Originally published in The Clarinet 50/3 (June 2023).
Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Remembering David Atkins
by Mary Kantor, with Jane Ellsworth and Peter Christ
How do you summarize a life in an article? I first met David Atkins back in the 1960s when I started taking clarinet lessons. He would come to the house, give a lesson in the living room while my mom made dinner, then eat with us before he went on to his gig in the Pasadena Symphony. Those lessons and dinners were full of vintage Dave stories about the freelancer’s life with all its joys and perils. My parents were tremendously entertained, and his presence was a great music education in and of itself for us all.
Dave liked to say he was “just another clarinetist,” which showed humility and a sense of “knowing our place” in the musical hierarchy, but he had absolute technical mastery, a beautiful tone, and utmost musicality. He busied himself composing and arranging, and could play piano reasonably well. In my mind, there are not many who can claim as much.
Born in 1937 in Los Angeles, California, David Atkins showed an interest in music and the clarinet in high school. He received his first musical training from Antonio Raimondi, Roy D’Antonio, and later, Mitchell Lurie. He attended East Los Angeles College, USC, Cal State Long Beach, and UCLA. He was also in the Meremblum Junior Orchestra with Peter Christ, oboist and founder of Crystal Records.
Dave’s career as soloist started right out of college. He started touring as soloist with Henry Temianka’s Little Symphony, which later evolved into the California Chamber Symphony. He went on to solo with orchestras up and down the West Coast, from southern California to Sitka, Alaska. Some highlights include the Ojai Festival with Pierre Boulez conducting, and the Alaska International Music Festival under Robert Shaw.
Dave’s orchestra career includes many steady engagements as principal clarinet with the Pasadena Symphony, the Britt Festival, the California Chamber Symphony, plus performing often with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York City Opera, American Ballet Theater, and others too numerous to mention.
Dave’s chamber music career got a great start with regular appearances on the prestigious Monday Evening Concert Series in Los Angeles (www.mondayeveningconcerts.org
By far the most important aspect of Dave’s career was the Westwood Wind Quintet, which he founded in 1959 with Peter Christ, oboe, and David Breidenthal, bassoon. As a quintet, they recorded a large catalog of standard woodwind quintet music and world premieres, and toured throughout the US. They worked with Darius Milhaud while recording and performing his work, La Cheminée du Roi René, and with Robert Kraft at Stravinsky’s house while rehearsing and recording the Schoenberg Quintet. The group has received much critical acclaim. Reviews include the following:
“Magnificent American group. Superlative playing…a recording which, equally good in tone-quality, balance and clarity, can also be described as superlative.” Gramophone Magazine (London)
“An accumulation of instrumental polish & important repertory over a long period has resulted in a treasurable sense of ensemble and musical solidity.” Los Angeles Times
“As usual, the Westwood Wind Quintet plays with spirit, finesse, polish, and magnificent articulation. Very fine recording.” Fanfare
The quintet did a lot of work in Alaska—in Sitka, Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage—as part of the Alaska Festival and as part of the Ambassador program. One of their memorable adventures in the north was a ride in a bush plane to the island of Hoonah. The pilot looked to be quite young, and was acting as pilot, baggage loader, guide, and one-man airport employee. The quintet was quite apprehensive, but they survived, and the only mishap was that the kid forgot to load Peter Christ’s luggage, so he played the concert on the tiny island in his blue jeans.
Dave’s career also included a lot of studio work in Hollywood: television, movies, a backup band for Frank Sinatra, recordings with Jascha Heifetz, and a memorable last-minute call to record Daphnis, Bolero and Till Eulenspiegel on E♭ clarinet, all on one day! And the Till part on the stand was in D! Boulez was conducting.
Dave was a fine teacher, He could demonstrate tone and technique, while dispensing good career advice. Famous students include Dan St. Marseille, Deborah Carnahan, Jennifer Showalter, Clarence Padilla, and Dan Willard.
After a long and successful career, Dave grew tired of the hectic freelance life, and when his main contractors retired, he wasn’t getting all the calls he used to. He then moved up to Washington state in the 1990s. While living there, he continued to perform in groups such as the contemporary music ensemble “Fear No Music,” subbed in the Seattle Symphony, and did a world tour with the iconic Yanni. He told me the musicians were treated quite well on these tours and he enjoyed them quite a bit. Like many great musicians in retirement, he spent every evening at the piano, playing the great masters.
In the late 1990s, Dave and his wife, Si, bought and ran very successful restaurant, the Thai Pavilion in Olympia. We went there many times, and he was a great front-of-house person. He was a raconteur, with so many adventures to recount. While he was opinionated about all things music, he was kind and helpful to all, beloved by his friends and family. Dave Atkins passed away in October 2022 at the age of 85. He is dearly missed by those who loved him.
A recording of David Atkins playing the Randall Thompson Suite for Oboe, Clarinet & Viola can be heard at https://youtu.be/AGxZGA3h_hQ.
