Performance, Recording, and Composition Reviews

Composition Reviews

The New York Times - " excellent clarinetist" - James Oestereich, 1/23/91

The Philadelphia Inquirer - "...especially admired the beautifully inflected phrases" - Lesley Valdes, 3/29/89

The Boston Globe - "The MET Clarinet section is a miracle." - Richard Dyer, 5/3/00

The Village Voice - "...slenderly eloquent" - Leighton Kerner

Gramophone Magazine - "Clarinet magic," "Osborn is a master of all he purveys. He is flexible and expressive..."- Donald Rosenberg, October, 2005

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer - "The excellent clarinetist Sean Osborn was the soloist." - Richard Campbell, 5/22/06

The Tacoma News Tribune - "...Osborn's easy, lovely tone lent it nuance and depth."
"The 'Hillandale Waltzes'... a marvelous vehicle for Osborn's virtuoso skills." - Jen Graves, 3/4/02

Oggi - "...bravura technique" - Franco Corsaro

Fanfare - "Sean Osborn...plays with rhythmic verve and extraordinary control of dynamics" - Susan Kagan, Nov/Dec 2005

American Record Guide - "...a supreme pleasure." " sparkles." "...Osborn and the quartet hook the listener right away with their beautiful sound, polished technique, great teamwork, perfect balance, and superb musicianship." - Patrick Hanudel, Nov/Dec 2008

The Buffalo News - "...absolutely delightful" - Mary Kunz Goldman, August 10, 2008

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer - "Osborn has a mellow tone and fast fingers..." - Richard Campbell, 1/23/09

Gannet Suburban Newspapers - "Osborn [has] the ability to describe attractively shaped musical arcs with his fluid tone." - Francis Brancaleone, 2/13/94

The Seattle Times - "The quality of woodwind playing was extremely high, with beautifully subtle clarinets..." - Melinda Bargreen, 3/5/05

Gramophone Magazine - "Splendid flexibility and expressive range..." "Osborn brings mellifluous beauty and agile ease to Rose's creations." - Donald Rosenberg, September, 2007

Classical Voice of North Carolina - "...sheer beauty and clarity..." "His tone was smooth and silky, especially in the elegiac adagio movement, which conveyed the deep passion of the entire work." - W. Gerald Cochran, 3/13/07

The Clarinet - "His playing is exemplary in all aspects - tone, articulation, dynamic control, legato, and his technical work is a model of fluency and ease." " inspiration..." "Highly recommended." - David Ross, 12/07

The Clarinet - "Osborn went on to demonstrate the effortlessness of his technique in a performance of Francaix's pyrotechnical Concerto." - Timothy R. Anderson, 12/98

L'Orfeo - "The clean performance of the Quintet in A Major K. 581 shows not only the beauty of the Osborn's sound, but his purified technique and wide expressive abilities." - Ivan Martinez, April 2009

The Clarinet - "Sean Osborn's playing is wonderful - beautiful sound, impeccable intonation, and excellent interpretations." "Buy it!" - David Niethamer, 9/04 (full review below)

Classics Today - "Osborn's impeccable technique and evenly modulated tone transcend these works' didactic purpose in order to make music." - Jed Distler, 7/24/07 (click link for full review of Rose CD)

American Record Guide "Osborn plays with great energy and personality, and his technical command is second to none. His blazing fingers can handle any passage, his dynamic range runs from the inaudible to the shrieking, and his catalog of extended techniques is vast and impressive." Patrick Hanudel, May/June 2013

Composition Reviews

Meditation and Funk
The Clarinet - "...beautiful, slow first movement..." "...exquisite sonorities..." "...groovy..." "A favorite..." - Margaret Thornhill, June 2017

Concerto for Chamber Orchestra
City Arts - "...unusual and consistently engaging." " It feels impressionistic, like a Monet in soft colors." ""- Philippa Kiraly, April 10, 2017

