BY CURT HARLER
ABBA member William Rote of Doylestown, PA has nine clarinets in his closet. And he plays them all. Plus, he has an assortment of barrels and bells to more accurately adjust pitch and alter the color of his sound.
Keep in mind that Bill played 39 gigs, indoors and out, last year. He needs a back-up instrument with him when doing solo work and doesn’t use his wooden clarinets for outdoor gigs.
His horns are not garage sale curios. His go-to clarinets are two sets of Buffet Crampon grenadilla R-13 Bb and A. That’s four clarinets, right there. But that’s only a start.
He has a set of MoBa Bb and A horns, handmade for him in Cocobolo wood by Morrie Backun, a craftsman in Vancouver, Canada. Fans of the Philadelphia Orchestra will recognize Ricardo Morales as the group’s principal clarinet (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNBSN8Z5wb8). Morales too plays the $10,000 MoBa, known in woodwind circles as the Stradivarius of the clarinet world.
But wait – there’s more! Perhaps the pride of Rote’s collection is the set of German-made Grenadilla wood Bb and A clarinets, handmade for him by Schwenk & Seggelke in Bamberg. Bill feels the German wood selection, technology, and craftsmanship that went into creating these clarinets make them the pride of his collection. He sees these as replacements for his aging Buffets. The sound and quality are exquisite. The horns are keyed on the Boehm system, not the unique German one. Jochen Seggelke earned a Ph.D. in acoustics and his passion is the improvement of musical instruments. This horn is the epitome of his clarinet work. Click https://www.schwenk-und-seggelke.de/_en/index.php.
Those of you who still fondly remember your beginner Bundy horn can take solace in knowing Bill has a plastic clarinet, too. “To play outside when the weather is bad,” he explains, apologetically.
Bill is a fixture at ABBA events with performances at the Hintz Alumni Center and Homecoming at the top of his list. He participates in pep band events in Harrisburg and Philly and enjoys a couple of events each year at the Great Valley campus.
Although he bleeds blue-and-white, Bill plays with the Delaware Valley University Symphonic Band. While DelVal has lots of ag, business, and science majors, there is no music and arts degree program at the school. The chorale, band, and string ensembles are comprised of students, faculty, and community members. Bill has been a principal chair for 20 years and performs six or seven concerts annually, plus graduation. Graduation is not his favorite. “You play the same few measures of Pomp and Circumstance over and over until all the faculty and graduates walk in!” he groans. However, he has no problem playing Touchdown FOS repeatedly!
Closest to his heart is the music he makes with his church (Doylestown Presbyterian). To hear Bill play is MoBa cocobolo A clarinet in church, ping https://youtu.be/qTQUpuqVaco and forward to 16:30. And lest you think time has passed by this 1960 chemical engineering graduate, this year — with Easter disrupted by the Covid panic — Bill and the other musicians recorded their parts separately on iPhones and iPads. Each instrument was brought together remotely. Listeners saw every musician in a separate block on the screen and heard the beautiful sound of a virtual concert.
“We all recorded our parts at different times, different days,” Bill explains. He had an earbud in his left ear to hear the organ version and could hear himself playing with his right ear while creating his video on the iPad. The performance went off flawlessly.
Several of his gigs are paid engagements, including the Palisades Community Chorus and the Gilbert & Sullivan troupe that performs all 14 G&S works in rotation. Each Christmas, he loves accompanying a team of top-end professional vocalists in the Messiah.
Bill started his Blue Band career as a second clarinet after graduating from Bellefonte High in 1956. The next year he was first desk, first clarinet in the concert band. Dr. Jim Dunlop was the director of both. Rote recalls Jim Dunlop as “a taskmaster” who demanded the best.
Coupled with commitments in a local dance band, Bill recalls, “I was about to flunk out.” Chemical engineering wasn’t a slam-dunk. Dr. Dunlop went off on him when Bill approached the director about reducing his Blue Band commitment. But it ended well.
Today, while Bill Rote still looks back fondly on his Penn State years he is more likely to look ahead…to his next concert, his next pep band, and to deciding which clarinet he will choose to carry the melody.