Stephen Williamson glad that he left his heart in Chicago, with the CSO

Shortly after Stephen Williamson joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as principal clarinet in 2011, the same position came open at the New York Philharmonic, and the former New Yorker decided to audition. He won the job and took a leave of absence from his the CSO to give it a try in 2013-14. But after that year, Williamson realized his musical heart really belonged to Music Director Riccardo Muti and the CSO, so the clarinetist returned. Nearly nine years later, he knows he did the right thing.

“It was the best decision ever for me,” he said. “Absolutely. No regrets. Just very happy to be a part of this great orchestra.”

Williamson steps to the front of the stage in concerts March 23, 25-26 for just his second-ever appearance as a soloist with the CSO. He will join guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, who is making his subscription series debut, in Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. Also on the program will be Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha Suite. The latter, published in 1919, was drawn from a piano score for a ballet based on the composer’s famed cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and orchestrated by Percy Fletcher.

While Williamson has plenty of solos as part of the orchestral works he routinely plays, taking on the solo role in a concerto is different. “When you’re standing in front of the orchestra, yes, the spotlight is on you,” he said.  The other big adjustment for him is playing while standing instead of seated as he usually is in the clarinet section. “To stand in front of the orchestra is a completely different feeling than sitting. I have to specifically practice standing while working on the concerto in order to successfully create the sound I desire,” he said.

Williamson has performed as soloist with many orchestras around the world, and he is excited to take on such a role again with the CSO. “The great thing is when you play in front of your orchestra, it’s your colleagues there supporting you,” he said. “It’s not like jumping out in front of some orchestra that you don’t know. These are people that I spend the bulk of my life with, and it’s very special to feel their support when you are onstage.”

Composed in 1947-49, the Copland Concerto is among just a handful of well-known such works for the instrument. The piece was commissioned by Chicago-born Benny Goodman, who though best known as a swing bandleader, was also a first-rate classical performer. He debuted it in 1950 with conductor Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It has since been recorded by other major clarinetists, including Stanley Drucker and Richard Stoltzman. “It’s such a fantastic piece,” Williamson said. “The opening is one of the most beautiful things that I think Copland has written. We’re very lucky that Benny commissioned so many pieces for clarinet.”

When the CSO performed at Carnegie Hall in 2012, officials at the venerable venue’s Rose Museum asked Williamson to play Goodman’s B-flat clarinet, which is in its collection, to see if recent repair work was satisfactory. “I was so thrilled,” he said, “because this was the clarinet that he recorded the Copland concerto on, as well as the [Béla] Bartók Contrasts. So just being able to play the instrument for a little bit made me feel connected to him.”

He was asked if he could play the Copland Concerto on that instrument for a Carnegie concert, but the timing didn’t work out. “I said, ‘Please keep me in mind if you ever want to do it again,’” Williamson said. “That would be so much fun to play that piece with that instrument.”

The Copland Concerto is one of the first clarinet works that had a huge impact on Williamson. When he was sixth grader in Austin, Texas, he had the local classical radio station on while he was practicing, and a recording of Goodman performing it came on the radio. “I remember stopping for 15 or 16 minutes to listen to this piece, and I felt like my whole life had changed,” he said. He didn’t have money to buy records, so he quickly set up a rudimentary cassette-tape player and recorded as much of the broadcast as he could. “I remember listening to it over and over through this mono system,” he said. “That was my first and very vivid memory of hearing the Copland Clarinet Concerto.”

Since 2000, Williamson has played a Selmer Signature clarinet, a high-end instrument made by Henri Selmer Paris. “That has been the instrument of my choice,” he said. “It’s been part of my life for a while now. I love it.” He chooses two paired instruments at a time, a B-flat and A clarinet. “In the orchestra, it is common to switch between the two instruments quite regularly, depending on the composer’s intention,” he said. “We call these two instruments a set.”

The clarinets are made of the very dense grenadilla wood from the mpingo tree, which grows in 26 African countries. He replaces them every two years or so, because they become what is known as “blown out,” which means that the bores of the instruments expand and do not shrink back to their original diameter. “The sound changes and the intonation changes,” he said. “You can do a lot of work with that, but I always find it’s better for me to just get a new set.”

A big problem is that the grenadilla wood is becoming rare and hard to find because the mpingo tree is endangered. Other types of wood have been tried in high-end clarinets like these, but Williamson does not believe they sound as good as the grenadilla. “It’s a scary time for us as clarinetists,” he said. To offset the shortage, he is trying to stockpile as many clarinets as can, hoping he will have enough to sustain him for the rest of his career.

Attached along one side of a clarinet mouthpiece is a flat reed that vibrates when the instrument is played. Williamson uses reeds produced by Vandoren, a family-owned company founded in France in 1905. More than 90 percent of its products are exported to more than 100 countries. “There are many different reed manufacturers, but I’m most satisfied with Vandoren and have played on them exclusively,” he said. Reeds come in multiple consistencies, and he plays a more resistant reed. “I play a set-up that is pretty difficult for most people to play, but it seems to work for me,” he said.

Through great care, Williamson is able to get his reeds to last as long as two months. “I rotate them all the time,” he said, “because I want them to last as long as they can, and I find that one reed might feel really great in a work by Mozart or Schubert but you need a different type of reed for Mahler or Bruckner,” he said. “The reeds need to have a different kind of timbre based on the piece you’re playing.”