Swedish clarinetist Emil Jonason guests at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music Aug. 11.

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s acclaimed Clarinet Concerto (2002) expands upon a single melodic theme sweeping forward in five sections. The musical trajectory of demanding passages should give guest artist Emil Jonason a chance to pull out all the stops, so to speak, in a musical dialogue with the orchestra. The piece culminates in a froth of solo cadenza improvisation before exploding into a denouement for full orchestra. Jonason, a Swedish virtuoso who turned 30 last week, admits that he is energized by the prospect of performing it at the upcoming Cabrillo Festival.

“It's extremely exciting coming to California—this is my first performance in the U.S., and it couldn't be at a more wonderful venue. It is a huge deal for me to be performing at the festival.”

Jonason confesses that he had to do some homework about the event when he was first contacted about performing. “I couldn't believe it when I found out more about the Cabrillo Festival—I thought, oh man!”

The first question, of course, is: why the clarinet?

“That's easy to answer,” says Jonason. “We have a public music school in Sweden that anyone may apply to, and when I was 10 my mother asked which instrument specialty had no waiting list. It turned out to be the clarinet, and so that was it.”

It turned out to be a great fit. “I went to the Södra Latins Gymnasium, in Stockholm from age 15 to 19, and then to the Royal College of Music.” Jonason’s father had played amateur clarinet—jazz and swing. “I took over his clarinet when I started. And I just kept going.”  

When it comes to influences, he first names his wife, a classical music composer.  “She has a new commission from Australia for a flute and guitar piece. We talk about music all the time,” he confesses happily. “We're a musical family.”

Jonason is a huge fan of American composers, and recently he and his pianist friend transposed some Aaron Copland songs based on poems by Emily Dickinson for piano and clarinet.

Having performed Mozart’s legendary Clarinet Concerto in A major (1791), Jonason praises Lindberg’s concerto as “one of the best things I've ever played. It has a lot of notes, and takes a lot of practice time. You must have a great collaboration with the orchestra for it to work. It’s so much fun!”

While other music might contain more difficult technical passages than Lindberg’s piece (which he nonetheless concedes is quite challenging), he believes “they often lack the purely musical aspect. I think that Magnus’ concerto is one of the most “clarinet-esque’ pieces out there—it pushes the instrument and what it can do.”

Jonason is particularly energized on the topic of improvisation. “I used to do improvisational work at my music high school. I played classical and jazz, lots of big band and jazz classics. Within even classical pieces there are cadenzas where the performer can improvise.”

As a clarinetist, it’s almost obvious that he would have dabbled in Klezmer, a musical idiom that often highlights a wailing, jazzlike clarinet. “I played in a Klezmer band for several years at that same gymnasium.  I’m not really schooled in Klezmer,” he confesses. “I have just listened to records, and then done my own version. I went to Poland to play at a Jewish cultural festival—and also I have performed Romanian and gypsy music. It was so much fun.”

When it comes to composing, he says, he’s a perfectionist.

“I'm never satisfied with my own compositions. It's hard to get over the perfectionist thing—my wife is like that, too.”

That said, Jonason will be performing some of his variations on the music of Tom Waits during his festival residency. And photography is a new passion. “I got a very nice camera when I turned 30, and I'm bringing it to California,” he enthuses. “I'm looking forward to taking some photos. Right now I’ve managed to take about 200 pictures of my kids in just a few days.”

Jonason makes no predictions about his career. “I don't know about the future. My plan is to play as much as I can of the music I love, whether it leads to gigs or recording or whatever,” he says. “As long as I can play music I love, I’m completely satisfied.”

Emil Jonason plays Aug. 11 at the Santa Cruz Civic.