Quintet for Clarinet and Strings "The Beatles"
Hoefner Volksblat - "...catchy...dissonant...oblique...impetuous..." - Lilo Etter, July 1, 2013

Bits and Pieces and Character Pieces
American Record Guide - "His compositions are inventive and cheeky..." - Patrick Hanudel, May/June 2013

Character Duets
The Clarinet - "Sean becoming one of the leading composers of engaging and fun-to-play clarinet chamber music..." - Gregory Barrett - December 2012

Quartet No. 1 for Four B-flat Clarinets
Fanfare - "...most engaging" - Ronald Grames, May/June 2010

Quartet No. 1 for Four B-flat Clarinets - "An elegant and concise score." - Steve Schwartz, 2010

Quartet No. 1 for Four B-flat Clarinets
The Clarinet - "Sean Osborn wrote this delectable quartet destined to be loved by audiences." - Michele Gingras, 12/04

Full American Record Guide review of Sean Osborn plays Mozart

American Record Guide, November/December 2008
Patrick Hanudel

The task of reviewing clarinet discs inevitably leads to an over-familiarity with the "classics" of the repertoire, as most clarinetists who think they are worth their salt cannot resist putting their own stamp on them. Every now and then, however, one of them makes this "task" a supreme pleasure. Here, former Metropolitan Opera Orchestra clarinetist and University of Washington faculty member Sean Osborn and the Ballard Quartet, a group of Seattle-area string players, present an all-Mozart program. The Quintet is always a good lead-off, and Osborn and the quartet hook the listener right away with their beautiful sound, polished technique, great teamwork, perfect balance, and superb musicianship. They understand the music well beyond the notes; they respect the classical framework, but they speak with Mozart's romantic voice. The group not only plays with soul, but they know when to have fun.

The ensemble finishes with the last of the three "quartets" that have sparked intense debate in musicology circles. In 1799, the young German composer Johann Anton Andre visited Constanze Weber, Mozart's widow, bought the composer's musical papers, and brought them back to his father's publishing house in Germany. In the early 19th Century, the Andre firm became a leader in the printing and distribution of Mozart's works, and while their efforts have not stopped scholars and editors from fussing over the composer's scores, the did much to secure Mozart's deserved posthumous reputation.

Among the works issued by the Andre firm are three quartets for clarinet, violin, viola, and 'cello, collectively titled "Opus 77", that are actually arrangements of earlier chamber works. Some clarinetists feel that the arrangements could only be the work of the master, but others have doubts; and in the liner notes Osborn discusses the matter and gives his opinion. The Quartet No. 3 in F performed here is a re-organization of the Trio in G, K 496. It's not quite on the level of the quintet, which has more gravitas and sublime moments; but Osborn, James, Ligocki, and Gray give a convincing rendition, and it sparkles. Clarinetists will enjoy Osborn's lovely timbre, clean technique, amazing soft playing, and faultless phrasing. Non-clarinetists will simply enjoy some wonderfully played chamber music.

FullGramophone Magazine review.

Grammophone Magazine, September 2007 issue, North American section

Top of section: "Stimulating Studies"

Title: Study pieces for clarinet? But listen on; the experience is delightful.

Cyrille Rose - 32 Etudes for Clarinet

It might sound like the biggest bore to listen to a clarinettist play etudes. But Sean Osborn proves otherwise. He is a player of such splendid flexibility and expressive range that he makes the pieces here seem like miniature masterpieces.

In a way, they are. All but one were originally part of an oboe collection by an early-19th-century German clarinettist-turned-oboist named Franz Wilhelm Ferling. French clarinettist Cyrille Rose adapted them for his own instrument, maintaining most of Ferling's writing but transforming each etude into a true clarinet work. The pieces explore a range of keys and techniques, testing the player's musicality and facility.

