Clarinetist Julian Milkis plays with the spirit of Benny Goodman

03/23/2014 12:00 AM

03/19/2014 12:21 PM

To the untrained classical music ear, the clarinet is the Rodney Dangerfield of solo instruments: Amid the soaring violins and indomitable piano, the clarinet gets no respect.

Julian Milkis is out to change that woodwind’s underdog status. As one of the world’s most sought-after classical clarinetists — his globe-trotting concert schedule has him playing as many as 130 concerts a year — Milkis has become his instrument’s Pied Piper, convincing audiences everywhere of the mellifluous beauty of the clarinet.

Clearly burnishing Milkis’ reputation as the clarinet’s leading advocate is that the musician, who was born in Russia and raised in Canada and the United States, is believed to be the only student of the most famous clarinetist ever: Benny Goodman, “the king of swing.”

Local audiences may prod a Benny Goodman story from Milkis when he gives his first concert in Fort Worth, joining the Chamber Music Society on Saturday for a performance at the Modern Art Museum. Highlights from the program will include Alan Shulman’s clarinet quintet Rendezvous With Benny, Alexander Goldstein’s Trio on the Roof, Promenade and I’ve Got a Crush on You by Gershwin, and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor.

Gary Levinson, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, will be joining Milkis for this concert as the group’s violinist.

“What I want people here to appreciate,” says Levinson, “is that Julian’s musicianship and technique seem effortless. When you hear him, it is like his body and musicianship are all unified, and music just emanates from him.”

We chatted recently with Milkis while he was in Vancouver and, naturally, wanted him to share as many tales about being under the tutelage of the famously imperious Goodman.

Benny Goodman (who died in 1986 at age 77) was reputedly almost dismissive of other clarinetists, and certainly never taught anyone, except you. How did you get to him?

In 1983, when I was around 25, I was preparing my Carnegie Hall debut and I wanted to perform Contrasts by Bartok, a piece Benny had commissioned Bartok to write. So I just called him up, even though everyone told me he would never see me. He actually called back 20 minutes later and invited me over to his east-side Manhattan apartment.

What were you feeling as you went over to the great man’s place?

I was scared. When I first met him, I was so frightened I couldn’t play a note. It was like I was appearing before Jesus Christ.

He was bigger than anyone at the time. He was like the Beatles in England. When we would go out of his apartment for a stroll, he had the appearance of a king. Within minutes, a huge crowd would gather around him.

Did you settle into a routine in your sessions with Goodman?

I would go over to play for Goodman three or four times a week. He always wanted to see me at 10 a.m. sharp. And I was told to never be late, to have shaved and to wear a sharp suit, shoes and a hat — as Benny really liked hats. Certainly no jeans.

Sure enough, when I got there he peeked at his watch, nodding approvingly that I was on time. He liked my hat. After one of our lessons, he actually gave me a red fedora.

What was one of the high points of your relationship with Goodman?

I asked him how much I owed him for these rare lessons, and he just said, “I don’t charge colleagues.” That was quite a compliment.

Did you end up socializing with Goodman?

He liked to take me out to share a hamburger. He always said there is nothing better than a good American hamburger, with a good shot of scotch.

Did he ever get upset with you?

I remember once asking him if he would mind if I played one of his jazz pieces and he got upset. As a result, I didn’t play jazz clarinet until 10 years after Benny passed away.

When Fort Worth audiences hear you for the first time, what part of your style and technique will they be able to trace to your rare experience with Goodman?

What Fort Worth will hear is Benny getting me to leave behind the hard, jumpy staccato sound of blowing through hard reeds, and, instead, trying to replicate that flexible, gorgeously creamy Goodman sound through a much softer reed.

Artistically, he taught me that you can’t be afraid to go all out and leave a bit of your heart stage. The most satisfactory thing for me after a concert is when people come up to me and say they had no idea the clarinet could do that.

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