The following are remembrances from those who knew David Atkins:
From Peter Christ:
David Atkins and I were good friends from high school days in the 1950s when we met in the fabulous Meremblum Junior Symphony in Los Angeles. He was a fantastic clarinetist even in the early days and I often went to his house to play duets. At UCLA we frequently played chamber music together and soon decided to form our own woodwind quintet. Dave and I were cofounders of the Westwood Wind Quintet with which we played together over 3000 concerts, both in Los Angeles and on tour. Dave was a delight to play with. He seemingly could play anything technically and his tone was dark and rich. He was a marvelous chamber player. As a person, he was extremely agreeable and usually willing to accept viewpoints of others, though he could have his own opinions. We remained close friends even after he retired from clarinet and we both moved to different parts of the country. I was shocked by his sudden death which was totally unexpected. I continue to miss him greatly.
From Michele Zukovsky:
I would listen to Dave’s phenomenal clarinet playing on the museum concerts with the Westwood Quintet, i.e. Barber’s Summer Music and other insanely hard pieces. David Atkins was one of a kind. He even worked on his own reeds and was an amazing talent. What a loss to the clarinet world when he retired. And way too early for us fans. RIP, Dave!
From a long conversation with colleague David Breidenthal, principal bassoon with the L.A. Philharmonic for 47 years:
Breidenthal remembered Dave as a great friend, loyal, charming, and witty, whose playing was consistently great—solid in every way. Breidenthal had the following entertaining story of an adventure with Dave Atkins: They decided together to go camping in the Mammoth Lakes Wilderness area and carry their instruments along in their 80-pound packs so they could play duets at the top. After a long arduous uphill hike, they reached the campground, which was over 10,000 feet elevation. Well, reeds don’t do much at that elevation, so duets were out of the question. Then it started to rain hard. They had waterproof gear, but it can only work so well. They hiked in misery down the mountain with mud and rain the whole way to find that Dave Atkin’s new Renault did not handle the climb so well either. There were also some looks when they had to get their instruments worked on after that experience as well. Something to look back on and have a good laugh!
David Atkins Selected Discography (not including orchestral performances):
Sony Records: Schönberg Wind Quintet, (originally Columbia Records) with Westwood Wind Quintet
Crystal Records, David Atkins with Westwood Wind Quintet:
CD601: Nielsen, Hindemith, Schulhoff. Nielsen, Quintet; Hindemith, Kleine Kammermusik; Erwin Schulhoff, Divertissement (oboe, clarinet, bassoon).
CD750: Samuel Barber: Summer Music; Gyorgi Ligeti: Six Bagatelles; William Mathias: Quintet; Mark Carlson: Nightwings (tape & woodwind quintet).
CD751: Ingolf Dahl, Allegro & Arioso; Karel Husa, Serenade for Piano & Wind Quintet; Jerzy Sapieyevski, Arioso for Trumpet & Wind Quintet; Louis Moyse, Quintet. With Lisa Bergman, piano; Richard Pressley, trumpet.
CD752: Bergsma, Concerto for Wind Quintet; Rochberg, To the Dark Wood; Carter, Woodwind Quintet 1948; Biggs, Scherzo; Plog, Animal Ditties; Schuller, Suite; Schuman, Dances for Woodwind Quintet and Percussion with Matthew Kocmieroski, percussion.
CD647: Jerzy Sapieyevski, Concerto for Viola and Winds; Anthony Plog, Four Miniatures for viola and wind quintet (with James Dunham, viola)
CD353: Milhaud, Scaramouche (Sax, Woodwind Quintet); Heiden, Intrada (Sax, Woodwind Quintet); Dubois, Sinfonia da Camera (Sax, Woodwind Quintet) (the previous 3 pieces with Harvey Pittel, Saxophone). Plus Ibert, Trois Pièces Brèves (first mvt) –Woodwind Quin; J.S. Bach, Fugue from Well-Tempered Clavier (arr. by David Atkins for WW Trio); Rossini, Quartet no. 1 in F (first mvt) – for Fl, Clar, Hn, Bn; DeWailly, Aubade (Fl, Ob, Cl); Barthe, Passacaille (Woodwind Quin); Malcolm Arnold, Divertimento (Fl, Ob, Cl–first mvt); Rimsky-Korsakov, Flight of the Bumble-Bee (arr. for WW Quintet by David Atkins); Sowerby, Pop Goes the Weasel (adapted by Westwood WQ).
CD321: Randall Thompson: Suite (Oboe, Clarinet, viola). (With Peter Christ, oboe, and Alan DeVeritch, viola)
CD154: Leon Stein, Sextet for Saxophone and Woodwind Quintet (with Brian Minor, saxophone)
CD667: Revueltas, Two Little Serious Pieces (with Thomas Stevens, trumpet)
CD360: Chavez, Soli (with Thomas Stevens, trumpet)
WIM Records (David Atkins in various groups):
WIMR1: Doran, Campo, Pillin, Schmidt (David Atkins, solo clarinet, with Sharon Davis, piano)
WIMR20: Reinecke Trio, Op. 274, for Piano, Clarinet, and Horn (with Sharon Davis, piano; and Calvin Smith, horn)
WIMR23: Sharon Davis, Though Men Call Us Free (with Sharon Davis, piano)