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Interview with Andreas Ottensamer

img  Tobias Fischer

On the face of it, Andreas Ottensamer's debut solo release, The Clarinet Album, is all about his relationship with his instrument. It is a relationship which runs in the family – both his father and brother are highly acclaimed professional clarinetists – and which was forged over many years of practise and performing and of trying his hands at the piano and cello first. And yet, there's more to this release than meets the eye. On The Clarinet Album, Ottensamer also explores his love for both jazz and classical music, for the Viennese tradition in which he was raised and the exciting mood of departure he's experiencing first hand as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. This versatility and neverending curiosity set him apart from many of his colleagues – no wonder Tori Amos invited him to perform on her 2011 album Night of Hunters. They also keep him pushing forward, towards new challenges and creative frontiers: The next season will see him touring Asia with the Berlin Phil, Europe as a soloist and a chamber musician as well as "getting together with friends at my festival Buergenstock Momente in Switzerland". As if that weren't enough, a new CD is already in the making. But for now, The Clarinet Album deserves all the attention it can get. We spoke to Andreas Ottensamer about his passion for the most diverse styles and genres, what prompted his choice of repertoire for The Clarinet Album and why his career only really started after moving to Berlin.

I understand it wasn't always clear that you would make music your profession.
I knew very soon it was my dream to become a professional musician - but not at any cost. The job market in classical music is very tough and being realistic I didn't see high chances for me to succeed in getting a job as a musician I would be happy with, as my father and brother occupy the principle clarinet positions in the Vienna Phil. I have always had many interests and would have rather studied something else than ending up unhappy being a musician - I love music too much to let myself get frustrated with the job I have. But I decided to give it a chance and follow my passion to see where it leads. And I'm very happy how things turned out!

You played the piano and cello for a while before turning towards the clarinet.
I had my first piano lessons when I was four - I believe this is the ideal start for a kid to get in touch with music. Later it also gives you the possibility to really understand the harmonic structures. My second choice was the cello - my favorite string instrument. I love the dark, full sound. I am very thankful I had the chance to make my experiences on various instruments, it helps a lot to understand the difficulties and possibilities of a string instrument or the piano and broadens your imagination of sound and interpretation. Nowadays I still enjoy playing the piano now and then - I find it very relaxing.

The clarinet, however, has always been very present at home. I heard my father practicing and performing - later my brother joined in as well. Therefore it has always been a very natural element of my life. It was no big surprise I wanted to try this instrument at some point. And once I had started, I couldn't let go and made quick progress. I love the warm sound, especially of the traditional Viennese instrument. And I admire the role the clarinet is given in chamber music, orchestral and solo repertoire.

What impact has moving to Berlin had for you?
Of course my primary musical influence was Vienna. The Viennese music tradition is one of the most profound in the world and the style, sound and entire concept of music making is a world of its own. Especially the Viennese clarinet - slightly different from the German-system instrument - has a long and cautiously cherished tradition. It is my highest priority to maintain my sound imagination and quality. But when I came to Berlin I entered an entirely new world and was eager to soak in all the new influences. I have the privilege to work closely with many inspiring musicians of the Orchestra -especially my woodwind colleagues - and it is fantastic to learn from every chamber music partner I play with. Vienna means a lot to me, because it's the city where I got in touch with music and traditional values.

On the other hand, going to Berlin was a very easy decision, because at that time there were a lot more opportunities for me than in my hometown Vienna. In Berlin I had the chance to experience fantastic new approaches to life as a musician. In the orchestra academy of the Berlin Phil and then later playing as principal clarinetist with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin and now the BPO. The city is a magnet for all kinds of art and especially musicians. You can see great performances (symphonic concert, chamber music, opera, jazz etc) every night if you want. It is Berlin where my professional career really started.

How do the German Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Phil compare, would you say?
It fantastic for me to make my first experiences as principle clarinetist with such a fantastic orchestra. They have many young and ambitious musicians and I'm still close to some of them. Of course the highest goal you can set yourself as orchestra musician is to become a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. The major difference for a musician himself is probably the presence of the orchestra in media and on tours throughout the world - the BPO is very active in both. Also, I can't think of another orchestra where so many players pursue their own solo career. This can be very nourishing for the entire orchestra.

How did The Clarinet Album come about?
I was very honored when Alex Buhr from Deutsche Grammophon/ Mercury Classics approached me with an offer of collaboration and of course a solo debut album is something very special. I consider myself very lucky I was able to record my debut album with such outstanding partners - the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. They were, of course, a perfect combination and Yannick and I just have the same musical understanding and no words were needed.

