Sharon Kam, © Nancy Horowitz
Sharon Kam, © Nancy Horowitz

Gentle and intimate, sassy and spirited
– Sharon Kam says she is just like the clarinet.

The German-Israeli clarinettist, born in Haifa in 1971, will play Mozart’s famous clarinet concerto in Klosters on 5 August 2023 in place of Andreas Ottensamer. Georg Rudiger spoke with her about her musical beginnings in Israel, winning the ARD Music Competition and about a very special instrument.

You made your orchestral debut at the age of 15 with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, which you will play in Klosters on 5 August. And it was with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta. How did this concert with such a renowned orchestra and world-famous conductor come about?

In Israel we have a system like “Jugend musiziert” in Germany, where there are auditions and prizes are awarded to young musicians. Zubin Mehta was always interested in musical talent. I was proposed to him after this competition as a soloist. My mother, who played viola in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, didn’t want to ask him. At the concert, she sat in the audience, as did my teacher, the solo clarinettist of the orchestra. After this, Zubin Mehta invited me again and again.


What memories do you have of this performance?

I was of course nervous and a little afraid whether we would get the right tempo for the rondo finale after the slow movement. We had rehearsed very little. But the attention of the orchestra and the conductor in the concert was so high that I felt incredibly at ease while playing. That’s why I was able to really enjoy the concert.


You didn’t start playing the clarinet until you were 12, having previously played the piano and recorder. That is unusually late. So how did you get so far on your instrument so quickly? Did you practise a lot?

It was love at first sight. I didn’t practise too much, but I could of course already read music, had a perfect ear and had already had some music theory training. I was already a musician, but had not yet found my instrument. With the clarinet, I made progress very quickly.


You have a special relationship with the clarinet. The instrument is your voice, you once said in an interview. Do you also see parallels with your personality?

Absolutely. The clarinet can be gentle and very intimate, but also deliberate and philosophical. But it is also very sassy and spirited, even loud and can sound almost hysterical. It has many facets. These very different ways of producing sounds on the clarinet fit my personality very well. On the recorder, for example, I didn’t have this range of expression.


After studying for four years in New York at the Julliard School, you won the ARD competition in Munich. What role did this important prize play in your great international career?

I already had an agency in New York and had played a few concerts. The ARD International Competition in 1992 was my first competition ever. My teacher Charles Neidich had implored me to take part. When I won 1st prize, I became known in Germany all of a sudden – the prize-winner’s concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was broadcast live on TV on Sunday morning at 11 am, after the “Sendung mit der Maus” (laughs). A lot of people interested in music saw my performance, including agents, artistic directors and concert promoters. The ARD competition opened a big door for me. In addition, the clarinet had already been distinctly introduced as a concert instrument by Sabine Meyer. The audience had an appetite for the instrument. And showed great interest in me and my playing.


In the course of your career you have played with many renowned orchestras such as the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig or the London Symphony Orchestra. You are coming to Klosters with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under its first guest conductor Tarmo Peltokoski. What do you associate with this orchestra and its conductor?

I don’t know Tarmo Peltokoski yet – I’m looking forward to the collaboration. I have played with the orchestra a few times, and I also know some of the orchestra members personally. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is a fantastic orchestra, especially for classical repertoire. The orchestra is highly competent in this field. It is very lively and flexible. It will be great fun to play with this ensemble at Klosters Music.


Will you play the Mozart concerto on the basset clarinet for which this concerto is written?

That’s what I intend to do. But the basset clarinet is a very delicate instrument – sometimes the padding of the keys changes, meaning purely technical problems arise. That’s why I also have a normal A clarinet with me for emergencies. But the basset clarinet means that the low notes of the concerto can also be played in the original, which of course makes a difference. In addition to the many timbres that a clarinet has anyway, with the basset clarinet you get a dark baritone range. It’s like a double bass with a fifth string.


The concert is entitled “Distant Landscapes”. This also refers to the adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, which shapes a large space with its wide melodic arches and became known worldwide as the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa”. What do you feel when you play this adagio?

I don’t think of the film, also because I got to know the play much earlier. I don’t have a concrete image in my head. But I remember a special open-air performance with the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn at the Weilburg Castle Concerts at dusk. In the first movement, the birds were still chirping and I was a little worried whether that might interfere with the adagio. But suddenly it became very quiet, the sky dark blue and the audience was completely silent. Playing this adagio in this almost sacred atmosphere in this special setting was deeply touching. I will never forget that moment.