By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
When clarinetist and music professor Steven Cohen returned to New Orleans last week to appear in concert with the Miró Quartet, it was a working vacation, but also a trip to a place he formerly called home. The Northwestern University professor and his wife had been longtime residents of the city, but after many years associated with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO)and its predecessor, the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, Cohen had moved away from the Crescent City in 2004.
His wife, a cellist with the orchestra, followed suit a decade later, after Cohen had firmly established himself at Northwestern University, following a brief, one-year stop at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music.
His first day at the campus located in Evanston, Illinois was fortuitous, he remembered. It was August 29, 2005 – the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans and when the city’s infrastructure of levees and drainage canals began to fail.
Both his wife and daughter had stayed behind, creating a great deal of angst and concern about recovery and rebuilding.
“It was a difficult time,” he recalled in an exclusive phone interview with the CCJN.
But, Cohen had always seized on an opportunity when it presented itself. Just before the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra failed and the LPO was born out of necessity, he had been teaching as part of the faculty at Loyola University. Occasionally, he would also teach some Tulane University students.
Then, a professor’s departure from the Louisiana State University School of Music created a position which was offered to Cohen. He accepted it and for the next 15 years, he commuted to the Baton Rouge campus. “That’s why I’m here now,” he noted about his present position.
Cohen has grown accustomed to traveling, though. Since 1979, he has also been involved with the Brevard Music Festival located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Hendersonville, North Carolina. He and his wife are typically away for most of the summer.
Yet, it was as an invited collaborator with the Miró Quartet out of Austin, Texas, that Cohen was able to return to his former home this past week. The performance was held in Roussel Hall on the Loyola University campus on Monday night, April 8.
“A couple of years ago, the University of Texas at Austin found themselves in an uncomfortable position,” Cohen explained. “They had to find a clarinet teacher fast, because they asked the previous one to leave.” Again, it was: “Have clarinet. Will travel.” Cohen was invited to come to Texas for a year, where he was introduced to the Miró Quartet members, who serve on the faculty there.
“I got to know the Miró guys and I played a concert with them there,” he continued. When the Friends of Music planned its season, it made sense to select Cohen and the Miró Quartet. Their relationship continues to expand. “Actually, we’re playing another concert here in Chicago next year,” he noted.
In preparation for the concert, Cohen flew down from Illinois and met with the Miró Quartet in order to practice the two big numbers, the Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets in March. They rehearsed again last week, once his plane landed on Thursday night and also had several other offerings such as master classes at Loyola and some work with the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestras.
“It’s kinda a residency,” he said. “I just have to work out my schedule. It’s not so hard.”
A member of the International Clarinetists Association, Cohen cites his busy career as a reason why he hasn’t always had time to make commercial recordings, but his work has been heard on a number of live recordings. “Mostly, it’s been performing and teaching and I still do that quite a lot.”