A Tribute to Clarinetist Stanley Drucker (1929-2022)

by Mitchell Estrin

Date Posted: January 06, 2023

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Early Years

Clarinet virtuoso and New York Philharmonic legend Stanley Drucker passed away at the age of 93 on December 19, 2022. He left the world peacefully surrounded by his family.

Stanley Walter Drucker was born on February 4, 1929, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. His father had his own business as a custom pants maker. Stanley was a lifelong New Yorker and lived for most of his adult life in Massapequa on Long Island. Living on the south shore of Long Island, Drucker and his wife Naomi became avid boaters, enjoying annual summer excursions on their cabin cruiser, Noni.

In 1948 at the age of 19, he auditioned for Bruno Walter and became the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic, serving as Assistant Principal and E-flat Clarinetist for 12 years. During those early Philharmonic years, he was affectionately called “Junior” by his older colleagues. In 1960, he was invited by Music Director Leonard Bernstein to become the Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, a position he would hold until his retirement in 2009. His 60-year tenure in the New York Philharmonic (48 years as principal) was unprecedented and his career longevity is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest career as a clarinetist.

Photo from the early 1950s

His critical acclaim was ubiquitous, including these tribute statements from renowned conductors:

"He's a legend. The history of the orchestra is in him." Gustavo Dudamel

“He stands alone in the world of clarinetists. His contribution to the orchestra and its fame is immeasurable.” Lorin Maazel

“The sensibility of his music making and the reaction for the conductor was really breathtaking.” Kurt Masur

“His undying enthusiasm for every note he ever played was an inspiration to all his colleagues and myself.” Zubin Mehta

“To look in the eyes so full of enthusiasm – he gave me the energy. So I want to thank him for all these beautiful years of music making.” Riccardo Muti

Harriett Johnson once wrote in the New York Post, “The audience acclaimed him as if he were the wonder of the age.”

Stanley received his first clarinet at the age of 10 and his prodigious musical talent showed early. He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City before being accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at age 15. He attended Curtis for one year and was appointed Principal Clarinet of the Indianapolis Symphony by Maestro Fabien Sevitsky at age16. Subsequent appointments as Principal Clarinet of the Busch Little Symphony and Buffalo Philharmonic soon followed.

Stanley Drucker from the 1970s

Stanley in Orchestras

He served at the New York Philharmonic under nine music directors, music advisors, and principal conductors – Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, and Lorin Maazel. He performed in 10,200 New York Philharmonic concerts, toured 60 countries, and performed as a soloist with the Philharmonic almost 200 times, performing the Concerto for Clarinet by Aaron Copland in 64 performances. The Copland concerto was one of his signature works and notable performances included a live televised New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1970 and later performed and recorded the concerto as the last Philharmonic soloist to perform with Bernstein in 1989. The recording was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance by an Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra.

Notable Performances

Other career monuments included his groundbreaking performances of the clarinet concertos by Carl Nielsen and John Corigliano. His dazzling recording of the Nielsen concerto (1967) with Leonard Bernstein quickly became the gold standard for performing this extraordinarily difficult work and remains so today. It is noted for history that Drucker performed his solo part in one take with the only retake being required for an orchestral tutti section.

In 1976, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer John Corigliano to write a concerto for Drucker. Corigliano’s father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for a generation and John had grown up listening to Stanley Drucker on the principal clarinet chair. The concerto was premiered in 1977 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, with Drucker receiving the final movement just three weeks before the premiere. There were five initial performances, and each received a rousing standing ovation and widespread critical acclaim. The live performance on the first night was recorded and released on the boxed CD set produced by the New York Philharmonic called The Historic Broadcasts. In 1980, Drucker made a studio recording of the concerto with Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic. Drucker received his first Grammy nomination for Best Classical Performance by an Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra for this recording. Drucker would play the concerto dozens of more times in New York, on tour with the New York Philharmonic, and as a guest soloist with other orchestras.

Drucker also recorded the Debussy Première Rhapsodie under Bernstein’s baton in 1961 and performed and recorded the Concerto for Clarinet by William Bolcom with the New York Philharmonic in 1992 under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. The Bolcom concerto was commissioned for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th Anniversary.

