There is, says Joshua Ranz, a key to playing Mozart well. It’s called singing.
“There is a grace and a nuance to Mozart,” says Josh, principal clarinet for New West Symphony who will perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto during NWS’ “Binging on Mozart” concerts April 15 and 16.
“You can play Mozart too over-the-top or too boring,” he continues, “so I tell my students, listen to his operas in order to play Mozart well, because it all comes back to singing. Pretend you are different characters and playing them all — the hero, the bad guy, the damsel in distress. That’s how you learn to sing Mozart on your instrument, and it’s where you find the fun and joy in playing Mozart.”
It is that lyrical approach to his instrument that has made Josh a critically-acclaimed and in-demand clarinetist for nearly three decades. In addition to his work with New West Symphony, Josh is the principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), has been a member of the Pacific Symphony since 1997, and performs regularly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Having previously played with the Honolulu and San Jose Symphonies, Josh performs regularly in music festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe, and has played on more than 150 soundtracks for such composers as John Williams, James Horner, Randy Newman, and Jerry Goldsmith. Recent films on which he has played include “Toy Story 3 and 4,” “Lady Bird,” “La La Land,” “Star Wars VII and IX” and “An American Pickle.”
And he clearly has an affinity for Mozart, having been a member of the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego for more than 10 seasons, serving as principal clarinet in the summer of 2011. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto — of which Josh will perform the third (Rondo) movement on April 15 and 16 — has been part of his repertoire since he performed it as a senior at New York City’s famed La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, and is considered one of the most important pieces ever written for clarinet.
“The clarinet is a relatively late addition to the woodwind family,” he notes, “and it was not really used until Mozart and his contemporaries introduced it as a staple in the orchestra. Mozart featured the bass clarinet in ‘Cosi Fan Tutti,’ and late in his life he was inspired by Anton Stadler, his friend and a virtuoso clarinetist, to write this concerto.”
The Clarinet Concerto became Mozart’s last major piece, completed just a few weeks before his death in 1791. The bass (or basset) clarinet itself was rarely played after Stadler’s death in 1812, and it wasn’t until the latter 20th century that the instrument returned to favor.
Josh Ranz was still a youngster then, growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, 10 miles north of New York City’s upper west side, when his mother encouraged him to play the clarinet. “I was playing recorder and piano, which I enjoyed,” he recalls, “but my mother wanted me to play in ensembles. So I tried the clarinet and discovered that I not only liked it, but was good at it.”
After graduation from La Guardia High School, Josh pursued undergraduate studies at Harvard, focusing on academic studies and playing in the orchestra “as an extracurricular activity. But I also studied composition and theory, and in my senior year I really pursued performance.
He earned his Bachelor’s and went to Yale’s School of Music for graduate work, where his role models there included David Shifrin, former principal clarinet of LACO, and Dennis Smylie, a freelance bass clarinetist in New York. “I wanted to really learn the instrument, and I was inspired by his style and sound,” says Josh, whose acclaimed 2021 CD “J.S. Bach: Three Cello Suites” was inspired by Smylie, “who showed me how you can play these on the bass clarinet.”
After earning his Master of Music from Yale, Josh landed his first job as bass clarinet with the Honolulu Symphony, then moved to San Jose and finally to Southern California in 1999. He has played two decades with New West Symphony, joining the core roster in 2012.
More recently, Josh joined the faculty of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, where he enjoys working with clarinet students and helping them find their voice, as it were, with their instrument — to make it sing.
“As wind players, we’re connected to the idea of singing, playing our instruments with a lyrical quality that is so important,” he explains. “That’s why I feel it’s really important to learn how to be an artist and not just a technician when you play the clarinet.
“Some students have great technique, but are rather bland musically. As a teacher, I don’t skimp on the technical part, because they need very good technique, and I can always help them improve. But as a personal goal, I encourage them to learn how to be expressive, because it’s good for them, it’s good for the music, and it’s more fun to teach.”
When he listens to prospective students, in fact, Josh says he prefers those “who are musically expressive, and maybe a little rough around the edges. With some students, I can hear how they need to come out of their shell. One of our graduating seniors was like that, kind of shy, but I heard something in him that needed to come out. He kept at it, let the expressive side come out, and now he’s wonderful.”
Sing, play, express and enjoy. It’s an approach that worked for Mozart, and it’s clearly worked for Joshua Ranz.
“Binging on Mozart” will be presented by New West Symphony on Saturday, April 15, 7:30 p.m., at Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center, Thousand Oaks, and on Sunday, April 16, 3 p.m., at Rancho Campana Performing Arts Center, Camarillo. Information: (866) 776-8400.
Written by Mike Nelson