Lately, I’ve had the great pleasure to speak with former colleagues of the late Allan Blank. Today was no different, as I conducted a phone interview with Clarinetist David Niethamer!
Not wanting to disturb the quiet confines of the Perry library by talking on the phone, I traverse to Webb University Center for my interview. Finding a solitary spot, Webb has yet to be filled with the hustle and bustle of the new school year, I dial Mr. Niethamer’s number.
David B. Niethamer is an accomplished Clarinetist, conductor and retired professor. For twenty-three years he acted as the principal Clarinetist for the Richmond Symphony. Since retiring from the Richmond Symphony in 2002, he has played with the National Gallery Orchestra in Washington D.C., the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and with the Richmond Chamber Players. From 1982-1991, he was clarinetist and Artistic Director of the Roxbury Chamber Players and with the Richmond Chamber Players (1994-1997). He also conducted theUniversity of Richmond Wind Ensemble for roughly seventeen years. Professor Niethamer has taught classes at several institutions such as Lebanon Valley College, Ithaca College, Oberlin College and ended his teaching career at the University of Richmond this past May. While currently, Mr. Niethamer has no new projects planned during his retirement, both him and his wife are interested in cooking and traveling. He states a desire to have “More regular dates with my clarinet…Getting my skill level back up.”
He was drawn to music through his father, “He played the violin in the high school attracted to the big bands and he wanted to play the sax. The WPA gave free lessons…When I got big enough dad wanted me to play the sax. In 4th grade, I started on clarinet. I thought being a musician would mean more fun and less work, Ha. Not sorry for the work. I’m grateful it worked out. I dabbled in flute and sax, but I really wanted to play clarinet in the symphony. For twenty-three years I did just that. In the last 40 years, only the clarinet…I still play mostly in DC. I’ve always been teaching at Richmond…conducting University Richmond band fell into my lap. I was asked when the previous conductor became department chair. Learning the scores in a way makes clear to players, it’s a lot of work. They have all been interesting parts of my music career.”
Beginning my questioning, on the subject of Allan Blank, I ask how the two met. “I met him when he and Margot came to my Faculty Recital at University of Richmond in September 1980 and brought me some music. I knew about Allan’s music for clarinet through a grad school friend since 1974, and he told me about this great composer. We remained friends after.” He describes Allan Blank as an intense individual, who wrote music on anything he could find. (Yep, I have the cereal boxes, torn up mailing envelopes and backs of resumes as proof!) “Allan was dedicated to Margot and supported her career, you know she was an artist and photographer, I have some of her pieces. She supported him as well, it flowed back and forth. Yes, he was hyper energetic…always up early 5 or 6 in the morning, first practicing his violin then working…work went very quickly for him. I learned to never say well we should organize a performance. We would prepare for one in a year and then next month Allan would be asking about it.”
We continue speaking about Mr. Blank and just as I have wondered a thousand times what Allan Blank was like, Professor Niethamer tells me “I learned a lot about music from Allan. You know he played in the Pittsburgh Symphony and he had a string quartet…he had excellent idea on playing. Many composers are very interested in own work, not Allan. He was interested in all music. He was very committed to teaching, a university job can be safety net, but he took his teaching very seriously.”
Over his long career, Professor Niethamer has collaborated with many composers: Karel Husa, Gunther Schuller, Judith Shatin and Allan Blank (my personal favorite, of course). Such an incredible career and it makes me wonder “What pieces of Allan Blank’s has he conducted, or played? Did he have a favorite composition?” Mr. Niethamer answers, “Never conducted, it’s too difficult for university band students, not pieces we could tackle. He had quite a lot of pieces. I’ve played some of the published ones, some not. I’ve tried a lot of it. I like the Clarinet Concerto, I’m very pleased with the recording. It was recorded in Poland… the sound engineers…they had a great ear. I’m wary of recordings, but that one I’m quite proud of. I thought it was good piece. Diversions for Solo Clarinet, I’ve used the piece in class…a good college student can play it, it gives them a different view on contemporary music. I’ve never found a piece I didn’t like. Although the more theatrical pieces, like Jumblies, are not my favorite…he was a craftsman. Not a lazy composer.”
Speaking of the last time seeing Mr. Blank, “Saw him about a week before he passed in hospice care. He was there for several weeks. Then later at the Brandermill Woods Health Care Communities. I would stop in on my way home and see him. He then went home…it was brain cancer and he had to have home care 24/7. At that point in the transition…he was not awake, or alert, not in good shape.” While sadly thinking about Allan Blank’s passing, I’m forced to wrap up the interview. The students might not be back on campus yet, but to my dismay I read a sign stating that I’m sitting right smack in the middle of a Preview Week event!
Thank you so much Professor Niethamer for taking the time to talk with me and wish you much happiness in your retirement (enjoy all that practice time). Also Professor, my invitation to visit the Allan Blank Collection still stands!