With the blowing of a high C to conclude his performance in the Copland Clarinet Concerto on the night of June 9, Stanley Drucker added another milestone : his final solo performance with the New York Philharmonic at the Orchestra's home, Avery Fisher Hall : to one of the most remarkable instrumental careers in American orchestral history. And when the 167th season of the Orchestra ends in September, Mr. Drucker, at the age of 80 and after 60 seasons with the ensemble and 48 as its Principal Clarinet, will step into what can only very loosely be called retirement.
In the meantime, the Brooklyn-born Mr. Drucker can reminisce about a career that began when he left The Curtis Institute of Music to become the principal clarinet of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at age 16, and in which he joined the Philharmonic at age 19. Having worn out at least a couple of dozen clarinets in the ensuing decades, he looks back on having played for nine music directors (10 counting John Barbirolli, who, Mr. Drucker notes, was actually returning as a guest). He can recall the evolution of the Philharmonic, from the days when its personnel were mainly Europeans, through the 1960s under Leonard Bernstein, when women joined the Orchestra, to today's ensemble, comprising musicians who are "all dedicated to their art."
"The Orchestra is a living thing," Mr. Drucker says of the Philharmonic. "It has always maintained a certain standard, and it just goes on and on."
And so does he, speaking as he was looking forward to performances of the Copland Concerto : "commissioned by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman," in Mr. Drucker's words. The work was composed in the early 1940s and is scheduled to be heard on June 4, 6, and 9 in Avery Fisher Hall (as well as June 5, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and June 19, at Long Island's Tilles Center for the Performing Arts).
Mr. Drucker describes the Copland: "It's got the element of jazz or swing, if you want to call it that, and yet it has a classical underpinning." Besides "a very slow beautiful melody in the first half that could practically be a Mahler slow movement," he adds, "it has a wonderful solo section for clarinet that explores all the possibilities of virtuosic clarinet writing, followed by a rhythmic and exciting concluding section." From an audience's standpoint, he believes, "It is the kind of piece that will put a smile on everybody's face."
Mr. Drucker's recording of the Copland Concerto, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist/Classical with Orchestra in 1992; his 1982 recording of John Corigliano's Concerto, also with the Philharmonic but this time under the leadership of Zubin Mehta, received the same nod. Add to these honors his recordings of works by Debussy, Bolcom, and Nielsen, and his designation as Musical America's 1998 Instrumentalist of the Year: all are "in my time capsule," Mr. Drucker says.
Lorin Maazel, the current Philharmonic Music Director, has stated, "Stanley's going to go into the Guinness Book of Records, I'm sure. Nowhere in the world can you find a first-chair player who has occupied that chair for 60 years. Sixty. Six _zero. That's astonishing! He has set a standard which many have tried to emulate, and not many with much success technically or musically. A fantastic player."
Mr. Drucker can reflect on a pantheon of Philharmonic music directors. Bruno Walter: "The legendary musician. The man I auditioned for. Approached him like a holy relic." Leopold Stokowski: "The Hollywood version of a conductor in this ivory tower and unapproachable." Dimitri Mitropoulos: "I would say he was bigger than life : tremendous, dramatic, and powerful. Brilliant in every way." Leonard Bernstein: "There'll never be another one like him." George Szell: "He was a classicist, a no-nonsense person. He didn't suffer fools, and his love was in the classics." Pierre Boulez: "Another of my favorites. He is a musician who opened up a lot of eyes to how to perform the new music. His skill is tremendous. He could explain the most complex of thoughts and conducted with the same ease that a simple score might have. It is a great talent." Zubin Mehta: "Courageous, a great repertoire, probably the best accompanist for a soloist in conducting anywhere." Kurt Masur: "Another classicist, a man steeped in the classical tradition whose interest, I felt, was strongly in vocal music, in oratorios and works that employed large chorus." Lorin Maazel: "The last man standing from the era of the famous-name conductors. He is very methodical. He has a great memory, and he has a big repertoire."
Clearly Mr. Drucker has come a long way in the career that was set in motion when his parents : Joseph, a custom tailor, and Rose, a homemaker : gave him a clarinet on his 10th birthday, in 1939, during the heyday of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Mr. Drucker observes, "It was probably to get me to rise in the world and to do better than they did, and to concentrate on something, rather than just playing in the vacant lots, stickball or baseball."
And why the clarinet? "It must have been cheap," Mr. Drucker surmises. "Eighteen dollars and change."
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
So what's this about retirement? "I would say I've done it all at this point," Mr. Drucker observes. "There isn't a principal on any instrument in any orchestra at the age of 80."
Perhaps Mr. Drucker, whose wife, Naomi, is a clarinetist, director of her own chamber ensemble, and a member of the faculty at Hofstra University, can spend more time at home on the water on Long Island. Or check in with their children: Leon, a singer, bass player, and songwriter; and Rosanne, a singer and songwriter. And he can spend more time cruising the coastal waters on his 30-foot flybridge cabin cruiser.
Just don't expect him to set aside his clarinet. He'll still perform, giving concerts and conducting master classes. "A musician, like a painter perhaps, is never really retired,'' he says. "I'm not retiring from music. Music is part of me, and playing the clarinet is part of me, and I expect to do it as long as I have any breath left : and I will."
Lawrence Van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to 96.3 FM WQXR; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts.