DPO principal clarinetist, Kwami Barnett, performs a bit outside the imagined staff lines. He is making a name for himself in the classical music world with focused precision and admirable freedom, one celebrated performance at a time.
At just 41, he has more than 30 years of playing experience under his belt. Kwami currently serves as principal clarinet in the Denver Philharmonic and teaches at both the collegiate and high school levels. And now, on October 8 he is the featured soloist performing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in the Clash of the Titans.
Kwami was just 9 when he first began playing the clarinet. Growing up in Ohio, he heard the sweet sounds of the clarinet in the Cincinnati Symphony and was immediately taken by the instrument; he felt an instant connection.
“It sounded exciting. It was noodley but serious. It was funny but dramatic. I basically fell in love with it from there,” he said. “I put it together. No one told me how, but I put the reed on the clarinet and it was like I had been playing for a long time. I feel like it found me and it changed the trajectory of my life.”
This sort of fate is more common for Kwami than most. A series of chance circumstances lead him to Colorado and eventually to his current leadership role with DPO.
“I didn’t expect as soon as I moved out here I would have a collegiate teaching job, I would win an orchestra job, I would be conducting a church orchestra, then finally teaching at a high school.”
As a Black man in a space traditionally dominated by white artists, Barnett finds strength in being exactly who he is—a distinguished musician with talent in droves. He critically studies the world of classical music, while embracing all the beauty and love that it offers.
Speaking to the historic lack of diversity within classical music, he said, “I never let that stop me. I saw the Denver Philharmonic as an outlet. I’m doing the exact same thing that everyone is doing. We’re making music and loving it.”
“I’m able to get outside of that musical box and do things that are unpredictable. Do things like ‘Mozart wouldn’t have done this but what about Kwami in 2021?’ How could I make Mozart smile if he were to show up to a concert.”
While some choose to express themselves through words, Kwami’s preferred mode of communication is his instrument. In the DPO he is able to have a conversation with the audience, the notes of his clarinet acting as playful banter.
Kwami has a tempered outlook on his career and lifestyle, describing himself using the words predictable, structured and freedom. Freedom, he explains, comes through structure.
“I’m able to get outside of that musical box and do things that are unpredictable. Do things like ‘Mozart wouldn’t have done this but what about Kwami in 2021?’ How could I make Mozart smile if he were to show up to a concert.” Kwami believes we all have a bit of Mozart in us.
For his upcoming solo in the sweeping Mozart Clarinet Concerto, Barnett plans to leverage this freedom by infusing his own flare within the style of the traditional piece.
“I want to play the concerto as my version, the 2021 version. Still keeping with the structure but showing some kind of newness to it.”