Clarinetist Michael Collins and pianist Michael McHale will give the second of two recitals at the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul tonight. It’s the first clarinet recital on the Schubert Club International Artist Series, and it’s a doozy: four sonatas and two rhapsodies, one of which is a new piece by Abbie Betinis, a commission by the generous visionaries of the Minnesota Commissioning Club. This is not a review. The high road of the listener’s journey is Advocate Avenue (I suppose that makes Critic’s Circle the low road). In any case, I’m a listener, not a critic, and in this case, I’m biased: Abbie is a friend and colleague.

photo of Herbert Howells in tux

Howells in his 20s. (by permission of Jeffrey Carter.)

Among the discoveries in writing the program notes for this recital has been the chamber music of Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Howells was born in Gloucestershire, England, so his nature was rural rather than urban. But as a young man he was singled out as the most promising composer of his generation. The 1917 Piano Quartet was the first work published in the Carnegie Series of British Music, a signal honor at a time when Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Parry and Stanford were all still alive and scratching the page. Two years later, Howells wrote his Rhapsodic Quintet, a passionate and seldom-played work in one movement. If you enjoy the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms (and the pastoral music of the British composers above), this will be a welcome addition to your playlist. The quartet writing is virtuosic. (The violins literally vie for prominence.) The middle of the piece superimposes several meters in a furtive quest that leads to gentle fields. Howell’s Clarinet Sonata is on the program tonight.

Listening to rhapsodies has reminded me how important it is to represent the improvisatory spirit in musical programs. I’ve heard many concerto-heavy programs of late, and that bothers me. Concerto is the debate form of music. It’s a form of sonata, which is one mode of thinking: a goal-directed, highly organized discourse about contrast and unity. You don’t want too much of it, just as you don’t want to listen to too many campaign speeches or political panels. Rhapsody is the antidote. The journey is the goal. Getting lost is part of the fun. It’s the tale chasing its tail, which can be a pretty enjoyable pastime, whether you’re the reigning regal or the family beagle.

betinis and thomas holding pots

Betinis & DET, 2008

Abbie Betinis’s Rhapsodos is a voyage of melodies and textures that will quickly find a place in the recital repertoire, for it’s expressive, dramatic and playable. Listeners and critics alike will enjoy this piece. The audience yesterday responded immediately to its narrative, which plays with Odysseus’s journey in a way that somehow manages to embrace the epic and the intimate. Abbie’s harmonic language has always been distinctive; her ear leads the listener to unexpected yet fulfilling goals that feel new and right. Rhapsodos is no exception. But as abstract music it’s unusual in her output. I don’t think the audience was aware of the program behind some of the music, but it didn’t matter: the music stands—or rather, it floats, sails and arrives safely to a cheering crowd—on its own.

Michael Collins, Michael McHale in recital

7:30 PM, Saturday, March 19, 2016

Ordway Concert Hall, downtown Saint Paul. Tickets.

Pre-concert talk with DET and Abbie Betinis at 6:30