The clarinet is a chameleon among instruments, finding a habitat in classical music, jazz, the marching band and klezmer. The intersection between the first two of those was the subject of a recital by clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu on Sunday night at Dumbarton Oaks. The program included one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas from the duo’s debut recording and selections of jazz-influenced American pieces from their latest disc.
Manasse, former principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has an impeccably smooth tone on the instrument, highlighted to mellow effect in the warm, restrained opening of the Second Brahms Sonata. Nakamatsu, who won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in 1997, matched and supported Manasse in polished tone, helping to create a sense of surging but contained passion in this autumnal work. Throughout the evening, neither player forced his instrument, aware of the intimate scale of the museum’s Music Room and focusing only on beauty of sound.
Nakamatsu’s one solo turn, on Chopin’s “Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante,” was more reserved in tempo than performances heard from flashier players, but also more meticulous and tuneful in its clarity. In Debussy’s “Premiere Rapsodie,” the piano’s accompaniment surrounded the voluptuous bloom of the clarinet’s melody like wreaths of smoke.
In the American second half, Paquito D’Rivera’s “Cape Cod Files” and John Novacek’s “Four Rags for Two Jons,” both composed for this duo, had plenty of toe-tapping charm, with the occasional bluesy growl for clarinet, although both outstayed their potential for concentrated listening. In a sense, these pieces had the feel of encores, capped by one actual encore, James Cohn’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”
Downey is a freelance writer.