The Ridenour Lyrique 925 Hard Rubber Low-C Bass Clarinet: Yes, It's A Real Instrument.
This particular tour is the main reason I decided to buy the Ridenour Lyrique bass. Tonight we finish a two-week run of the show in Alaska, and this weekend, we begin four and a half weeks of performances all over Canada, from Vancouver to Edmonton. While this past couple of weeks have been amazingly mild in Anchorage, temperatures in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Calgary are predicted to stay parked in the VERY minus-double-digits degrees Fahrenheit, and those are conditions I did NOT relish the thought of bringing a $10,000 wood Selmer or Buffet bass through. The hard rubber construction of the Lyrique assures a certain peace of mind in unstable climates that one just does not have with a wooden instrument. Travel between cities can be rather rough on musical equipment, particularly since I often travel my horns with the rest of the pit equipment on the trucks instead of carrying everything with me on the tour bus (which was what I did a couple years ago when I played the flute/picc/clarinet book on the national tour of My Fair Lady, but is highly impractical with a bass clarinet, a tenor sax, and four other smaller instruments). Having played Tom's hard rubber soprano clarinets before, I knew that the bass was going to sound good and having played the Leblanc clarinets he designed for the past nearly 20 years, I knew it was going to be well-designed acoustically and play in tune. What I didn't know was whether or not a sub-$3000 low-C bass clarinet would physically be able to stand up to the rigors of professional touring life (or, honestly, whether or not the mechanism would be up to the demands of a Leonard Bernstein bass clarinet part!).
Well, it is CERTAINLY up to the task. From the second I opened the box and put it together for the first time, this instrument felt like it's been mine for years. I made a short video recording of my very first encounter with the instrument, which you can view here: A Quick First Look At The Ridenour Lyrique Bass Clarinet. Right out of the box, it was a joy to play. The sound of this instrument is absolutely fabulous, with a rich creamy center that doesn't spread as you go higher, even into the altissimo; and the intonation is ROCK solid on this thing, with one noticeable exception: The lowest C# (concert B), is exceedingly flat, 20+ cents on average. However, I have needed to use this note precisely zero times, so it isn't personally an issue for me right now. I will, of course, work on fixing it (perhaps a little building up of the tonehole on the inner surface will do the trick...to use this instrument in the long term, I am of course going to have to address this at some point, but it isn't a major, major sticking point. This note tends to be sort of horrendous on most low C basses...). Overall, I was really, really surprised at how little work I had to do to play this instrument well. (I should mention that I am playing on a Ridenour hand-faced bass clarinet mouthpiece, which was included with the clarinet, a mouthpiece I had zero prior experience with, so what you are seeing in this video is truly a brand new encounter with unfamiliar equipment.)
As with any new instrument or mouthpiece, it does of course take a bit of time to get used to the voicing tendencies (hence that small harmonic blip in the altissimo in the video clip), but on the whole, it was remarkable how familiar and comfortable this instrument felt. It does absolutely everything I want it to, and it does it quite easily, which is a wonderful thing, because the very next day I flew to Chattanooga to begin rehearsals and tech for the West Side Story tour, so I literally had zero time to acclimate to this clarinet before using it in a professional setting.
The first real test came during the first rehearsal with the orchestra. I do not play the bass clarinet until the middle of the Balcony Scene, where the bass clarinet enters in unison with the cello on a written low Bb after sitting cold for about 25 minutes, then continues in a beautiful lyrical solo phrase of the "Somewhere" theme, which finishes in unison again with the cello, this time in the lower throat tones, which are notoriously problematic on bass clarinets, both in intonation and tone quality. I needn't have worried, because not only are the F#, F and E nearly perfectly spot-on in tune, they are also much fuller and less nasal in quality than one would expect. They are very nearly...well, cello-like in color. (A quality that our musical director is no doubt highly appreciative of!)
My only criticism of this instrument lies with the basset keywork (low D, C#, C). The thumb key
The rest of the mechanism is surprisingly very solid, and in the three months that I have been playing this instrument every day, 8 shows a week, the total amount of adjustment required has been a quarter turn of a screw on a bridge key and a small piece of gaff tape around a register key connection. Rather impressive, I think! I do find the RH3 (low G/clarion D) key to be quite stiff, but given the length of the connecting rod to the register mechanism that it operates in addition to the low G tonehole, that's to be expected. It isn't overwhelming, and when the bridge keys are aligned just right, the tension isn't bad at all (or perhaps my finger has gotten stronger over the past couple months!) I would perhaps like to have some more supporting pillars or cradles for the basset mechanism rods, are they are quite long and very prone to flexing, particularly when assembling and disassembling the instrument, but there has been no major issue with them so far...as long as I remember to keep all the corks nice and greased up! ;-)
As David Spiegelthal pointed out in his excellent and concise review of the instrument on the Clarinet Bulletin Board (David Spiegelthal Reviews The Lyrique Bass Clarinet), the bell does need to be turned quite a bit to the left to make the low C key connection work, but this is also not too much of an issue, and I hardly notice anymore.
Close inspection revealed very nicely finished toneholes, a very smooth bore free of burrs or imperfections, and quite meticulously fitted keywork. The Selmer-style upper joint trill keys are particularly attractive to me, and I quite enjoy the left hand low E/B and F#/C# keys, which require only slightly more effort than a Bb soprano clarinet.
The wood-shell case is also very snugly fitted and quite sturdy, with two very heavy-duty latches and a subway handle (end handle), which was a lovely surprise, as I expected a zippered foam horror that offered little to no protection.
I have long been a very big fan of Tom Ridenour's, and I'm very happy to say that my experience with his Lyrique bass clarinet has only added to my admiration. Very few people know the clarinet better or love it more than he does, and it certainly shows in his current offerings. I am very proud (and fortunate!) to be able to say that I make the entirety of my living playing the clarinet around the world for thousands of people a week, and I do it with a Ridenour instrument.
In summation, I would like to emphatically urge all woodwind doublers, or even symphonic bass clarinet players who absolutely cannot afford to buy a Buffet 1193 or a Selmer Privilege to audition a Lyrique bass. I really think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of this instrument!
Check out me shredding some Shostakovich on this thing!