'I'm scared sometimes - it doesn't have to be comfortable'
SWEDISH MUSICIAN Martin Fröst is what you might call a clarinettist apart. He’s renowned for the spontaneity and physicality of his performances. And he allows spontaneity to reach what you might call its natural level, when he dispenses with set texts and offers audiences improvisations as encores.
He’s coming to Dublin for the first time for a concerto double-bill with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu, following the concerto Aaron Copland wrote for Benny Goodman in 1948 with the millennium version of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales, originally written for Fröst himself in 1998.
It was in Norway, at Stavanger’s International Chamber Music Festival, that I caught up with him. He’s one of the festival’s artistic directors, and is also the director of Vinterfest, a February festival in snow-covered Dalarna in Sweden.
That’s actually a five- to six-hour drive south of Sundsvall and Sollefteå, where Fröst grew up. “My family moved towards the north all the time, until I was 15. And then I moved myself down to Stockholm and to Germany.” His parents, both doctors, were also enthusiastic musical amateurs, and music, live or recorded, permeated the household. It was Jack Brymer’s recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, that first fired his love for the clarinet, and although he also studied violin for a while, there was no doubt where his first love lay.
His ambitions were always to be a soloist, although he did play in orchestras as a youngster. “I became almost more nervous in an orchestra than I was as a soloist, actually. You know, sitting down and counting the bars, and suddenly you are in focus . . . that was difficult for me as a child . . . not to be in focus and then suddenly to be the focus. I was enormously embarrassed most of the time.” He was uncomfortable with the world of music competitions, too. “I did one international competition. And I hated it. But I actually got the first prize. So I was very lucky.”
Hate is a strong word. He explains. “226 players practise the same passages in Stravinsky’s Three Pieces in a hotel which has no sound-proofed rooms. I was sitting with my headphones, to try to get some peace. It was crazy. Then I did the first round, and I had a memory slip in one bar, so I thought, now I’m out. So I packed my bag. But, somehow, I got to the next round. And then it was a bit better. But the concept is strange. If you were on a jury, to sit down and listen to 226 people playing the same piece, and say, this is art, this is not art.”
He thinks that the isolation of his youth helped to make him independent. After studies in Stockholm, he went to Hanover, to study under Hans Deinzer, “the Pope of the clarinet as a teacher in Germany”, who “has a magic gift when teaching. I have this memory that we could stay on the first phrase in the Mozart concerto or whatever, and do it again and again, and suddenly a moment of magic would come, and he’d nail you with his eyes, ‘Hast du es gefühlt?’– ‘Did you feel it?’ These moments meant a lot for me.” Fröst’s recordings for the Swedish label BIS were also very important to him. He was in his early 20s when he started working in the studio in the early 1990s, and it was the producers and the process they created which were was so special. “When I listen to other clarinet recordings, I can tell they were quickly made, and under stress.” At one point our conversation forked, and I found myself telling him about an almost out-of-body experience I had performing in a piano duet at a student concert. It was a terrifying ordeal, as one of the two mes watched the other one playing, without knowing how I was actually doing it, or even what the next note would be. Fröst knew exactly what I was talking about. He drew on a story by the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. “She describes exactly this, but it’s a woman who never can experience something herself. She is caught by the self- watching spirit. It’s a very poetic description, I can’t say it in English. That’s this guy who comes and sits on her shoulder or in the air nearby, and watches her with his ice eyes, these very blue eyes, totally without motion. And he takes a patchwork quilt, and tears it back into small pieces, and says, ‘Look, you have nothing.’ It’s an extremely scary description, and it’s right on the spot.”
His nerves and self-awareness, he says, focus around the fear that the music will not come to life, especially with pieces that he plays a lot. “When I go to the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam] and play Mozart for the 12th time, maybe, and stand there, the first thought can be, just do it as well as you’re expected. It was a good performance the last time, so do it exactly the same. We have to reincarnate the music all the time, so that’s not a good thought to start with. But I have tricks now. It has a lot to do with the here and now, that the present is the only thing that exists.”
More and more, he says, he manages to be relaxed. “I’m scared sometimes, but I feel more and more relaxed in the sense that if I don’t know which note I should start with, I don’t get panicked. I know it will come. It has to do with the room, with the people around me, with the orchestra, the sound, the ground under my feet, the lighting, everything comes together, just from being there. And it also gives a lot of energy. When you’re standing there and you feel this here and now, just be here and it will be wonderful. And it’s not always comfortable, but I like it. It doesn’t have to be comfortable all the time.”
Martin Fröst plays Copland and Hillborg with the RTÉ NSO at the NCH on Friday