What's your perspective on the ongoing relevance of recordings albums these days?
Being able to record albums is a real privilege - all the more with such a great team Deutsche Grammophon and Mercury Classics put together. I feel huge responsibility and excitement to have the opportunity to present my music to a broader range of people - not only in concert. Of course concerts are such special events and recordings can only try to get as close as possible to the real life experience - but, just like a painter, we are given the chance to put together a piece of art that lasts. I feel recordings, of any form, will always be relevant in music.

In the past, you've mentioned your love for chamber music. Why then, did you decide against going for a more intimate approach on the album?
Chamber music is a gift and an integral part of my life as a musician. As I have just been appointed artistic director of the Festival "Buergenstock Momente" in Switzerland together with Pianist José Gallardo, I enjoy to be very active as a chamber musician and to gain from every new experience.
As a clarinetist I feel especially blessed by the wonderful repertoire written for us. But it is very hard to present yourself with a chamber music disc to an audience that has never heard of you before. Chamber music is the "supreme discipline" of music making - and I want people to know me as a musician before going down that path.

What binds the pieces you selected for the album together, would you say?
The choice of pieces is very well thought through. It was never my intention to randomly pick pieces of different character or time – my priority was to find pieces that are closely linked to my musical life. I think it is nice how the concept works without knowing this: just listening to the combination of the pieces  feels natural to me - but when one digs deeper one finds the point of connection. The album is linked very closely to my musical education. I have chosen two of the great concertos which have accompanied me throughout my clarinet studies - Spohr's First and the Copland Concerto. The clarinet being the only woodwind instrument with broad romantic repertoire, it was my top priority to record one of these concertos - I took the risk to go for Spohr rather than Weber, because I've always had the feeling his concertos are not acknowledged enough. And Copland, of course, showcases perfectly the ability of the clarinet to be a jazz instrument. The third concerto by D.Cimarosa, originally keyboard sonatas, comes as close to operatic writing as possible and gave me the opportunity to include a homage to my initial experience with the Vienna State Opera to this album.

And the three small pieces are all works I have played in the original version, on the cello or the piano, years ago and were now arranged for clarinet and orchestra - an extraordinary feeling to change my point of view on the music and find new dimensions of sound and interpretation.

The album also contains some exciting excursions into jazz territory.
One feature I wanted to show with my album is the flexibility of my instrument. The clarinet feels at home in almost any musical style. As a clarinetist of course I am fond of jazz and this vast world of opportunities. I am far from being a specialist or a real jazz musician, but I like to be open for anything and try new projects. As we see in Copland's concerto or others by Bernstein or Artie Shaw, there are many jazz-like concertos written for the clarinet. I think it is a must to be flexible between musical styles as a performer - of course some things you learn in jazz can help immensely in classical music as well, but you have to be able to separate any two fields of music, otherwise your playing will sound more-less the same in the end.

What was the recording process like?
Recording sessions are very intense. Time is limited and the parties (orchestra, conductor and soloist) often don't have the possibility to prepare together. I found it very helpful that we recorded in the De Doelen concert hall in Rotterdam - the orchestra's "home" - and therefore had a very concert-like atmosphere. Yannick was on top of my list when we discussed possible conductors for this project - and being the Rpho's chief conductor he was the perfect coordinator. His music making is very special to me, and we became close friends.

How would you describe your approach to interpretation?
I always try to understand what the composer wanted me to feel and how he would like me to express it. It is important to have good background information and theoretical knowledge to be able to interpret the composer's writing (and sometimes ignore the publisher's adaptions etc) - but in the end, music is spontaneous and whatever emotion will be present on the day of the performance will have an effect on the outcome. And this is the fascinating thing about music! It's so close to life and connects and interacts with everything around us.

At the moment I'm experiencing the new field of work of being an artistic director of the Buergenstock Momente Festival in Switzerland - which is very challenging. I always try to keep up to date with all the developments concerning my instrument and the material and I am lucky to have great people collaborating with me here.

You can not separate technique from interpretation, can you?
The technique of playing your instrument is the means of expressing yourself - therefore it is immensely important not to limit yourself because your technique doesn’t allow you to "say" what you want. On the other hand, the music is what matters - so no need to overestimate the importance of how fast or how impressively you can play a passage, if musically it doesn’t make any sense!

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Andreas Ottensamer
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon
Homepage: Mercury Classics
Homepage: Buergenstock Momente Festival