Rose, longtime principal clarinet of the Paris Opera, evidently knew his composers. There are dashes redolent of buoyant Weber and lyrical Mendelssohn, as well as quotes from solo violin works by Bach. The etudes are so varied and graceful that they make up a delightful array, without ever coming across as if they were intended merely for study purposes.

Osborn brings mellifluous beauty and agile ease to Rose's creations. He negotiates the florid passages as if born to musical acrobatics, while always keeping phrase shapes in mind. The clarinettist states in his programme note that the etudes, like much Baroque music, are sparse in markings. His choices of nuances and dynamics fill out the personality of the pieces to vivid effect. You certainly don't have to be a clarinet player to enjoy this disc.

Donald Rosenberg

The Clarinet review of Rose - 32 Etudes

David Ross, Vol. 35, No. 1, December 2007

One does not usually associate top-flight clarinetists recording study etudes, but this is exactly what Sean Osborn has done, and it is a most interesting and useful CD. The etudes of Cyrille Rose (1830-1902/03?) are of course well known to many clarinetists; in particular the 40 Studies and 32 Etudes provide a core pedagogy for American and French clarinet teachers and students. These sets of etudes are used at many different levels, from younger high school players developing their skills all the way through pre-professional polishing work. The 32 Etudes are based on the oboe etudes of Ferling, and Rose adapted, transposed, reshaped, and in other ways transformed these studies to make them idiomatic for the clarinet. They are a favorite of many teachers, myself included, and provide a variety of musical and technical challenges. particularly for 19th-century repertory, they provide ideal preparation and training, and as such they have perhaps never been superseded.

Sean Osborn has enjoyed a varied career, both as soloist and orchestral player, including an 11 years stint with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City. In the Fall of 2006 he accepted a position as clarinet professor at the University of Washington. His playing is exemplary in all aspects - tone, articulation, dynamic control, legato, and his technical work is a model of fluency and ease. A few of the faster etudes are performed at breakneck speeds, but most of the etudes are taken at what one might term normal speed parameters, well within the grasp of both students and experienced players. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I feel this CD can be so useful; hearing these etudes played at a very high professional level, with every detail worked out and polished, can be an inspiration for many of us. Not that Osborn would wish others to copy his rendition. He makes the point that what he does is only one of many possible interpretations, and his use of the older Carl Fischer edition which has few interpretive markings compared to some newer editions, probably encourages various readings. As benefits a player who has spent some years in the opera pit, a number of these etudes are performed in a rather theatrical and extroverted style, with tenutos and expressive rubatos applied liberally. One would expect this in the slower etudes, but even in the faster studies Osborn often uses rhythmic flexibility and change to highlight phrase and musical structure. Compared to the rather metronomic renditions I have often heard, this approach is most refreshing. And it makes musical sense! Hearing these can serve as an inspiration to what a truly fine player can achieve with these etudes.

This Albany Records production contains brief notes on Rose and Ferling and each of the etudes, by Sean Osborn with contributions by Melvin Warner and Brian Hart. The CD cover is a reproduction of the familiar yellow and black cover of the Carl Fischer edition of the 32 Etudes. Highly recommended.

FullGramophone Magazine review.

Grammophone Magazine, October 2005 issue, North American section

Top of section: "Clarinet Magic from Sean Osborn"

Title: A master clarinetist shines in pieces that explore his instrument's vast range

American Spirit

Defining a national style is tricky, unless some sort of ethnic or folklore influence is apparent. Sean Osborn's disc of clarinet works is titled "American Spirit" but the only pervasive aspect here is the country where all the composers were born. Otherwise, the repertoire ranges far and wide, from works that might be discerned as intrinsically American, such as Copland's Sonata, to pieces that delve into musical territory needing no such categorization - for example, Donald Martino's A Set for Clarinet.

Happily, each score has a distinctive voice. the Copland is a classic of its kind, those proud, soaring phrases and chipper rhythmic activity trademarks of this composer. Likewise, Leonard Bernstein's Sonata gives us more than a few hints of his familiar lyricism and dancelike vitality.

