When he was 10 or 11, Frank Renk asked his mom to buy him a saxophone.
When she came home from the music store with a clarinet, he wasn’t convinced. But then she got a recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, the only piece Mozart ever wrote for the instrument. Renk was hooked on the instrument’s woody sound, its resonance and depth, he told me.
He’s now one of the best clarinetists in the state, Orchestra Nova’s executive director told me. This weekend, he’s playing the solo in that very Mozart piece that first won him over, performing with Orchestra Nova in three performances this weekend.
For clarinetists, this piece is the gold standard. Every time they audition for jobs with orchestras or smaller groups, they’re asked to play the first section.
“This is our absolute main piece,” Renk told me.
Orchestra Nova’s not his only gig. He also plays in the San Diego Symphony, and his wife is that orchestra’s lead clarinetist. The couple thinks they’re the only such pair in the same section — there are only three clarinet positions in the city’s biggest symphony.
Renk said he feels his work is more than just a job, that he misses it when he goes on vacation. I liked his articulation of how an orchestra works differently from someone who learns an instrument but doesn’t learn the compromises and cues of playing in a group.
“Everybody has their own little part that they are responsible for, but they have to fit that in with everybody else in the orchestra,” he said. “And they have to reconcile what they’re doing and what the conductor’s doing and what the soloist is doing and we have to kind of meet half way and adjust.”
That’s not a given for just every person who’s a talented musician, he said.
“There are a lot of players out there that can play notes. And they get into orchestra and they can’t do what I just said. They just kind of go off on their own little thing. And they don’t last. It just doesn’t work. They don’t hear the whole thing. They just hear the straight and narrow.”
Our media partners at NBC 7/39 joined me at Renk’s rehearsal with the orchestra yesterday. We went behind the scenes to find out what it’s like to play the solo. And we had to ask: Who’s better, Renk or his wife?
Update: Here’s the clip:
And here’s some raw video NBC shot of Renk rehearsing with the orchestra this week in preparation for the concerts: