George Silfies is one upon whom the phrase "éminence grise" rests suitably. He is tall, ably built, and conveys a sly wit. He has been positioned in the center, literally, of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as Principal Clarinet for more than 30 years. Silfies' photo in the north wing of the Powell Hall lobby, taken when he first arrived and Walter Susskind was Music Director, shows an apparently stern and serious musician. He still comes off as gruff and irascible, but mostly he seems like a lot of fun.
Silfies' first solo with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, was in 1970, his first year with the organization. This month, as he prepares to retire at the end of the current season, he will present his final soloãthe Mozart Clarinet Concerto. "Not a bad piece," Silfies deadpans.
To the novice listener, the concerto sounds like a musician's workout, with Mozart writing to display the range and capabilities and pleasures of an instrument he especially admired, and which was just being developed near the end of the composer's life. But Silfies, who has played the concerto a number of times over his long career, scoffs at the idea that it is a challenge.
"In the days it was written it presented a lot of challenges," he says. "A lot of those challenges have disappeared. It's not technically a difficult piece. There are a few areas where you have to be sober. The difficulty is the musicalityãthe communication to the listener. The slow movement is one of the most beautiful pieces Mozart ever wrote."
Even with his familiarity with the concerto, Silfies emphasizes that, because it's by Mozart, the solo part is ever-changing. "Mozart didn't write too much in the way of crescendos, diminuendosãhe left it up to the performer," he explains. "In Mozart's time, improvisation was the name of the game. He often didn't write cadenzas. He left it up to the musician to do what he wanted. Mozart is not a straitjacket composer. You're not bound. So I add a few notes here and there, but I do it out of conviction. Purists say, 'Mozart didn't write that!' That's their problem."
Silfies, however, isn't contemplating any problems with his conductor for the concerto, Nicholas McGegan. "He's enthusiastic," Silfies says. "When I found out he was going to conduct, I was delighted. I know him well enough that he'll get a kick out of the things I do."
Those things include ideas Silfies might come up with while driving in his car, or at the moment of performance on the stage, or from out of his pencil-marked score. "I started with an unedited edition of the concerto," he says, "and over the years I have added my own diacritical marks. With Mozart you add notes here and there, but you do not subtractãjust little ornaments here and there that seem to fit.
"The piece is a challenge to keep it from sounding stodgy. It's not a boring piece, but I've heard some performances where I wish I was doing something else."
When Silfies is asked about reeds, which some musicians carve from imported woods and tend with an epicure's care, he grunts with disinterest. "I do not make my own reeds, although I adjust them. I'm selecting reeds for the concerto now, but I'm not a reed freak. I've been fortunate enough to find commercial reeds." As he selects the reeds for his final solo turn, he looks for "response, intonation, quality of soundãbut then you always want a reed like that whatever you're playing, concertos or oompah-pah."
Silfies considers Mozart a generous composer. "Mozart gives you space to breathe," he says sagely. "There are a few stretches where I have to train students to do something with one breath. It can be done without problems. You want to keep that long line."
"That long line" is a worthy goal to accomplish, whether in a musical work or a musical life. It is a goal that George Silfies has achieved with distinction.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.