By Alyssa Pry
Talking to Jeffrey Hodes, the principal clarinetist for the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, you’re immediately struck by his excitement and enthusiasm for just about, well, everything. Over the course of our interview, we discussed his job as a software engineer at Google: “I freaking love computer science”; discovering the Brooklyn Wind Symphony after a friend encouraged him to join: “That’s awesome, I found a good group!”; to his preparations for his performance of David Maslanka’s Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble: “Playing a concerto is always super fun.”
Hodes will be performing Maslanka’s concerto at the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s “Postcards” concert on June 13th, before performing it with the group at the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) in July. While most people may find the prospect of playing a twenty-minute clarinet concerto in front of hundreds of people daunting, for Hodes, it’s simply an opportunity to continue to follow his passion for music.
“I’m super happy with how I’ve ended up being able to play a lot of clarinet non-professionally,” Hodes said. “Brooklyn Wind Symphony is one of those high-level groups for non-professionals and it’s super fun that I get to play with them.”
Hodes may not be professional clarinetist, but he’s managed to create a life where it plays a major part. He attended Princeton University and played with the Princeton University Orchestra and other chamber groups, an experience he describes with trademark enthusiasm as “a blast.” After graduating, he was offered a position at Google Headquarters in California, but chose the tech company's New York office, in part for the city’s unbeatable music scene.
“I decided I wanted to live in New York instead, in no small part because of the music community here,” he said. “Not only are the best orchestras here, but as a non-professional, you can take lessons and practice and play with other great people,” he said.
Hodes also performs with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, as well as in various chamber groups. The opportunity to play with BKWS involved a bit of happenstance and good timing—both he and BKWS clarinetist Sarah Cohen were subbing for players with the New York Doctor’s Symphony, and Cohen asked if he would be interested in joining her group.
“I was like sure, because I was new to New York and was like, ‘I want to play in everything,’” he said.
But what stuck with Hodes initially was not his immediate success within the ensemble, but an early chastisement from conductor Jeff Ball.
“I was playing and I got told off by Jeff Ball for playing too loud in the first rehearsal,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a really good sign when you get told off in a rehearsal; that means the group is playing at a high enough level that your mistakes are noticeable and worth mentioning.”
And now, Hodes has the opportunity to play with the enthusiasm he had in that first rehearsal as he tackles Maslanka’s Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble. Written in 2014, there have been no published recordings of the piece, which gives Hodes the opportunity to explore and interpret it in his own way.
“This is the classic question—when you’re reading a poem, should you care what the author’s intent was or should you read it however you want? [Maslanka] wrote it, but we’re performing it,” Hodes said. “And part of the fun of being a musician is interpreting the music and playing it in an interesting or compelling way.”
For Hodes, that’s meant looking at the piece as a whole, and how he fits into it within the context of the ensemble.
“It’s an interesting piece. Unlike a lot of concertos, where it’s a solo line, and then goes back to the orchestra and they never really step over the soloist, [here] the instruments are playing with the soloist or playing in direct harmony,” he explained. “It’s really about the clarinet and one or two other sections at any given moment. It’s a very active collaboration with people in the band.”
But working towards a high level of performance has meant daily practices for Hodes, often in some unexpected places.
“I am definitely practicing this every day. [And] I’ll do weird stuff—because I don’t want to get noise complaints at my apartment, I’ll walk back to my office at midnight if I don’t have anything else to do and practice for 2-3 hours,” he said.
Aside from working out the technical elements of the piece, Hodes’ goal is to feel confident in his playing.
“With a concerto, you obviously have to practice a lot so you’re confident. From my experience, if I’m like, ‘I got this,’ then I won’t get too nervous,” he said.
And if mistakes happen?
“You have to keep in mind—the audience isn’t waiting for you to mess up so they can go, ‘Oh! He messed up! What a loser!’” Hodes said. “They’re here to listen to it, but if you miss a note, everyone understands.”
Hodes’ laid-back attitude towards playing has kept him grounded and calm during his practice and preparation, but if David Maslanka decides to make an appearance to hear his performance of the challenging concerto, Hodes may have to deal with those nerves after all.
“I think knowing that David Maslanka is in the audience might make me a little more nervous,” he said, laughing. “[But] I want him to think, ‘What a nice interpretation this group gave.’”