David Griffiths, top clarinetist, joins the MCM: interview

David Griffiths is a globally-renowned clarinetist and educator, who will soon join the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as a Senior Lecturer in Music (Performance – Clarinet). Get to know him here. 

By Paul Dalgarno.

Hi David, you’re a clarinetist with, and artistic director of, Ensemble Liaison. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Ensemble Liaison is the result of my dream to start my own chamber music ensemble, something that has been in the back of my brain for as long as I can remember. I formed the ensemble in 2005 with cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic and pianist Timothy Young.

Our aim from the outset was to make the ensemble all about collaborations with guests, thus the name “liaison”. If we were only going to play music for clarinet, cello and piano we would have run out of repertoire pretty quickly.

We are now planning the twelfth season of the Ensemble Liaison & Friends series. Each concert features one or more guest artists from a variety of different backgrounds. Over the years we’ve had a lot of fun working with so many wonderful artists, including violinists, violists, percussionists, a drummer, jazz pianists, composers, puppeteers, ballet dancers, singers, actors, an accordionist and now, coming up, a fantastic lighting designer … We are always on the lookout for new repertoire, composers and collaborators who might share our ideals in art creation.

I have no idea how long we’ll be able to keep the series going, but we get so much pleasure from creating these concerts, I can’t see us ever wanting to stop. We often joke that we might be presenting our 50th season from the retirement home.

Aleksandar Sedlar – Kolo (Round Dance) Nemanja Radulovic with Ensemble Liaison.

When did you take up the clarinet? Was it your first choice of instrument?

I took up the clarinet when I was eight. I grew up in Armidale, New South Wales, where my mother was the only clarinet teacher at the time, so I guess I didn’t have much of a choice. She tried clarinet with both of my sisters too but it only stuck with me – they became string players.

I think by about the age of 15 I knew, or at least hoped, it would become a career for me. But it wasn’t until I started studying at university that I realised what that meant, and the sorts of things that would need to happen to make it possible.

In high school my other passion was basketball and basketball coaching. I was a little vertically-challenged so I got right into coaching, and if I hadn’t got into music I definitely would have found something to do in this area. Reflecting on it now, it’s interesting to compare basketball coaching, which I loved, to clarinet teaching and chamber-music coaching.

David Griffiths. Image supplied.

You’re an avid supporter of new Australian compositions and have commissioned and premiered new works by composers such as Ross Edwards, Stuart Greenbaum, and many others. Does this come from a love of new music, a desire to support composers, a sense of obligation, or something else? 

A little bit of all of those, I’d say. I love playing new music, regardless of where it comes from, and feel a real sense of excitement when I receive a new work from a composer. Having the opportunity to be the first person to play a new work, and make the first musical decisions on how to shape it, is such a privilege. Working with Australian composers in particular is a no-brainer as we all need to support each other to create new music.

My motivation also comes from a desire to create as much new Australian chamber music with clarinet as possible. The clarinet is blessed with a lot of wonderful repertoire, but there can always be more.

There are plenty of “pure” string quartets and piano trios, but adding the clarinet is much more interesting from my perspective.

Can you tell us about the course(s) you’ll be teaching at the MCM? What kind of students are you looking for? What can they expect from studying with you at the MCM?

I’m looking for highly-motivated students who are incredibly passionate about playing the clarinet – they’re the kind of students that will make my job an absolute pleasure. I also need students who will be supportive of each other. I want to create an MCM clarinet studio that has an atmosphere of enthusiasm, hard work and fun.

Studying music can involve many solitary hours of practice every day, so I believe it’s really important that the students are able to come together.

Students who are accepted into my studio can expect to be pushed to work hard. So much can be achieved in a really short time at university, but it can’t be done in the café. Students need to do the time in the practice room to produce results.

You have collaborated and performed with many quartets and chamber music groups, as well as individual artists. Which ones really stand out for you and why?

I’ve been lucky to work with a many wonderful artists, so it’s difficult to choose just a few. The Ensemble Liaison has to be the real standout. Sometimes it’s possible to take for granted the special bond and understanding we’ve developed in this 13 year long chamber music ensemble, but when I go away and play with other musicians I soon remember it.

