Harry Sparnaay | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Harry Sparnaay


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At certain moments in the history of an instrument, a single player comes along and opens a whole new can of worms. Such is the case with Harry Sparnaay, the Dutch virtuoso whose astounding facility on the bass clarinet has inspired such heavyweights as Iannis Xenakis, Isang Yun, Morton Feldman, and Brian Ferneyhough (along with some 400 other composers) to write works specifically for him. His performance of "Echange," the chamber piece Xenakis wrote for him in 1989, on the Asko Ensemble's Live 1 (Attacca) shows the extent of his talents, from remarkable lyricism, gentle translucence, and bracing energy to complete mastery of extended techniques. In fact, Sparnaay's unreal chops at the fringes of traditional reed technique--multiphonics, slaptongue, and vocalization--have stretched the bounds of the instrument's possibilities like Silly Putty. Bass clarinet is already flexible, with a giant tonal range from rubbery subsonics to piercing tea kettle shrieks--either of which Sparnaay can access with startling ease. But on his solo CD, Ladder of Escape (Attacca), Sparnaay proves to be more than a mere technician; he's emotive, dramatic, at times given over to the great beauty of a line as much as the clear execution of a concept. In homage to the tremendous jazz bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy (who took the tune and made it his own), he plays the Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog Jr. standard "God Bless the Child," and he manages to make it both intellectually and romantically stirring. Sparnaay has visited Chicago only a few times before; this trip, he'll perform solo in the first of a series of first-rate concerts held in the resonant acoustic space of the Renaissance Society. The bill features works by Yun and Dolphy (or, perhaps, Herzog/Holiday), as well as Guus Janssen, Iris Szeghy, Claudio Ambrossini, Gerard Brophy, and Maurizio Pisati. Thursday, October 5, 7:30 PM, Renaissance Society, 4th floor, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis; 702-8670. Next Sunday, October 8, at 2 PM he plays with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra (along with other guest soloists Ernest Rombout on oboe and cor inglese and Harrie Starreveld on flute) at the Rubloff Auditorium, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; 329-0917.

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