It’s not often that musicians get to work with Esa-Pekka Salonen both as a soloist and from the orchestra. For Spanish clarinetist Cristina Mateo Sáez, this Thursday’s performance with Salonen and the Colburn Orchestra will be an opportunity to do just that. A seasoned Conservatory student of five years, Cristina played with the Colburn Orchestra in the 2015 Celebrate Colburn gala concert that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted. For Thursday’s concert at The Soraya in Northridge, she’ll collaborate with him as a soloist on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, provoking a completely new perspective of working with the esteemed conductor.
Even before rehearsals began, she met with Salonen to discuss musical choices for the concerto like tempi and ritardandos. They worked together to decide on the direction for the piece to implement during rehearsals with the orchestra. “It’s really a big honor to be soloing with him, especially playing this wonderful piece,” Cristina shared during an interview.
Since it was one of the last pieces he composed, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is near and dear to the hearts of many clarinetists. For Cristina, it’s especially meaningful. The last time she performed it was during the final round of the prestigious Jacques Lancelot International Clarinet Competition in 2016, after which she won second prize.
As her first international competition, the Lancelot competition was eye opening. It taught her what to expect from a competition of its size and stature, and how to prepare for it. This involved many hours practicing in a practice room, of course, but also included mental preparation like score studying and visualizing. “There’s a lot that people don’t see,” she explained. This insight will be crucial as she plans for her second international competition coming up this March.
Although it is not the first time Cristina has performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, she still considers it one of the most difficult concertos for clarinet. Some clarinetists might think of it as less technically challenging, but according to Cristina, “There are so many different colors and textures. The character and style have to be right.”
In addition to the artistic challenges it presents, the concerto was also written for the basset clarinet, which has extra lower notes than the usual A clarinet that is played. When adjusting the score to fit the A clarinet, players must demonstrate skillful technique with their air and fingers to make the low notes sound even. “It’s hard to make it sound easy,” Cristina laughed.
It helps that Cristina studies with one of the best clarinet teachers today, Yehuda Gilad, who she met at a master class in Spain when she was 16. After a few lessons with him, she decided that she wanted to study with him, and worked to apply to Colburn. “I’m really thankful for him. His help, support, and guidance have been a big part of this and I would never be here or playing this concerto without him,” she expressed. “I’m also really thankful to the school and the great opportunities they offer to all their students.”
Coming to Los Angeles was a big change for Cristina at 18, especially since it was the first time she moved away from her hometown in Almería, on the southeast coast of Spain. It was a completely different world for her, with a different culture and a language she barely spoke at the time. Thankfully, she didn’t find it too hard to adjust. “I’m really happy I did that,” she said. “It’s been great.”
It also helps to have family around, which Cristina accomplished by suggesting that her sister Elena, a bassoonist, apply to the Music Academy. “I told her, you’re going to have to work really hard, but you should try,” said Cristina. Despite infrequent visits home, the two sisters are now able to support each other and celebrate successes together.
Going home to Spain is not yet on Cristina’s radar. After Thursday’s concert with Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Colburn Chamber Music Society concert on February 10, and the Nielsen International Clarinet Competition in March, she’ll continue taking orchestra auditions to see where she ends up. “My goal is to play in an orchestra and do solo and chamber music as well. I really love each one of them.”