Soft Sounds of the Chicago Symphony

World-Class Orchestra Masters Art of Intimate Playing

When the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra makes a rare Santa Barbara appearance at the Granada Theatre Saturday night, it will not be traveling with a big-name soloist. Rather, music director Riccardo Muti decided to spotlight a member of the orchestra: principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, who will play Mozart’s masterful Clarinet Concerto. “I’m very honored,” Williamson said in a recent interview from his Windy City–area home. “He could get anyone he wants! I’m trying to keep a level head about it.” He’s also trying to keep a toned body (more on that later).

Williamson, 47, earned a masters’s degree from the Juilliard School, was a Fulbright Scholar, and spent a decade in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra before coming to Chicago. He regularly works as a soloist and chamber musician, and he was a featured soloist in John Williams’s score for the film Lincoln.

How difficult is it to play Mozart well? Mozart, in my opinion, is one of the most difficult composers to execute, because it’s so refined. Playing Mozart the way we envision it in our heads is an impossible dream. The best approach I have is to think of it operatically — to vocalize the lyricism that he writes with. I practice a lot singing the lines. That allows me to, hopefully, capture moments like the recap in the second movement of the concerto, which I play as softly as possible.

Does that align with your conductor’s conception of the piece? Yes. Maestro Muti has such an affinity for soft playing. On this tour, we’re doing the Schumann Second Symphony. It has probably never been played softer, or in a more chamber-like way. You often hear that work played bombastically, but Muti takes a Mozartian approach.

This is a different era for the Chicago Symphony. He continues to push us to the utmost extremes of soft playing, which generates a different palate of color. Playing with power has never been a problem with this orchestra. But now we’ve expanded to intimate, chamber-like playing.

Your father was a high-school band director in Austin, Texas. How did you choose the clarinet? I’m the second oldest of four boys. My elder brother is a trumpet player. I was fascinated by the trumpet, and close to my 9th birthday, I asked my dad if I could also play it. He said, “I’m afraid you and your brother will be competitive with each other. Why don’t you pick a different instrument?”

I started on the saxophone for about two weeks. After hearing me play “Happy Birthday” for my uncle, my dad put his arm around my shoulder and said, “The clarinet is much harder. I don’t know — it might be too difficult for you.” I fell for that hook, line, and sinker. I said, “Do you have one? I’ll try it!” I immediately was on a mission to prove I could play the clarinet.

My dad gave me recordings by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, as well as classical artists like Robert Marcellus playing the Mozart concerto. He gave me a lot of examples of how incredible, and how diverse, the clarinet can be.

Do you need to stay in good physical shape to have the lung capacity to play your instrument? Yes. I have always been a big proponent of bodybuilding and weight training. In the last four or five years, I started taking up running as well. All of these things contribute to the stamina I need to project without sounding forced. I use an incredible amount of diaphragm pressure when I play — and an immense amount of air!


The Community Arts Music Association of S.B. presents the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday, October 21, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Tickets are $39-$119. Call 899-2222 or visit

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