Clarinet Quintet: “The Refugee”

take a listen to the live recording of the premiere performance:

commissioned by Art of Élan

(from Ljova’s interview with violist Hannah Nicholas)
I grew up listening to the Brahms Clarinet Quintet and Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind”, and wanted to see if I could contribute in a meaningful way to the genre. Of course, as a violist, we’ve also shared the Brahms Sonatas and the Clarinet Trio.As a young orchestral player (I grew up as a classically-trained violist), the clarinet was my least favorite instrument in the orchestra — I didn’t understand how it could blend in with the rest of the wind section. As a standard orchestral sound, the clarinet has a relatively plain tone, whereas the rest of the wind instruments have a beautiful natural vibrato. Then as I grew up, I started listening to other kinds of music, and found the lack of vibrato to be an asset.  I started thinking that the clarinet is wonderful, and it does have vibrato in some contexts, and it has so much inflection, flavor, and of course, immense range.  It eventually became my favorite wind instrument.

Then I discovered some incredible players – one of my favorite performances at Juilliard was playing in the orchestra on Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto with soloist Alex Fiterstein. Some of my favorite recordings are with jazz clarinetist Michel Portal, and the bass-clarinettist Michael Lowenstern.  And then over the years, I also got to know Kinan Azmeh, as a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, as a composer on his own. I’ve had him as a guest with Ljova and the Kontraband several times. I always learn from him, from his incredible musicianship the openness with which he gives and contributes, not only as a player but as a human soul and human being. Kinan and his story, his musicianship and his citizenship, as a citizen in the world and as a citizen of music, were a major part of the inspiration.

As I was writing this piece, the world was changing. The view toward immigrants was changing. The view towards multiculturalism was changing towards something more fearful, something unsympathetic and unkind. This was definitely something I wanted to discuss musically, and as part of that, I wanted to see if I could frame a piece by asking questions – by constructing phrases that were questions that would lead into more questions. Phrases that left each other unresolved, structures that would end up as a question mark. So much of the way we talk has a definitive cadence which leads to a period, or an exclamation point, some kind of certainty. I wanted to see if I could avoid these cadences, and find a way to keep the questions leading to bigger questions, and spin out continuously. This piece keeps coiling out from its beginning note  all the way until the very end —before finishing almost on the same note where it began — but transformed.

I wanted to subtitle the piece “The Refugee” because it is inspired by the plight by people who are running from persecution, from disrespect, from danger, from hunger, from lack of opportunities and basic needs. It is inspired by stories of people leaving their homeland, trying to find a home somewhere else, trying to find answers, to find basic ways to continue their life and find some level of comfort.

My parents and I left my native Moscow, Russia, in 1990, during a growing wave of instability and anti-Semitism. My father, Alexander Zhurbin, was (and remains) a celebrated Russian composer and performer — he was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where his family was evacuated during World War II; my mother Irena Ginzburg is a writer, poet and translator. Members of her family were shot by Stalin during his regime, her mother and uncle grew up as orphans.

I am a member of this refugee community. I feel much kinship with the community, and with the plight of the people running from uncertainty in their own homeland and trying to make a home here.

CATEGORY chamber music
INSTRUMENTATION clarinet, two violins, viola, cello
DURATION 17 minutes
WORLD PREMIERE January 31, 2017, San Diego Museum of Art
WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMERS Joshua Rubin (clarinet), Kate Hatmaker and Pei-Chun Tsai (violins), Ljova (viola), Abe Liebhaber (cello)
OTHER NOTABLE PERFORMANCES October 27 2017 — Bargemusic, NY with Kinan Azmeh (clarinet) and The Secret Quartet
April 12 2017 in Miami, FL with Brad Whitfield (clarinet) and members of the New World Symphony
RECORDING listen to the world premiere performance on this page. A studio recording is in the works.
SCORE AVAILABILITY A Perusal PDF score is available on request (contact Ljova). Parts and arrangements are available for sale via PDF or mail delivery; arrangements for combinations not listed above may be commissioned on request. [contact for more info]