Friends and family intertwine within the music career of clarinetist Franklin Cohen. A local audience will get to experience the friendship during the final concert of the 2016-2017 season of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit (CMSD). The program will offer a reunion of sorts as Cohen performs one of three Brahms selections with long-known members of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.
“This is a bunch of good friends getting together, and it will be lots of fun,” says Cohen, co-artistic music director of ChamberFest Cleveland and principal clarinet emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra.
“I have known Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson for many years; we met when we were kids, practically. Joseph Kalichstein and I were in school together — so this is going to be a very special treat.”
Cohen has also played with Robinson over the last few years, as well as Laredo although he’s not involved with the piece Cohen will be playing.
Richard King, also associated with the Cleveland Orchestra, will be heard on the French horn in the program that includes Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello in A minor; Trio for Piano, Violin and French Horn in E-flat major; and Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 2 in C major.
“The piece I’ll be playing is from Brahms’ most introspective and beautiful period, and it’s a privilege to play that,” Cohen explains. “He wrote these pieces late in his career.
“After deciding to retire, Brahms heard clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld, who inspired him to write four major pieces for clarinet in different combinations.”
Cohen, who has performed once before for the CMSD, also feels a special relationship with instrumental instructors in Michigan. While growing up in New York, he spent two summers at Interlochen during his high school years. As a professional, he has given master classes at the winter academy on invitations from two of his students who went on to teach.
Then there’s family.
With a mother who taught piano and practiced for hours, Cohen built his appreciation for music as a very young child, finding a place underneath the keyboard as she played. Because of her, he got to know the piano literature.
Although learning the piano from his mom, Cohen felt she was harder on him than other students and quit. Her response was to take him to a music store and let him choose another instrument. After looking over five, he picked the clarinet.
With studies at Juilliard, a turning point in his career happened in the 1960s, when he became the first clarinetist awarded a top prize at the International Munich Competition. It was the same year another top prize went to soprano Jessye Norman.
While building credentials as a soloist, recording artist, chamber performer and teacher, Cohen traveled the world making appearances, enjoying hiking as recreation. He and late wife, bassoonist Lynette Diers Cohen, served as career inspiration for their two children. Diana Cohen became a violinist as Alexander Cohen chose timpani and percussions. Both work full-time with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I think our children liked the way our house felt with someone always playing an instrument or teaching or rehearsing with friends,” Cohen says. “They liked the lifestyle and what musicians represented.
“My late wife and I would bring them to festivals, and they loved being around the musicians there, hearing the great music and going to these fun places in the summer.”
Diana Cohen, who had the idea for ChamberFest Cleveland and partners with her dad for administering the program, has recorded with him. Together they performed Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, an epic telling of the history of Judaism.
With his son, Cohen has worked on commissions.
Every fall, Cohen volunteers to play during the Yom Kippur observance and plans programs for a Cleveland synagogue, where he has opened the repertoire so that it’s not just Jewish. Occasionally, he has participated in klezmer concerts.
Besides performing and teaching (whether at the Cleveland Institute of Music or as a visiting artist), Cohen works on the instrument itself.
“For many years, I’ve been fabricating my own clarinet mouthpieces,” says Cohen, whose chamber music engagements have included the Marlboro and Sante Fe festivals. “I started experimenting with mouthpieces because I never really cared fully for the sound of the instrument. I had something else in my brain and wasn’t able to achieve it on conventional equipment.
“My outlook originated when I was a kid. To make me practice, my mother would say, ‘Frank, don’t blow into the clarinet; sing into the clarinet.’ Because of that, I’ve always treated the clarinet as a vocal instrument, not a blowing instrument.”
This summer, another musician will enter the Cohen family. Pianist Roman Rabinovich, who will be featured playing at the June ChamberFest Cleveland, will marry Diana Cohen.
“Chamber music tied my whole life’s work together because it can be played with people who get to know each other well by rehearsing, working together and hanging out afterwards,” Cohen says. “It all gets to feel like family, and with my festival, we’ve tried to create three weeks of family. That’s why I do it.” •