White Rock next stop for Goodman-trained clarinetist
It’s not every clarinetist who can say he studied with Benny Goodman.
In fact, internationally-renowned, New York-based Canadian musician Julian Milkis – who appears in concert with pianist Eugene Skovorodnikov at 3 p.m. this Sunday (March 9), at White Rock’s First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave. – is the only one who can make the claim.
In his program, From Baroque To Jazz, presented by Encore Peninsula Concerts, fans will be treated to music that not only showcases Milkis’ widely-celebrated tone and technique (as well as the felicitous accompaniment of Skovorodnikov) but also touches on lessons he learned first hand from the jazz legend and clarinet icon.
Those sessions took place between 1983 and 1986, the last years of Goodman’s life.
As a young musician beginning to make a name for himself in New York, the Russian-born Milkis had attracted Goodman’s attention. He consented to work with Milkis, provided the agenda was strictly classical – plenty of Mozart and Brahms – but also many of the concert pieces that had been specifically written for Goodman as a soloist, such as Aaron Copland and Malcolm Arnold’s clarinet concertos, Bartok’s Contrastsand Poulenc’s Sonata.
“He opened my head and made me free,” Milkis said by phone from New York.
“He made me realize that anything is possible, that there are no rules, that you can do anything if you feel strongly about something.”
Milkis couldn’t help being impressed by Goodman’s dedication and self-discipline even after all his years of fame, he said.
“Here he was, 74 years old, and every single day he started with scales and Mozart.”
Milkis also experienced the ‘Goodman ray’ – the baleful stare of disapproval the bandleader was wont to visit on hapless sidemen – but only once.
“It was my very first lesson, at the end,” he said. “It was awkward, because we hadn’t talked about money for the lessons. I said ‘how much do I owe you?’ and for long minutes he just sat there looking at me, until he finally said “professionals don’t charge other professionals.”
Pianist, composer, arranger and former Goodman sideman Dick Hyman – who has latterly written many genre-bridging concert pieces for Milkis including his latest, Ragtime Concerto – told Milkis he escaped lightly.
“He said people in his bands would almost have a heart-attack – Goodman would turn and stare you down,” Milkis said, adding he believes the habit stemmed from Goodman’s “absolute” perfectionism.
“I have a recording Hyman gave me of Benny’s orchestra in Switzerland in 1950. I thought it was absolutely impossible to play like that – everything is perfect. But Hyman said they rehearsed every little tune 50 times to get that result.”
Ironically, in light of his accolades from concert halls around the world, Milkis never intended to be a clarinetist. Growing up in a family of professional musicians in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) he was a piano student – until he received an inexcusable B grade at the age of 11.
“It was a punishment,” he said. “I was told I had to study clarinet. But I guess it stuck somehow.”
He was really taking the instrument seriously by the time he moved from Toronto (where his family had settled as immigrants) to the pressure-cooker competitive environment of New York, he said.
“I spent an entire year practising nine hours a day,” he added. “I paid my dues.”
The clarinet has the third largest classical repertoire of any instrument, he noted, adding that he’s lost count of the number of concert pieces he has debuted over his career. And when he and Skovorodnikov mix and match Baroque and jazz pieces during Sunday’s concert – it’s a testament to their enjoyment of both idioms.
“They’re basically the same thing,” Milkis added, noting Baroque’s fondness for improvisations over a sketched continuo – a direct counterpart to improvisation over chord changes that is a cornerstone of chamber jazz.
Even though the Goodman jazz repertoire was off-limits during his lessons with the master, Milkis said he couldn’t stand next to Goodman, hearing him play, without absorbing some of his sound, or being persuaded of the expressive, vocal qualities of vibrato.
“He changed my sound a lot. I never used vibrato and I played a very hard reed. He said, ‘it’s a very difficult instrument – why make it more difficult?’”
To book tickets, or for more info, call 604-541-2199 or visit www.peninsula productions.org