A Conversation with Eclipse Chamber Orchestra Clarinetist Paul Cigan
It’s clear Eclipse clarinetist Paul Cigan is an explorer at heart. Despite years of playing in groups of all sizes, from small ensembles to Eclipse and the National Symphony Orchestra, Cigan continues to grow as a musician, seeking things he hasn’t experienced previously in years of making music.
While this Sunday’s Eclipse performance of the clarinet concerto by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) at 3pm in the George Washington Memorial Masonic Temple in Alexandria, VA, is not Cigan’s first time playing the solo part, he insists it won’t be like the last time. “It will be different because I am a different player from 10 years ago,” when he last played the piece. And then his humility and regard for mentors exhibit themselves. “I’ve learned a lot about being a better clarinetist and musician from sitting next to my colleague Loren Kitt in the NSO. That element certainly comes into play and [Eclipse Music Director] Sylvia [Alimena] always offers a fresh outlook to the score. I'm excited to get started,” he says just days before rehearsals of the piece began.
This energetic, discovering side of Cigan’s nature is evident in his playing. While some soloists like to impose the same interpretation on a piece they’ve used for years, Cigan the explorer is eager to find new elements. “I’ve listened to a recording or two [of the Finzi] to get the piece in my ear, but I don't like things to be scripted by any means. I think Sylvia and I will discover some new angles to the score as we rehearse.” Indeed, Cigan’s knowledge of the piece is part of his discovery process. “I study the score only to the extent that I know how things fit together in the ensemble and how dynamics are layered for balance. I like to be flexible with tempo to allow for spontaneity in the final performance.”
Spontaneity even figures into his pre-concert routine. “I've learned to be very efficient with my preparation. I try to get the practicing done early and focus on making a comfortable reed to play on and keeping the piece fresh the week before.”
Humility comes through when Cigan discusses how he chose the Finzi concerto, which is one of many concertos written for clarinet in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead of taking credit for deciding to do the piece, Cigan says, “My good friend Frank Hudson suggested it," well before Mr. Hudson became the newest member of Eclipse's board.
Many Concertos for Clarinet
The list of clarinet concertos is long and keeps growing. John Williams, composer of the Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters of The Third Kind soundtracks and much more, has penned a concerto for clarinet. “I’m a big fan of Williams’ movie music and his collaborations with the NSO. I have heard the clarinet concerto but have not had the pleasure of performing the piece.” The Williams concerto was written about 200 years after a Cigan favorite, Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet in A (K. 622), composed in 1791. “It’s the perfect balance of everything that the clarinet can do: lyrical, long lines, fluid technique. It seems very simple in its design but is very difficult to execute well.”
But back to the Finzi, which is a terrific piece, Cigan says. It’s perhaps the British-born composer’s best-known instrumental work, although his Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano is relatively well known, too, and a favorite of clarinetists. Cigan was not attracted to the concerto so much by his interest in the composer, who managed to pack a lot of living into a short life, but, in part, by its contrast with the Bagatelles. “The [Bagatelles] are very light and effervescent pieces. The Concerto by contrast is much more rhapsodic and introverted, I think. I enjoy the piece because of these qualities and it allows for more exploration of color in the music….I hope [the Eclipse audience] will appreciate the lyrical quality of the piece, but that the audience also will form a vision of the overall scope of the concerto, particularly the lush second movement.”
Cigan the master player is known for his warm sound and outstanding technique, but he’s also a teacher and coach. His dedication to those who taught him remains apparent, even after years of professional playing. He pays tribute to one of his former mentors, the late Anthony Gigliotti of the Philadelphia Orchestra, by putting him at the top of clarinetists he listens to. Others on Cigan’s list include the late Harold Wright of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and recording artist and academic David Shifrin.
But Cigan moves beyond his own instrument when it comes to recordings. “I actually prefer to listen to pianists, like Murray Perahia, Glenn Gould, and Alfred Brendel. I also like to listen to orchestral oboists, like [the Philadelphia Orchestra’s] Richard Woodhams and John de Lancie (1921-2002).” And if you thought you spied someone who looked like Cigan at a used record store, you probably did. Besides watching baseball and spending time with his children, he loves finding vintage jazz LP’s.
Musicianship Trumps Technique
What does he try to impart to his students at the University of Maryland when they wade into the sizeable discography for clarinet, including 15 current recordings of the Finzi? “I hope my students will not be blinded by the skillful technique of many of the current clarinet soloists, but appreciate the brilliant musical qualities they command. Technique is important but musicianship is more important.”
While many of Cigan’s colleagues and students will be in the audience Sunday, none will be more supportive or knowledgeable than his wife Terri, whom he describes as “a fabulous clarinetist” and terrific “mother to our three girls.”
It’s not always easy when spouses have the same profession, yet the Cigans have made it work and done so gloriously. “We both studied with Anthony Gigliotti at Temple University in Philadelphia. We’ve been together since our first year there,” Paul says. And when he was unable to tour with the National Symphony a few years back, his able replacement was Terri. “Having a clarinetist/spouse certainly has its advantages,” Paul says, “especially one that performs at such a high level as to step into the role of NSO clarinetist at the last minute.”
The Cigans even play on similar equipment. Paul plays Buffet R-13 model clarinets and owns two sets of B-flat and A clarinets. He also has E-flat and bass clarinets. But there is a difference here. “I like to explore different mouthpieces, instruments, etc. Terri tends to stick with what works for her. Interestingly, I always go back to what I originally learned on. She likes to laugh at that.”