura Hibbard on the piano, Megan Sesma on the harp, and Lisa Williamson, soprano—each perfomer added depth to Suriyakham’s performance. In all, he performed seven pieces, but I was most impressed by “Meditation”, a composition by Jules Massenet from the opera Thaïs, “Suite from Victorian Kitchen Garden”, by Paul Reade, and “Sholem-alekhem, rov Feidman” by Béla Kovács. Suriyakham introduced the first as his favorite melody, mentioning that it had been one of his deceased father’s favorite pieces as well, and telling the audience that “if you have someone you miss, you can think of them while you listen.” I can’t say if it was because of his words or simply the merit of the music, but the performance was deeply moving. Equally obvious was Suriyakham’s own emotional connection to the piece, elevating it from merely being consecutive notes and rhythms to true music.
“Victorian Kitchen Garden,” a suite in five parts (Prelude, Spring, Mists, Exotica, and Summer), was particularly enjoyable because it was the kind of piece that takes you on a journey. For me it invoked a stroll through a wood on a misty morning (there may or may not have been fairy chasing involved…) in the time of Victorian (big surprise there) England. It is a credit to Suriyakham that his playing does not jolt you from your reverie, but rather induces it, each inflection and crescendo carefully suggesting a new emotion.
The last composition, “Sholem-alekhem, rov Feidman,” was, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, very Jewish. However, the most fascinating part was not the music itself, but rather the techniques Suriyakham used to achieve the traditional sounds associated with Jewish musical works. I should explain that the concert setup was very intimate, just a few chairs centered about a grand piano and harp. This meant that I was able to snag a front row seat, basically enabling me to stare at Suriyakham the entire time. In, it was captivating to watch his fingers dance up and down the clarinet, jumping off at times to distort the sound. Other techniques that made this song sound like it came straight out of a Ukranian shtetl involved breathing and tonguing methods, two things technical enough that I don’t trust myself to explain them properly. But trust me, it was cool. The other pieces, “Mini Suite for Clarinet and Piano,” “Introduction et Rondo,” “Shepherd On The Rock, D965,” and “Gate” were also expertly performed and enjoyable, although I feel I have to mention that “Gate” sounded like something your band director might select for you to play when he is trying to be “cool”.
The only disappointing thing about the concert was the fact that there were so few Wesleyan students there. Aren’t we supposed to be cultured or something? Free concerts at the Russell House. Seriously, guys, go.