Loren Kitt, 74, has been the principal clarinet of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1970. In the middle of this season, he quietly left the orchestra and retired to his home in Maine. He will be honored at the NSO performance on June 9. Earlier this year, he talked about his 45 years of service. (The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.)
Anne Midgette: What prompted your decision to leave now, in the middle of the year?
Loren Kitt: Well, when I turned in my letter, I wanted to go at the first of the year, but I said, “unless there’s a tour,” which would be kind of a nice finishing touch. [The NSO went to Europe in February.] It was a very nice tour. We played a lot of good concerts, and the audiences were great. And my wife went on it, too. We’ve been living in two places, [Maine and the District,] but now that our daughter’s in college, she’s been able to come down more often. It was sort of like a honeymoon. We had a really good time.
On the tour, [Christoph Eschenbach] seemed so much more relaxed and so much more connected to the orchestra. In Düsseldorf, he had a party for the orchestra, [which was] a first. My last rehearsal with him was in Berlin, and he took the time to say nice things about me, which I really appreciated, to the whole orchestra.
AM: You’ve seen tremendous change in the NSO and in the musical life of Washington. How has the orchestra evolved since you’ve been in it?
LK: My first year was at Constitution Hall. Every hall shapes the sound of an orchestra, it’s a part of their acoustic. It was just a different sound. Even when we moved into the Kennedy Center, we still recorded at Constitution Hall.
When I was in school and Howard Mitchell was still music director, back in the ’50s, the NSO had a lot of good players and good performances. The problem was that it was a stepping-stone orchestra. They had a hard time keeping [musicians]. With [Antal] Dorati, we had a sense of being a real professional orchestra. He brought a dignity to the orchestra. He was really a genius. His Mahler was second to none, including [Sir Georg] Solti. He didn’t have a great stick technique, but he knew how to get what he wanted out of the orchestra.
We were on tour once, in Greece, talking backstage, and he talked about some ancient painting he got in Israel. I said, “I didn’t know you were interested in that.” He said, “Young man, there is nothing I’m not interested in.” He was an artist. He could paint. He was quite a good composer. He wrote an oboe concerto that our first oboist played; it’s a wonderful work. When he left, he came back and guest-conducted. It was a great success. I was the first person he hired when he came here, and we had a nice reunion. He said, “I’m composing a clarinet concerto for you.” I said, “That’s wonderful.” I waited a while, then he died. Eventually, I wrote to his widow. She said, “Yes, he finished it, but he never wrote it down — he wrote it in his head.”
Then we went flying into the [Mstislav] Rostropovich era — very exciting. Going back to Russia, that was a real experience. Just his knowledge of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, especially: Those were some of the most thrilling concerts I think we’ve ever done. I loved the Russian Romantic-contemporary literature. It’s so great for the clarinet, so I loved it.
After that then, we graduated to the Leonard Slatkin era. Of course, [Slatkin’s] strong suit was being able to talk to the audience. Even a piece I didn’t like, when he talked to the audience, all of a sudden I thought, “It sounds like it’s worth playing.” The Copland Third was a wonderful thing that he did that we brought to Europe.
AM: You played the Copland clarinet concerto under [Aaron] Copland, did you not?
LK: I played it with him about six times. The first was in 1976 at the Capitol; it was the first Capitol Concert ever. That and the Mozart [clarinet concerto] seemed to become my signature pieces.
Copland was pretty good. He eschewed the modern fast tempos and loud playing. He’d say to the brass, “Noble, gentlemen, noble. I don’t understand why everyone takes this so fast.”
AM: You’ve lived in Maine for many years now. What is the Maine connection?
LK: I’m from the Seattle area. We had looked around at possible retirement places, and I was invited to a music festival [in Maine] in the mid-90s, and we came up, and I thought, “This is just like where I grew up, but with less people.” We kept coming up here, and we ended up buying property. Then 9/11 happened. [Kitt and his wife thought,] “Who knows what’s going to happen in the world, the stock market, to life maybe? We should go ahead and start building while we have money.” Then we had a daughter, so I kept playing.
It was a great place to raise a kid. The travel thing was not so great, but we survived. I tried to get up [to Maine] one week a month.
AM: What are your plans now?
LK: I bought a guitar, and I’m trying to learn that. I find it extremely difficult. I have different projects. I want to learn a foreign language. Learn more about computers.
AM: Will you continue to perform?
LK: That is an interesting question. I have a few concerts this spring; I’m playing at the Kreeger Museum in June. After that, I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to keep up.
AM: How do you see the future of the NSO?
LK: I’m hopeful that the acoustics are going to get straightened out at the Kennedy Center, because it’s really a good orchestra. There are so many good players. I’m always impressed at how many great string players there are, how well they play. Leaving the winds as they are right now — it’s the best wind section I’ve ever played in, and I’ve played with some big orchestras. I’m very excited about that, that it is so good.