Slavko Popovic, Principal Clarinet of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), has a number of reasons to be excited for Prokofiev + Mahler with Yefim Bronfman on Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1. “This one of my favourite programs, I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I got the job,” he says. “Mahler’s 4th symphony is the first Mahler I ever heard live, and it’s my favourite Mahler symphony.”
On top of that, he adds, guest soloist Yefim Bronfman is the absolute best musician to perform the first piece on the programme, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor. “I’ve listened to various recordings of his, and I’ve heard him play it live in Toronto when I was a kid, and he just owns this piece,” Popovic says. “So it’s really exciting to get to actually play it with him this time.
“It’s quite avant-garde, very sarcastic, aggressive music — not so much melodic material — but it’s really a showpiece for the piano and the orchestra,” he adds, describing it as a conversation between the soloist and the musicians.
As for the symphony, relatively speaking, the 4th is the smallest and shortest of Mahler’s works. “He calls it his chamber piece,” Popovic says. “There are no trombones or tubas, so orchestration is much smaller, more intimate compared to the others. That might be why I like it — it has more of the chamber music feel.”
There’s also another element of the symphony that appeals to Popovic as a clarinetist — for the oboes and clarinets, there are various sections where Mahler writes “bells up.” “Basically it’s for visual effect, but it’s also to highlight a particular phrase that those instruments are playing,” he explains. “You literally put your bell up, above the whole orchestra, and it creates a very crass sound. I remember when I heard that live, and oboes and clarinets were putting their bells up, and I was like, ‘Woah!’ I thought that was the coolest thing ever!”
Popovic, who joined the CPO in September of 2018 for his first Season with a professional orchestra, says it’s been great, although it’s also been a big learning curve compared to college. “The preparation is much more intense… because you have to always be ready for the next week,” he says. “I can’t really hide in my position, and that took a little bit of adjustment, being on the hot seat all the time.
“Before I had this job, my teachers would always say, ‘You know, the audition is the easy part.’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? How is that easy?’ But now that I’m here, I know what they mean, because the audition is the only time, really, where you’re in absolute control of the rhythm and phrasing and overall interpretation.”
This Season had several spotlight moments for Popovic’s role as Principal Clarinet and he welcomed the chance to play major solos as part of an orchestra. “It’s really cool to finally sit there and see what it feels like to play with colleagues around you. It’s much more enjoyable, and I’ve gotten comments from some of my older colleagues — for them, it’s very interesting to hear how I play certain solos, comparing it to my predecessor, because they were used to him for the last 40 years or so, and now they hear a completely different take. Hopefully, it’s positive and not negative!”