In April, Esquire magazine did a photo spread called “Symphony in Black,” profiling some on-the-rise musicians on today’s classical scene. All were young, talented, hip. One musician I was surprised to see didn’t make it into that piece is José Franch-Ballester, a 27-year-old clarinet whiz who is a native of Moncofa, Spain. New Yorkers take note: Franch-Ballester is giving a recital (free!) on July 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University. The concert is part of the summer-long series of free events in lower Manhattan called the River to River Festival.
There’s absolutely nothing bad-boy about Franch-Ballester (pronounced FrAHnk Bai-yess-TAIR), who judging from my recent conversation with him is completely down to earth and rather endearingly modest, considering his accomplishments and talent. He only mentions in passing that at age 27 he is simultaneously on the roster of three of the most prestigious organizations for classical musicians—Young Concert Artists, Astral Artistic Services, and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two. In 2004, a year before he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he won first prize at both the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and Astral Artistic Services’ National Auditions. Three years ago, when Franch-Ballester was 24, Anthony Tommasini gushed in the New York Times about his New York recital debut at the 92nd Street Y, with pianist Anna Polonsky, in which he easily conquered Messager’s showpiece “Solo de Concours” with “warm and alluring reedy tone and with brilliant technique,”demonstrated with Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor that he was a “musician of some depth,” then went on to play the New York premiere of Kenji Bunch’s whimsical Cookbook, ending with a chops-busting Fantasia on Themes from Rigoletto by Luigi Bassi. It seems that every concert or musical appearance by Franch-Ballester is met with some version of of dazed approval.
I spoke to Franch-Ballester on July 3, four days before his River to River concert.
Tell me about the program you’ve chosen for your River to River performance.
I’m playing the third rhapsody for clarinet and piano by Claude Debussy, which is really very atmospheric, and then I will play the second sonata by Brahms for clarinet and piano, and then after intermission, I will do the Poulenc sonata, and then finish with the Fantasy on Themes from La Traviata by Donato Lovreglio. My pianist is Anna Polonsky. We’ve done a few recitals together.
You seem to be doing an awful lot of traveling these days—you just returned from a trip to Panama and Japan. How much would you say you perform in the United States, and how much abroad?
I’d say 70 percent of my performances are in the United States. I am kept pretty busy through Young Concert Artists as management, plus I belong to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two, and Astral Artistic Services. When I have time I go a lot to Europe, and I go a lot to Spain. And I’ve just been in Japan for a few weeks, yesterday I came back from Panama city. I will be going go South America in September for a tour in Colombia, and in January I will be participating at the Cartagena International Music Festival in Colombia. Most of my tours are with piano, then I also tour a lot with orchestras, and I do a lot of chamber music … I love playing chamber music. It’s my number 1 thing right now.
Would you say chamber music is a bigger focus for you right now? Especially since you’ve been a member of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two, I would imagine that has moved you in that direction.
I wouldn’t say it’s bigger … I’m 27 years old, and it is like a new shape. For me there is solo with orchestra, recital programs, and chamber music, and I like to do all three as much as I can, because I learn a lot from all of them. To be a better soloist with orchestra I do more chamber music, or vice versa. But of course with clarinet you cannot have the same amount of solo appearances with orchestra as a pianist, so I have to balance that with chamber music and solo recitals.
You play a fair amount of new music on your programs. Among other pieces, in 2004 you played in the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s song cycle Winter Roses with Frederica von Stade, and just this past February you played the world premiere of Paul Schoenfield’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. How important is it to you to play new music?
Very important. Just two weeks ago, I premiered another piece, a commission from a friend of mind, John B. Hedges, at the Delaware Chamber Music Festival. He is a composer I connected with through Curtis, because what happens is everybody leaves [the conservatory and] goes to different places, and you don’t see your friends for years. One day I met up with John; he does all kinds of R&B music, and when I heard that music, my mind just started thinking clarinet, based on these rhythms. So I asked him, would you like to write me a piece in three movements, with New Orleans rhythms, for recital? Also I do lot of education programs, and I thought it would be a great piece for those activities. So he wrote the piece and called it Gumbo. The premiere at the Delaware festival went very well. I’m going to start playing the Paul Schoenfield piece on my recital programs for next season. I also premiered another piece in 2004 called Cookbook, by Kenji Bunch, which I’ve also recorded; it’s one of my favorite pieces to play. I really think it’s very important to every year collaborate with a composer, to have a personal connection and approach with them while they are writing the piece. I also play a lot of contemporary music, like I’m always playing new music … I just want to learn everything.
Tell me about your family—you were born into a family of clarinetists and zarzuela singers. Which members of your family are the musicians?
My parents are not musicians. My father was involved with a nonprofit organization for music, but all my uncles and aunts were musicians. My great grandfather was a clarinet player, and most of the family were all musicians, most of them nonprofessional. They just did it because they loved it. In Spain in 1950, all my aunts sang zarzuela, but they say they preferred to be with the family rather than tour around Europe. Where I’m from, you have a family; that’s just what they did. Those of them that wanted to start a professional career, many of them are in Spain and around the world, working. It’s a very musical family that is growing; all my cousins even 11 and 12 years old are fantastic musicians, very musical. Two of them play clarinet. The most prominent ones play clarinet, but we have also oboe players, horn players. As far as zarzuela is concerned, no so many people go to performances these days; the young generation prefers to go to Broadway style musicals.
If someone had never heard you play before, is there a way they could identify your sound or style, closing their eyes and just listening?
I would say a lot of character and personality through my background growing up in Spain. And since I was little, I loved all kinds of music. I was the kind of person who would listen at age 15 to 16 Aranjuez or Mahler or maybe go to John Adams or a tango, Piazzolla. I just have this love for all kinds of music. The recital in New York this Monday will be a very classic recital, but I also do recitals where there is nothing classic at all, where there is music from South America and Piazzolla, and in a way I guess I have many faces. I decided to do these classical concerts in New York because I kind of feel that I need to settle as a classical artist.
Who have been your most important influences—musical and otherwise?
Chronologically, probably the most important person to me was my cousin Venancio Rius. He is a wonderful clarinet player, and a mentor to me since I was very little. He taught me as a musician and as a person and clarinet player until I came to the United States. To have a person like him being next to me all the time, taking care of me—I was very lucky to have a person like him as a teenager sharing the love with music with me. He is a very grown-up person. When I went to Curtis in Philadelphia, the school was like a dream come true, to see so many people who shared so much love for music. In Spain I didn’t find so many people like me, but when I came to Philly, everybody was like I am. Every music teacher I had at Curtis, every music student there, was a huge influence on me.
Are you starting to feel like an American? You are based in Philadelphia now.
Home to me will always be Spain, of course, but I really like living here, and the U.S. is so important for me for my musical career, and I also love being here. I do spend most of my time now in the U.S.
What do you do in New York when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
Well, I am usually very very busy with the Chamber Music Society, or with my pianist. But New York is an unbelievable city with so much stuff going on, I try as much as possible to get to a lot of museums. I go a lot to the Met, because it’s a big museum, there is always new stuff. I also spend a lot of time doing photography, and that’s one of the things I do when I travel, I carry my camera and lenses with me and wake up early in the morning, and get great shots, and spend like two or three hours, and then I go do whatever I have to do, with orchestra or pianist, and then back at the hotel, I set up the photos with Photoshop … Of course, when I travel I go a lot to concerts, movies, to the museum. Today I’m probably going to go to the Museum of Modern Art, and walk around and then I will improvise.