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Andreas Ottensamer: Über-cool clarinettist hits big-time

Features - Classical Music

Andreas Ottensamer: Über-cool clarinettist hits big-time

by Clive Paget on July 23, 2013 (July 23, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
The young musician was in town to headline at August's Deutsche Grammophon Yellow Lounge in Sydney.

So you were working as a clarinettist for the Berlin Philharmonic, then suddenly you got a surprise call from Deutsche Grammophon. Is that right?

Yes, I’ve no idea how they found me! They must have heard me play somewhere. The producer introduced the label – which was completely unnecessary because every musician knows what Deutsche Grammophon is – and invited me for lunch. From the first moment on there was a very good vibe, very good communication. As you can imagine, it was not a very tough decision for me to go with the label.

Was it a big change for you to shift from playing concerts to working in a studio?

One great thing about the experience is that we recorded in the concert hall in Rotterdam, so I didn’t have to adjust to a new atmosphere. And technically speaking it was convenient because we didn’t have to add any reverb or effects to the recording; we could use the natural sound. Also, the orchestra and conductor were pretty amazing.

Yeah, recording with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic sounds like a fantasy for a debut artist.

I was completely shocked when he was mentioned as a possible conductor. Yannick was at the top of the list of the shortlist of people I would have liked to record with.

Had you played under him before at the Berlin Phil?

Yes, just a couple of months earlier. I didn’t know at the time that we would be making an album together. I was so impressed by what he did with the Berlin Phil, the way he rehearsed – everything. And it was helpful for someone inexperienced like me to have a conductor who will really dedicate time to the project.

You’ve got an eclectic program on the album, from Cimarosa to Gershwin. How did you select the music?

That eclectic mix is deliberate. I didn’t want to focus on a particular period or genre, so I tried to connect the program to my personal life as a musician. The most important pieces were obviously the concertos, the Copland and also the Cimarosa [Oboe Concerto arr. for clarinet]. These concertos were really close to me throughout my studies and also in concert – and the Copland concerto is just so much fun to play.

The Spohr Clarinet Concerto No 1 is an unusual choice. Why Spohr?

The Spohr concertos have probably suffered unduly by being compared to the Weber concertos, which are preferred by concert managers or orchestras. I feel it’s a hugely underrated piece, and I hope it adds a touch of my personal taste to the disc.

And you’ve got some less canonical arrangements: Gershwin Preludes and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

Well, I played the piano before the clarinet and so my first experience was with the original version. Playing it with the clarinet and orchestra was a really great challenge and a great adventure to open this door into a new soundworld. And it’s always a challenge because the piece should gain something from the arrangement.

There’s always a fine line between reimagining and compromising a piece.

Yes, we tried to open new doors but at the same time we want to respect the writing of the composer. For example, in the Debussy, when he writes broken chords on the piano, he does so because the chords are just too big to play with one hand. Of course, on the harp or with a whole orchestra you could play the chords unbroken, but we decided not to change the language of the piece. Then in the Gershwin you can exploit the arsenal of the clarinet, such as bent notes, that you can’t get on the piano. That’s the fun thing about arrangements. In the Gershwin, we got really adventurous, and changed the entire face of the piece to almost something like Latin jazz, with woodblocks and a big percussion crew. So yeah, that was kind of one step further than we were willing to go with the other pieces. And in the Debussy you can really make a long diminuendo on one note until it almost fades out and then enter again from nothing – something you just can’t do on the piano.

Your brother and father are both principal clarinettists with the Vienna Philharmonic. What was it like growing up in the Ottensamer household?

Music was present from the first day of my life even before I could realise what was going on.

Poor guy! So you had no choice?

I had no choice! [laughs] It was just the most natural thing on earth to have music at home, as I had never experienced anything else. And it was the same with the clarinet: this instrument was always around me. It was not something I had to approach from a new point of view.

Did it ever get competitive with three clarinettists all in the same house?

No, not at all! We played trios together from the very beginning. From the moment I could produce a note we already started to try to play together. It was very friendly and nice. Deciding I want to stick with this instrument do this for a living was a whole different decision I took much later.

Do you see yourself focussing on solo work now, or still playing in an orchestra?

The greatest gift of being a musician is that you don’t have to settle on one field. I don’t have to be just a chamber musician, or just an orchestral musician, or just a soloist. I couldn’t imagine specialising in this way, because the different fields help each other so much. If you’re a chamber musician you learn a lot by playing in an orchestra or playing solo. And the more a soloist knows about playing in an orchestra the more compatible you can be with the orchestra accompanying you. Perhaps it’s naïve to think it’s possible, but I would like to do all these things.

Andreas Ottensamer will play the DG Yellow Lounge at MTV in August and as media sponsor Limelight has five double passes to give away (see our online competition section).

As a bonus for budding clarinettists, Andreas will give a free masterclass at the Sydney Conservatorium:

Tuesday August 6 from 6pm – 8:30pm

The Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music (Corner Bridge & Macquarie Street, Sydney)