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For the love of clarinets...

 
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Friday, September 15, 2006

Santiago (Reuters): Workers in a small adobe house in a gritty area of downtown Santiago are quietly producing what many musicians consider to be the world's best clarinets, carving out a niche in a global trade dominated by two or three big manufacturers. The workshop of Argentine-born virtuoso clarinettist Luis Rossi is midway down a tidy lane of one-storey row houses, its exterior giving no clue to its importance in the rarefied world of professional clarinettists. The shop in Chile's capital is nearly silent as seven workers concentrate on forming wood and metal into concert instruments. The painstaking work contrasts with the mass production of the big clarinet makers. They include global giant Yamaha of Japan, which sells close to 3 billion dollars worth of musical instruments annually, as well as Leblanc and Selmer, owned by US-based Steinway.

''In a world dominated by two or three large manufacturers this is an example of a small-scale business succeeding, and the reason he succeeds is because his instruments are so good,'' Jane Ellsworth, Ohio State University music history lecturer and Kenyon College clarinet instructor, said of Rossi. ''It's a real miracle.'' Rossi, who is in his 50s, has built a loyal following over the last 15 years among major symphony orchestras, leading conservatories, acclaimed soloists and recording artists. Musicians wait more than a year for a Rossi clarinet and pay upward of 4,400 dollars. They say he is the only manufacturer who combines being a world-class performing artist with such a vast store of technical knowledge. ''There is nobody else,'' said Howard Klug, recording artist and professor at the Indiana University school of Music. ''It's an unusual situation.''

Rossi uses African blackwood from Mozambique for most of his clarinets. When the instrument bodies are complete they are given a 10-day oil treatment which crystallizes and is then buffed into the traditional lustrous black finish that gives the mistaken impression clarinets are made of ebony. ''Paquito'' reads a label on one of the wooden tubes that dry for years in the shop before they can become clarinets. ''Paquito D'Rivera wants us to make him a clarinet. It's amaranto wood from Costa Rica,'' Rossi said. D'Rivera, an acclaimed Cuban jazz and classical musician and winner of five Grammy awards, already owns three Rossi rosewood clarinets. ''The amaranto has been here for a year, and we'll see, it will depend on how impatient Paquito gets. We'll try to make him wait,'' Rossi said, explaining that his five-year natural drying process makes the instruments more stable than the three-day kiln-drying process of other manufacturers. Rossi dreams of improving his process by ageing the wood he uses even more.

''With our current stock of wood, in five years I will be making instruments from wood that's been allowed to naturally dry for 10 years,'' Rossi said. ''And that's good.'' Another difference in Rossi clarinets is the one-piece body design. It is harder to produce, but unlike the standard two-piece design, makes it possible to place toneholes exactly where they belong for accurate tuning. After the clarinets are built, Rossi puts each instrument through a rigorous two-week process of testing and final adjustment. ''Once an instrument is built it has to be played by a musician, and that's what I do,'' Rossi said. ''In large factories, for the thousands of instruments produced, you'd need an army of clarinettists, and it can't be done.'' For high-quality mass-produced instruments, clarinettists go to a dealer and try out 50 clarinets for a couple of days and then choose one. ''We, on the other hand make the clarinet for the performer. The complete opposite.

His busy schedule of recitals, concerts and master classes includes travel to Europe, Japan, North America and the rest of Latin America. Rossi uses his international career as a soloist and the prestige of his instruments to complement each other. Rossi clarinets, including 10 different standard models, as well as custom instruments, are built to the specifications of individual performers. Players praise Rossi's leadership in mechanical innovations, bore design and key configurations, but they also place an almost mystical importance on the final phase of the manufacturing process. ''I think it's his laying hands on the instrument. I do,'' Klug said. Rossi takes out one of the half dozen clarinets he is in the process of adjusting. He warms up with a series of scales that ripple flawlessly through the instrument's range, plays a solo and notes further refinements for his craftsmen to make. Rossi completes about six clarinets per month and would like to increase production without compromising the quality of the instruments.

''This business is really inefficient,'' Rossi admits. ''Once I talked with a businessman. He said 'How much does a clarinet cost? How many do you produce a month? How many people do you employ?' When I told him, he looked at me and told me I was crazy!''

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