The other pieces fall less specifically into what might be termed American. Peter Schickele, elsewhere known as PDQ Bach, is utterly serious in his Elegies, in which he paints graceful musical canvases rooted in songful gestures. Martino's three miniatures for solo clarinet are vivid explorations of the instrument's vast range and versatile personality.

If Gary Schocker's Sonata II often sounds quaint, it is because the composer intentionally, and cleverly, tweaks familiar styles. And Eric Mandat achieves numberous novel sonorities in Preludes, Book I, by exploiting the clarinet's ability to play multiphonics. The train effects are especially delightful.

Osborn is a master of all he purveys. He is flexible and expressive, able to produce sounds that are caressing or piercing. His collaborator, Blair McMillen, delineates every musical requirement with effortless virtuosity.

- Donald Rosenberg

Full Fanfare review

Fanfare Magazine, November/December 2005

American spirit: wide spaces and limitless horizons, a sense of optimism and adventure and freedom. The music imbued with the "American spirit" owes much of its inspiration to Aaron Copland, the dean of 20th-century music, who's life span (1900-1990) parallels its growth. To Copland we owe the creation of a distinctive American style that incorporates music sources of many kind, including jazz, ragtime, South American, and folk, integrated with Classical and neo-Classical European traditions. In this music of the 20th century we can hear the linear counterpoint perfected by Hindemith, angular melodies with widely spaced intervals, a generally tonal harmonic organization, and most striking of all, pervasive rhythmic invention.

The selection of works on the disc, beginning with Bernstein's two-movement brief sonata composed in Key West in 1941-42 (his first published composition) and ending with Copland's endearing sonata from the same period, reflects a style that we easily recognize as 20th-century American, although there is also much individuality among the works. Peter Schickele's Elegies are lyrical and, at times, dry and witty; the third piece, titled "Ceremony," makes effective use of a repeated rhythmic figure and wide leaps in the clarinet line. Donald Martino's Set for solo clarinet is sprightly, with spiky rhythms and leaps of register that demand a virtuoso technique. The second piece in the set, a slow, moody lament, is reminiscent of the solo clarinet movement in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. The first movement of the sonata by Gary Schocker has a clever parody of Stravinsky's Suite italienne, and although the thematic material in the other movements tends to sound derivative, it is charming music. Eric Mandat, a clarinetist as well as a composer, has created some amazing technical effects for the instrument, such as double stops, and what is described in the box notes as multiphonics and microtones. The effect is startling and eerie.

Sean Osborn, himself a composer, plays with rhythmic verve and extraordinary control of dynamics, and he is partnered perfectly by the precise and elegant pianist Blair McMillen. Recorded at Town Hall in New York, the sound is excellent.

Susan Kagan

American Record Guide review of American Spirit

Sean Osborn is an 11-year veteran of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with many solo credits on a wide variety of recordings. This is my first opportunity to hear him in a solo setting, and a welcome one it is.

The two best-known compositions here also offer Osborn the stiffest competition. Bernstein's early sonata and Copland's violin-turned-clarinet work have already gotten formidable readings from Alsatian clarinetist Paul Meyer on a Denon recording that Mr. Sullivan praised (Jan/Feb 1998 - and I concur). Osborn's approach is quite different. While Meyer sees American music as something to be taken by the horns and steered, Osborn sees it from a more American perspective. He treats the music as if its boldness and brazenness is infused, needing no additional steroid boost, whereas Meyer assumes that this music, being American, must be treated with kid gloves off, and his approach is more aggressive. Both of these approaches work, and I am hard pressed to choose one over the other. Osborn has the more spacious sound, but Meyer has a little more finesse to his technique.