Photo from the 1980s

Honors and Awards

Drucker received many honors and awards during his storied career. This list includes Musical America Instrumentalist of the Year (1998), an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Florida (2010), and Honorary Membership in the International Clarinet Association - the highest career honor for a clarinetist - and Honorary Membership in the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, which Drucker considered the highest honor he ever received. Drucker has a biographical listing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Drucker kept a busy performing schedule outside of the New York Philharmonic as a recording artist, guest soloist, and chamber musician. Milestone recordings include the Bartók Contrastswith Robert Mann and Leonid Hambro, and produced by Peter Bartók (1954), Music for Clarinet and Piano (1962), New York Legends (1998), Stanley Drucker Plays Brahms (2001), and Rock Stars (2010). A comprehensive multiple CD set of over four decades of Drucker’s live performances called the Stanley Drucker Heritage Collection has been released by Clover Field Recordings. He appeared as a guest soloist with the San Antonio Symphony, Denver Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Columbus Symphony, Kansas City Philharmonic, Louisiana Philharmonic, as well as orchestras in Japan, Sweden, and Russia. He often performed with the Juilliard and Guarneri String Quartets, including performances at the Library of Congress and Alice Tully Hall.

Drucker’s discography is one of the largest in recorded history. With a career that spanned seven decades, he recorded hundreds of orchestral works with the New York Philharmonic, most of the standard repertoire for solo clarinet, a plethora of chamber music, and dozens of world premieres. He performed hundreds of radio and television broadcasts, including for the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts and Live from Lincoln Center. Drucker was the subject of a 2018 biography, Stanley Drucker Clarinet Master, by Mitchell Estrin and published by Carl Fischer, LLC.

We Are Vandoren Photoshoot, NYC, 2013, Photo by James Korn

Chamber Music

His many performances with his beloved wife of 67 years, clarinetist Naomi Drucker, are especially noteworthy. The Drucker Trio (with pianist Blanche Abram) performed dozens of concerts in the New York area, featuring both standard repertoire for two clarinets and piano, as well as dozens of contemporary works, many being composed for the ensemble. Stanley was also a regular guest artist with the celebrated American Chamber Ensemble, the Long Island based chamber music ensemble co-founded and directed by Naomi Drucker and Blanche Abram.

Stanley Drucker was chair of the clarinet department at The Juilliard School for 30 years. His students include a number of today’s leading clarinet performers and teachers. This list includes Franklin Cohen, Mitchell Estrin, Kazuo Fujii, Anita Garriott, David Gould, Esther Lamneck, Ted Lane, and William Powell. His publications for International Music and Carl Fischer include several volumes of orchestral excerpts, standard solo repertoire, and foundational pedagogical studies.

Drucker received his musical education from such renowned artist/teachers as Leon Russianoff (his principal teacher), clarinetist Bernard Portnoy and oboist Marcel Tabuteau at Curtis, and cited his New York Philharmonic colleagues – principal oboe Harold Gomberg, principal horn James Chambers, principal trumpet William Vacchiano, principal trombone Gordon Pulis, principal cello Leonard Rose, and concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr. – as his musical mentors.

Stanley Drucker was a musician for the ages. His artistry was often noted for its supreme technical command of the clarinet in ways that defied all previous notions about the limitations of the instrument. But it was his indomitable spirit, creativity, spontaneity, and musical imagination that thrilled conductors, colleagues, and audiences for over 75 years. In the words of Leon Russianoff in a 1981 WQXR radio interview, “Stanley Drucker is certainly the greatest clarinet player of our generation, and I think of all times, perhaps.”

Images from Vandoren NYC Grand Opening, 2018. Photos by Yuki Tei.

Additional Facts About Stanley

Drucker was a cigar enthusiast, appreciated fine wine and vintage Hollywood movies. He enjoyed traveling the world, both on tour and on holiday.

He is survived by his wife Naomi, daughter Rosanne Drucker and son-in-law davidji, son Lee Rocker and daughter-in-law Deborah, and grandchildren Justin and Sadie Rose and their respective spouses Catherine and John.

Anyone wishing to honor his memory can make a charitable contribution in the name of Stanley Drucker to the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York.

Vandoren Product Specialist and Artist Relations Manager, David Gould, shares his memory of clarinetist Stanley Drucker

We will miss you, Mr. Drucker.

R-L: Ricardo Morales, Stanley Drucker, Jon Manasse, David Gould
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