Not so long ago, as a 9-year-old child, Jose Franch-Ballester aspired to the musical life of the many clarinetists and singers in his extended Spanish family.
Monday at City Honors Middle School, Franch-Ballester, now 28 and a much-in-demand classical artist, surveyed the children filing into the auditorium and wondered if any harbored similar ambitions -- or latent talent he might awaken by playing and answering their questions.
Accompanied by Andrius Zlabys on piano, the clarinetist did his best to stir the youngsters' musical curiosity during a free mini-recital presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society.
Swaying, bending, sometimes rising quickly on one foot and jabbing the air with the clarinet as his fingers skittered over the keys, Franch-Ballester repeated pieces by Sergei Prokofiev and Johannes Brahms from the society's "Gift to the Community" recital Sunday in Kleinhans Music Hall.
The program was presented to fifth-, sixth- and eighth-graders. As the music to came to life, the young audience grew fully engaged. No yawning or daydreaming could be detected.
"What do you like about the piece?" Franch-Ballester asked after nimbly negotiating the tricky Prokofiev sonata. "Happy? Good. Exciting? Fast? Anything else?"
The slower Brahms sonata offered an instructive counterpoint to the Prokofiev.
"What do you like about the ending?" the artist asked afterward. "It was slow. Anything else? Lower and more mellow? Right!"
After zipping through a variation on Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto" to show how music can be molded into new shapes, Franch-Ballester gave away a secret.
Explaining his ability to perform for long stretches without taking a breath, he pointed to his right cheek. "I put the air in here," he said, and proceeded to demonstrate by walking up one aisle and down another playing "Flight of the Bumblebee," drawing on the air stored in the puffed-out jowl.
The artist sealed the bond with his young audience by letting them know he is a fan of Radio-head and Shakira and by finishing the recital with George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Getting on the right track toward what has become a very busy career was not simple, said Franch-Ballester, who moved to Philadelphia in 2000 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. He has traveled the recital and concert circuit with Zlabys, a native of Lithuania, since 2004.
His father initially gave him a battered drum to play "because there were too many clarinetists in the family," he told the City Honors youngsters. Only after failing at percussion was he given the chance to do what was in his blood.
Franch-Ballester, who won a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant earlier this year, gladly goes to classrooms whenever he is invited because, he says, such performances are vital to developing young audiences and performers. "They can see the fun of doing what we do," he said.
It was the 64th school performance by visiting artists since the 85-year-old Chamber Music Society started the educational outreach program in 1994, said Clementina Fleshler, the organization's executive director.
The society offers free, informal mini-recitals and master classes as its contribution to music education in area schools, she said.