I had been accepted by The Cleveland Institute to pursue graduate studies on the clarinet with Robert Marcellus. This followed my previous summer’s series of private lessons with him while I was still at OSU. I had also applied to Yale Music School because I knew it had a good reputation in music history and theory, and my crazy enthusiastic history teacher had been a Yale product and was vitally excited about the motets and life of Guilliame Machant. Never really thinking I would be accepted, I was confused when in fact Yale informed me I could go there. I remember asking the advice of Burdette Green who was one of my music theory teachers and also played a mean jazz alto sax on the side. He didn’t hesitate even a moment, “Go to Yale.” But I didn’t have any idea what my clarinet teacher, Keith Wilson, would be like. Unlike the famous principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra, I had never heard Mr. Wilson’s sound. I knew he had been president of the national organization for band conductors but that didn’t have the romantic aura of principal clarinetist under Maestro George Szell.
Yale had a summer program for music study, which I decided to attend prior to moving to New Haven. This would allow me the chance to play chamber music (I had only rare opportunities for that at OSU) and hopefully hear my soon-to-be teacher. The opportunity came one summer Sunday afternoon in 1964 when Mr. Wilson was to perform Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the Yale String Quartet in the venerable music shed at Norfolk, CT.
The large wood hall had been filled with the sounds of great musicians making memorable music for the better part of a century and now I was in the audience to experience Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet (for the first time) and hear my future clarinet teacher for the first time. The artists came on stage dressed in white tuxedo jackets, bowed, sat down, and I felt a strange thrill of anticipation mixed with anxiety. Here was the man who would soon by my teacher and I had no idea what he was like as a human being and clarinetist.
The audience grew silent. I closed my eyes in order to focus all my attention on Mr. Wilson’s sound. I heard the poignant expressive sounds of the two violins followed by the pulsing syncopation of the viola and then cello and then...I sat there, eyes closed, swept into the sounds of music of late Brahms, of passionately played themes and contrapuntal lines. I held my breath waiting for the sound of the clarinet. But, there was none! I heard beautifully intertwined melodies and dance harmonies yet still the clarinet sound was not there. Confused, I opened my eyes to see what was wrong. Instead of a clarinet player waiting to play, I saw (and heard) five musicians enveloped in glorious sonorities. And I stared in wonder at Mr. Wilson who had transformed the clarinet into a rapturous rich tone, blending with his fellow musicians to create a true quintet.
Excerpted from Another Name for God, Copyright Richard Stoltzman, 2015