In terms of string quartets, I think most clarinetists’ favourite thing to do is to work with a string quartet, especially on the quintets by Mozart and Brahms. Last year I had the opportunity to play Mozarts’ Quintet with the Goldner String Quartet. It’s a work I’d played many times, as had they, but this particular collaboration was very special to me. The Quartet’s intensity and commitment to perfection helped to push me to new levels. It was a performance I will never forget.

Three years ago I started working with The Australia Ensemble@UNSW, and that collaboration has been such a wonderful experience for me. I was a student of Alan Vivian who, in the late nineties, was their clarinetist. He would often go off on tour with them and I remember aspiring to one day get the opportunity to play with them. The ensemble has been together for 38 years and the collective chamber-music experience is enormous so there’s so much to learn at every rehearsal.

One of my favourite violinists to work with is the Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic – he’s an incredible musician and unique artist. He gives so much energy on stage and it’s completely contagious. Audiences go crazy at his concerts, so sharing a stage with him is about as close as I think I’ll get to feeling like a rock star.

Chamber music, from the musicians’ perspective –The Creatory.

Which upcoming performances are you looking forward to, and why? 

I’m really looking forward to my next performance with Ensemble Liaison on October 24 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. We will be performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time –a really incredible work that Messiaen wrote while he was imprisoned in a second-world-war prison camp. The piece takes the musicians and the audience on an epic journey of emotions that lasts nearly an hour. It’s a work I have performed nearly 30 times, and have recorded it with Ensemble Liaison for Melba Recordings.

That’s one I never get tired of performing. The effect it has on the musicians and the audience is always profound, but I’m particularly looking forward to this performance. We are collaborating with violinist Dene Olding for the first time. Dene is the former concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and violinist with the Australia Ensemble and the Golder String Quartet. He has also performed this work many times so it will be really interesting to develop a shared interpretation to a work that we both know so well.

We’re also collaborating with the award-winning lighting designer Paul Jackson, who is going to create a special lighting design to enhance the experience. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

We’re also looking forward to performing it in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre – a simply stunning venue that allows us to create special sounds that are not always possible in other venues. It allows us to play softer than anywhere else so the extreme pianissimos in the work are incredible.

Performing clarinet is one thing, teaching it is another – you seem passionate about both. Is that the case, and is that a hard balance to strike?

I’m absolutely passionate about both but, yes, it can be a hard balance to strike sometimes. If I’m teaching too much I find it difficult to practise, and if I don’t practise enough if affects my quality of life! I really don’t like to go into a rehearsal period feeling under-cooked. I probably sometimes practise more than I need to, but I always enjoy the rehearsal process so much more when I’m properly prepared. I’ve learnt over the years to schedule in my practice time around my teaching to make sure I do a little every day if possible.

In my practice, I am constantly trying to improve my playing and reflect on the best way to achieve that. This very much informs my teaching as my brain is already in the mode of trying to work out how to do things better and how to communicate those ideas with my students.

Teaching also helps my own performance tremendously. Thinking of ways to address my students’ problems, often helps me to fix my own. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing the final recitals of hard-working students after helping them develop over a period of many years. As long as I’m able to strike a good balance, the two roles work together incredibly well.

David Griffiths. Image supplied.

Can you tell us about a particular teacher or professional mentor who has inspired you? 

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been inspired by many different teachers and mentors, so it’s difficult to choose one. Fresh in my mind is David Krakauer, one of my chamber-music coaches during my time in New York. I had the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time with him on four major chamber works in the clarinet repertoire over a period of two years, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

He’s had the ability to think about the music being more than just notes. I still remember so much of the advice he gave me over 20 years ago. He recently completed a week in residence with my clarinet studio at Monash University. Watching him work with my students and sharing many meals and bottles of wine over the week was a real treat.

What are the peculiarities of being a clarinetist? How does it differ (if at all) from other instrument specialisations?

Well, clarinet is all I know, so it doesn’t seem peculiar to me. We have our issues – dealing with reeds is a big one – but that’s not unique to us, and we have it a lot easier than oboists and bassoonists, who need to make their own reeds. I do often look with envy at flute players who can whip out their instrument without having to worry about a reed.

What’s to gain from a life in music? 

There are plenty of ups and downs, but the ups definitely make it all worthwhile. There’s an incredible amount of joy to be had by being able to share beautiful music with people.

Is there a quote or philosophy that has held you in good stead throughout your career?

Play every concert like it’s your last!


Banner Image: David Griffiths. By Greg Barrett.