Surely no one could have imagined, years ago in Amarillo, the barren middle of the Texas panhandle, that a young kid would take take up first the piano, then the clarinet, and later traverse a complex path spanning not only great geographic distances but also large musical ones, eventually landing in Madison, teaching clarinet at the University, playing solo and chamber-music concerts and serving as the principal clarinetist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but Linda Bartley has done just that, as much to her own surprise as anyone else's. Not only is she a consummate artist on a very difficult instrument, she is also a friendly, relaxed, easy-going, and extremely down-to-earth person.
Bartley's heavenly playing is well known to MSO audiences, as several concerts during the season just concluded easily confirm, but on Saturday evening, May 9th, she will appear as soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, in a performance at the First Congregational Church, of what is without much serious argument the greatest of all works for her instrument, Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major, K. 622.
"It's a long way from where I grew up, on Short Street in Amarillo," Bartley says with a smile, "a one-block connector between downtown and out-of-town." She is utterly without pretense. "We finally got a piano at home so I wouldn't have to bother the neighbor across the street by playing hers." Serious though she was, she didn't set out to be a professional musician. "I wanted to be a veterinarian, but Texas A & M was not admitting women in 1967, so I spent a year at West Texas State, then headed to Michigan State, where I took a double major in piano and clarinet."
A key influence on Bartley at Michigan State was the clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, who played in a trio with her violinist husband. "I didn't -- and still don't -- make extensive plans or try to map out my future," she says. "I stayed at Michigan State until I had a master's degree in Music Education, then did a gig in Costa Rica sponsored by the Peace Corps. From there I headed east, where I studied with the principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony, Harold Wright. One thing I gained from him was an appreciation of vocal technique." Her playing now clearly demonstrates great sensitivity to the vocal shaping of a motivic or melodic line. Except in its lowest and highest registers the clarinet sound offers a seamless legato and in timbre matches the smoothness of the human voice more closely than any other orchestral instrument, features that in hands as skillful as Bartley's permit uncommonly expressive musicianship.
"I did odd jobs to support myself, like ushering at Symphony Hall, but after my dad's death, I took some lessons with Robert Marcellus, principal of the Cleveland Orchestra, though I studied mainly with Peter Hancock, the second-chair clarinetist." Bartley then set out to work in the real world, first at SUNY-Fredonia, followed by six years at Western Ontario University in London, "which is sort of the Indiana University of Canada," meaning a very strong music program. Along the way were stints at the Tanglewood Festival in the Berkshires, two years teaching at Arkansas State, time in Connecticut, even a period teaching band in a middle school. "I just moved when I felt it was time," she says. "For some reason, I've always been excited by change, rather than afraid of it."
Bartley, who has just last month finished her Doctor of Musical Arts degree, seems settled enough at the moment, enjoying her opportunities here in Madison, especially teaching. "Students these days arrive with the idea of playing with CD-like perfection in their minds. We have to help them get in touch with more realistic expectations." Her performer aspect gets renewed and revivified every summer at the International Clarinet Conference, associated with the eight-week Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming. "It's a very high-quality event," Bartley observes, "with principal players from all over the globe giving up high salaries and fees to participate in orchestral and chamber-music events of great variety and richness. I like to hike too, and be outdoors, and for that it's a perfect environment."
Even so, she has dreams left to fulfill, I discovered. "There's an Australian tour in 2000 that I'd love to join. My attitude is to stay open to opportunities, then decide what to do. My philosophy is: 'Apply for everything and take what you can get.' It makes life an adventure."
Bartley's zest for adventure in both life and music will surely be gratified by the upcoming WCO concert. The Clarinet Concerto comes at the end of Mozart's miraculous productiveness and will flanked by earlier works, both symphonies, No. 25 in G Minor (the "little G minor," to distinguish it from the more famous 40th) and No. 31 in D Major, the "Paris" symphony, one of the master's most upbeat works. All in all, pretty irresistible fare.
Isthmus, May, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson