Ask Richard Stolzman how he got started playing the clarinet, which some people think he does better than anyone else around these days, and his answer makes it seem simple: "It was my first instrument. My dad played the clarinet, so we played in church together, in San Francisco."

But ask Stoltzman how he arrived at the top role he plays among today's clarinetists - a member of TASHI, along with pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ani Kafavian, and cellist Fred Sherry - and you may be surprised. The road was not smooth.

"I've been in contests and been eliminated immediately. And I've been auditioned and been told the clarinet was not for me. I tried to get into Marlboro three times; I remember the first time they said, "You should try something else. Like engineering.'"

"It was from my last year at Yale that I went to Marlboro. Nineteen sixty-six was my first year there." Stoltzman gives the credit for finding the right track in the clarinet world to Keith Wilson, the top wind man at Yale.

"These days I'm always surprised when I play recitals, and afterwards people come up and say. "I didn't know the clarinet sounded like that." It makes me feel good - they're not talking about me. They're talking about the sound of the instrument. Okay, I made the sound, but the more I can do to keep my own ego out of the music and the more that the music itself and the sound of the instrument projects to the people, the better it is."

Reminded that Rudolf Serkin once said he did not understand why so many parents started their children on the piano ("one of the most difficult of all instruments. Why not start them on the clarinet?") Stoltzman burst out laughing.

"I don't want to be overly modest and say that everything's easy on the clarinet," he said. "But I don't like to start off by thinking that here we have a musical instrument and there are difficulties to overcome in order that we can learn to play beautifully on it. I think what is difficult is to learn to forget the instrument and be able to make music through it and maybe in spite of it.

"Maybe Mr. Serkin said, "Why don't you start them on the clarinet?" because probably lots of time when I've played with him, and he has said, "Oh that must be very difficult," I've said, "Oh, no, it' easy." But it is in a way."

Stoltzman does not, however, oversimplify things. "There's a difference in what the breath does, once it's let out, on the clarinet, from the flute. Or the oboe. In terms of learning how to breathe, I think you can learn little nuances that may be different on each instrument. But I think most players would agree that you have to develop strong lung capacity and you have to learn to gauge the amount of air you have so that you are able to use it successfully after playing for 15 or 20 seconds, just as you would in learning to use the breath to color the sound and so on."

Ask him about public interest in solo clarinet recitals and Stoltzman, who has made solo recordings, been a guest on records with the Cleveland Quartet, and is appearing in Berlin and Paris this fall, snorts.

"If somebody asked me "How'd you like to go to a solo clarinet recital," I'd probably say "yuk!" It's not the normal form of amusement for an evening. But I think it can be." (Stoltzman will play a solo recital in Maryland University's Community Concert Series on Jan 21, and if it is "not the normal form of amusement for an evening," it is a form I would not want to miss.)

"With a little imagination and the help of a very fine pianist, you can think of yourself as soloist. But I think no matter what situation you play in, you've got to deal with at least one other performer. If you plan on being a virtuoso soloist and relegating the orchestra or the accompanist or whatever to the background - well, sometimes I think the music comes out thay way."

After a slight pause, he added, "I've always thought in terms of making music with other people. The clarinet is an ideal instrument for chamber group, with a marvelous repertoire which is being expanded these days."

It was as a member of the TASHI quartet that Stoltzman first had to play one of the most demanding of all clarinet solos. His contribution to TASHI's RCA recording of the work helped to win it the highest praise. I asked him how he first went about tackling the long, unaccompanied solo in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time," which the French composer wrote during World War II while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag 14 in Germany.

"I approached it in sort of fear and awe," he began, "because I knew it was a part of a much bigger work. I remember the first time I played that with the whole piece was at Marlboro. I will never forget thinking that if I ever get through this performance alive it would be one of the greatest accomplishments just to do it once. Little did I know that I was to be playing that hundreds of times. I thought that was a one-shot deal.

"First of all," Stoltzman continued, "to do that kind of thing at Marlboro is a little bit unusual, shining, a light on one solo person and having them play alone for minutes at a time is just not done in Marlboro.

"Everyone plays together. But then here's this movement, for only one person: it's very self-conscious. I was concerned from that standpoint. And at Marlboro you get very nervous, especially when you play on the Wednesday night concerts. The only people there are musicians. Of course they're your friends, but they are also the most knowledgeable people. They know all the problems; they understand if yor're having difficulties. It's reassuring but on the other hand they also know when things can be beautiful, and if they're not, they are aware of it.

"So as I was approaching that piece - the metronome marking is 'eighth note equals, 44,' which is pretty slow - that first line, the way Messiaen has written it, is to be done all in one breath. The comma is at the end of the whole first line. And you have to, instead of just sticking the clarinet in your mouth and starting to blow, you can and take in a huge volume of air and then begin with quite a sustained focus in your mind, knowing that you have to start at this end of the page and go all the way.

"These things build suspense. You don't have to know music to have empathy with the performer in that situation. All you have to be is somebody who breathes, and to recognize breath as something very beautiful."

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Stolzman was not yet throughhwith the famous Messiaen solo. "It says at the beginning of the piece that it is supposed to be like a bird. And it is marked 'desole,' 'Desolated' - a kind of void; it may be what Messiaen imagines as the soul of the bird.

"But with a reflective smile "it's also a perfect description of the clarinetist sitting out there on the stage, and all of a sudden everybody puts his instrument down, and the pianist folds his arms and people look around as if 'What's happening now?' There's nothing else quite like this."

Other composers are writing new music for the clarinet, using it in new ways. Stoltzman is enthusiastic about the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. "There's a piece he wrote for me called 'Waves' that uses multiphonics - that's just a kind of fancy word for more than than one tone sounded simultaneously.

"You invent cross fingerings, and kind of mudge your particular reed to vibrate in two, three, or four ratios at once. And accommodate that excessive flapping around with your embouchure and a change of support from your wind column. Then you either practice a lot or hope for the best. It takes a very isolated room to practice in because most people will start banging on the walls.

"On my recital here in January I'm going to be playing with a jazz pianist named Bill Douglas, from Canada. I love to improvise with him, so by hook or crook we're going to put in some improvisation. Then we'll probably do the Saint-Saens sonata, and we're thinking of some Schumann and Schubert. People are expecting that. But I think they will like the improvise too."