The choice, if one must be made, may hinge on the couplings. Meyer offers a wonderful British set consisting of the Bax sonata and the Arnold Sonatina, and I cannot imagine being without his collection. But Osborn, while not as bold in his selection of sure-fire names, gives us more music of surprising quality from composers that we either don't know or aren't expecting. Peter Schickele's Elegies is one such example. While I find this composer's non-PDQ pieces maddeningly inconsistent, this one is a hands-down winner. These three short pieces are tributes to a former friend and teacher, his grandmother, and to no one in particular. They are not elegiac in the way you would expect, but lovingly nostalgic, wistful, and sentimental, without a trace of the funereal.

Who knew that Donald Martino, serialist bad boy of the 70s, ever wrote such music as his Set for clarinet (based on musical "sets" at a dance band performance)? He claims that this early work was basically composed while improvising as he strolled about his parents' house over a three-day period in 1954. Your ears will not be fooling you - this is tonal, chromatic, jazzy, and very engaging music. I wish he had continued down this path instead of bowing to the academic Nazis of the era. Osborn knows just how this music should sound and gives a consummate performance.

Gary Schocker is a wonderfully lyrical writer, and his seconds sonata is neoclassical in the very best sense of the term. The first movement is neo-baroque in its dance affiliations and reminds one of a modern Telemann. II advances forward to what could be a popular song composed at the turn of the century. III is his tribute to Beethoven, though I don't hear a lot of that composer here - rather more of something that one of Les Sex might have conjured up in a convivial moment. But no matter, for this is a fine work, giving us what music should give most - enjoyment.

Describing Eric Mandat's Book 1 of Preludes for solo clarinet as something akin to Paganini's expansion of violin technique (as the notes do) is stretching a point. Paganini always kept to the natural abilities of the instrument, and one could make a very good argument that multiphonics and bent notes make the instrument seem unnatural. Such devices normally play no part in music that I want to hear, and I daresay most people feel the same. This seems to be Osborn's bow to modernity, and it is completely out of place on this program. Yet I do not want to fail to give Mandat his due - some of the pieces use these techniques in a far more user-friendly manner than I have heard before, though such showing off holds little interest for me. An example of a failure would be "The Looking Glass", two parts in contrary motion. Though it is an amazing feat to be able to pull off such a work, the clarinet itself seems to be breaking under the strain, and the tonal quality of the instrument suffers greatly in the process.

Yet this release does credit to Osborn and pianist Blair McMillen (unsung hero in the Copland). If push came to shove, and I had to choose only one Bernstein and Copland, I would probably choose Meyer because of the Bax and Arnold - but fortunately I am not facing that choice. If you choose this one, you will not be disappointed.

Steven E. Ritter, May/June 2004

The Clarinet review of American Spirit

David Niethamer, Vol. 31, No. 4, September 2004

Let me say from the outset - I highly recommend this recording. It has and engaging combination of familiar and unfamiliar works, beautifully played by Sean Osborn and Blair McMillen.

Perhaps my favorite work on this CD is Eric Mandat's Preludes - Book I for solo B-flat clarinet. The titles of the five preludes are catchy and descriptive without seeming superfluous or silly. Mandat uses "extended techniques" - multiphonics and microtonal pitch adjustments mostly - in ways that fit the short but tightly constructed preludes without seeming musically artificial. "...Illinois Central" uses multiphonics to mimic the sound of train whistles, but in a gentle, far-off sort of way that is very beautiful. The third prelude, "...homage to P.J." (Paul Jean-Jean) uses motives from the first of Jean-Jean's 18 Etudes as a starting point, and adds multiphonics to the ends of the phrases. "...spin moves," inspired by the NCAA final four basketball tournament, uses mixed meters and microtones to describe the subject matter. The last of the five preludes, " Bill's back room," is a tribute to one of the pioneers of these techniques, William O. Smith. Except for the last prelude, which is a little longer than two minutes, these vignettes are about a minute-and-a-half in length, so they don't wear out their welcome. Osborn, who studied with Mandat, plays these preludes with technical assurance and the sort of musicianship that makes the technical aspects melt away, leaving only the music.

