Clarinet, Copland and a concerto to cherish at MSO’s Bravo-IV

MSO clarinetist Ken Graves

When Mississippi Symphony Orchestra Principal Clarinet Ken Graves steps into the solo spotlight in Bravo-IV’s “Alluvial Soundscapes” March 9 concert, he’ll deliver an Aaron Copland concerto that’s among the instrument’s greatest hits.

Commissioned by famed clarinetist and swing legend Benny Goodman, it is the only American clarinet concerto to become standard repertoire. Its slow, ravishingly expressive first movement gives way to a captivating credenza, and a second movement full of jazzy flair.

“It’s a cool piece of music because it’s, I would say, in the top five, or even top three greatest pieces ever written for the instrument,” said Graves, who likes the way it really shows what a clarinet can do.

Graves was born in Atlanta, but his music studies didn’t begin until the move to Mount Pleasant, SC, when he was in middle school. Music wasn’t a profession in his family, but it was definitely a fun pastime, joining the party at gatherings when the adults would pull out guitars, banjos and mandolins to play everything from bluegrass tunes and rock’n’roll to blues.

No strings attached to Graves, though, despite the guitar his father got him for Christmas one year. “I didn’t figure out how to play it,” Graves said. “I actually ended up letting somebody else in the family borrow it, and they learned to play guitar.”

Music found its own way in, via his school’s band program when he was 11. Graves did the instrument test trying out a lot of different ones for the symphonic band in middle school. “The choices I was given were French horn or clarinet, and the French horn, I was told, would be a lot more difficult.” That didn’t sound appealing. Clarinet, it was.

Lessons with a private instructor in nearby Charleston, with its vibrant music scene, strengthened his skill and attachment to the instrument.

Back in Atlanta, he’d been into sports like baseball and travel ball, but personal pursuits were beginning to shift toward music. Besides, “People just started throwing the baseball really fast. You could actually get hurt doing this. This is not so much fun anymore,” Graves recalled his thinking at the time. “Like, I think the pitcher has facial hair … I’m done with this.”

He was drawn to the tone and timbre of the clarinet. “It’s known as being very similar to the human voice,” he said. “I think I’ve just been attracted to the sound it can make.”

Graves graduated from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and completed a Master of Music degree at the University of Southern California with additional studies at the Colburn School. He joined MSO as Principal Clarinet in fall 2010. A couple of years ago, he joined the Meridian Symphony Orchestra as well.

Graves also enjoys teaching quite a bit. He’s on the adjunct faculty at Millsaps College and Mississippi College, and teaches at Madison Central High and Jackson Prep, holds group lessons at Old Town Middle School in Ridgeland and usually helps out, too, with solo and ensemble musicians at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School each spring.

As he’s gotten older, Graves and his clarinet join in the musical fun at get-togethers with his father’s side of the family. He and his father will work up tunes together and play for fun, and at church events on occasion.

With Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, Graves is intrigued with its backstory as well as its musical verve. “The fact that it was written for Benny Goodman, that he commissioned it after the war, and just the whole history of what a big deal he was for swing and jazz music, but he was also interested in and very good at classical as well — that’s kind of a neat thing about this piece.”

Its unusual structure starts out slow and serene, and the cadenza features many of the jazz and swing elements Goodman was known for. Cool Latin American melodies and jazz populate the second movement. With the instrumentation of strings, harp and piano, there’s no percussion but slapping the basses and whacking the harp brings in that effect. Rehearsing with the harp, piano and clarinet reminds Graves a bit of a chamber music group. “It makes it a fun piece to play.”

The “Alluvial Soundscapes” concert flows with an enticing program that includes Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau, James Lee III’s new Visions of Cahokia and Claude Debussy’s La Mer. Plus, of course, Copland’s best-of showpiece for the clarinet, highlighting all of its range, appeal and virtuosity.