Donald Martino relates that A Set for Clarinet was "composed - virtually improvised with clarinet in hand while strolling about my parent"s richly resonant basement in Plainfield, NJ - at the rate of one movement per day from February 7th to 9th, 1954." "Set," in this instance, refers to a jazz set, or medley of tunes strung together, not a set of pitches in a serial composition. It's wonderful to hear Donald Martino's Set played so musically without being conscious of the great technical challenges this work presents. Osborn plays so flawlessly that the various "sets" occupy our attention, and not the technical difficulty of the work. Another interesting tidbit about his piece from the notes to this CD (written by Sean Osborn, but not credited in the booklet) is the original, unpublished titles for the three movements. You'll have to buy the CD - I can't give it away!

The longest work on the CD is Aaron Copland's transcription of his 1943 violin sonata. This work deserves to be heard more often, but issued of physical fatigue are often daunting for clarinetists. Violinists, after all, can breathe whenever they like without disrupting the flow of the phrases. The ability to play well in tune with the piano in the "simple" open harmonies that Copland uses throughout this sonata are a real challenge. Osborn meets these challenges effortlessly. The rhythmic collaboration with pianist Blair McMillen is superb, and Copland's frequent tempo changes are seamless in this performance.

Gary Schocker is well known in the flute world, both as performer (he won the National Flute Association Young Artist Competition in 1978) and as a composer of witty, tuneful compositions for solo flute as well as chamber music. Sonata II never wanders far away from its tonal center. Still there's a great deal of musical interest here, with a lot of emotional contrast within each movement, and enough surprises to keep the piece from becoming saccharine and completely predictable. Schocker uses the chalumeau exclusively in the slow second movement of this sonata ("Souvenir"), and Osborn plays that register with great clarity, warmth of sound, and expression. The last movement, in the words of the composer, "is another look at early Beethoven - a charmpiece based on rhythmic motifs." Beethoven might not recognize the harmonies, but he'd applaud the spirit of surprise, both rhythmic and harmonic that are found here. Schocker's music id published by Theodore Presser, although the CD booklet lists this sonata s being available from the composer (). I hope this piece will find its way into the standard recital repertoire for clarinet.

Peter Schickele is best known for his championing of the music of P.D.Q. Bach. His Elegies for clarinet and piano are the antitheses of the manic, hyperactive music of the "fictional" last son of Bach - serene, with minimal harmonic activity and beautiful melodies strung out over long phrases. The first elegy ("Song for Bert") is dedicated to Bertram McGarrity, who encouraged Schickele to take up the bassoon as a teenager, and provided some of the humorous inspiration for Schickele the composer. The last of the three movements contains no dedication, but has more rhythmic energy to counterbalance the first two movements, which are shorter and more melodic.

This recording opens with a true American classic for clarinet - Leonard Bernstein's Sonata. Osborn and McMillen play this sonata pretty much "by the book," but don't let that give the impression that this is a pedantic performance. Far from it - Bernstein's musical instructions in the score are brought to life continually throughout the 10-minute duration of the sonata.

I highly recommend this recording, and plan to have my students acquire it for a number of reasons. First of all, Sean Osborn's playing is wonderful - beautiful sound, impeccable intonation, and excellent interpretations of all of the music found here. The technical aspects of the playing don't ever call attention to themselves - they're just there in service to the music. Secondly, the choice of repertoire is about as diverse as it is possible to get on one CD. In his booklet notes, Osborn posits that "Perhaps ... diversity and individualism ARE the American Spirit. That is certainly true in music..." If you accept that thesis, then this recording is for you. Last but not least is the collaboration of pianist Blair McMillen. He is equal to every technical challenge presented by this music (Bernstein and Copland especially), and a very sensitive collaborator - the kind of pianist/collaborator we all want to have. Buy it!