ICMA (International Classical Music Awards) has voted Swedish clarinetist/conductor/Sony recording artist Martin Fröst as their 2022 ‘Artist of the Year Award’ for his innovative global career, his impressive discography, and his philanthropy.
He has taken the art of clarinet to a level rarely seen before: in addition to his highly acclaimed performances of classical repertoire, he also blends theatrics and high-tech, choreography, improvisation, genre-mixing, and commissioning new works into his planetary-level productivity of performances and recordings. Fröst has not only redefined this particular woodwind category, but has set a commandingly high bar of creativity for those that come after him.
Once you’ve witnessed Fröst live in performance, you’ll definitely want more of what he has to offer. According to the New York Times, the artist possesses “a virtuosity and a musicianship unsurpassed by any clarinetist — perhaps any instrumentalist — in my memory.” Winner of the 2014 Léonie Sonning Music Prize, one of the world’s highest musical honors, Fröst was the first clarinetist to be given the award, thus joining a prestigious list of previous recipients including Igor Stravinsky and Sir Simon Rattle. He has performed with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. He has collaborated with hundreds of prominent international artists around the globe.
His 26th and latest album, “Night Passages,” to be released in April, is nineteen tracks of intimate duos and trios with Martin assisted by double bassist Sebastien Dubé and pianist Roland Pöntinen. The personal text insert that accompanies the disc explains the logic of his selections: they are based on his dreams, memories, his family, stories, and dancing. Among those memories is an impromptu duet with Miles Davis, seeing Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and meeting Swiss impresario Paul Sacher and pianist Géza Anda’s wife at a party where Fröst was the musical guest. This disc is the result of several bouts of Ménière’s Disease as well as Covid-19, two things which have influenced many of his current career decisions.
This album is also where he débuts his latest invention: the new BCXXI clarinet, developed with the French firm Buffet Crampon. Compared to the standard orchestral B-flat clarinet, it’s longer, possesses a burnished tone, and has added low notes and a few technical changes. This new instrument is just one of the many ongoing projects in this musician’s brilliant mind, which inhabits many musical planets. Here are some of his thoughts about, well, just about everything going on in his particular solar system.
– What does ICMA’s Artist of the Year Award mean to you?
– It means a lot, because our history of performances and recordings is very special in musicians’ lives, and I think in my case it’s always been an interesting balance, because I was into making the core repertoire as good as I could – something I was always obsessed with. At the same time, I was drawn to develop something new in classical music and to present it in new ways, and to record some new music. I waited a long time to step out of the typical route; therefore, I have quite a versatile recording catalogue. It’s an important part of my life, especially when I come up with recordings of Messiaen, Vivaldi, “Roots” and “Night Passages” — discs that are so widely disparate from each other. So now I think I really do what I think is my best work.
– How did the two years of covid chaos affect your reality and your vision of the future?
– I have to be honest with you because I have this problem in my inner ear, an inflammation that’s called Ménière’s Disease. It’s like vertigo, a balance thing that comes and goes in episodes. Every second year I had an episode, which means you’re totally off-balance and you lose your hearing and you’re on the floor with nausea, and the whole world is turning around! But, after not having it for a couple of years, I had it only for six or seven months in a row during the pandemic. So, I was in bed for a long time and during that time I didn’t play any concerts. In one way, it was good timing because I didn’t have to cancel anything. I’m [still] struggling with this; sometimes I have discomfort for one month or six months and then I’m off balance again.
I’m always creative whether I play concerts or not. So, during that period I was suffering more for my colleagues, for dancers and actors, for technicians and all kinds of arts-related people who really suffered. I suffered from other things, but not so much from the pandemic. I was able to meet with my orchestra, and I told them again and again that these times will bring a change. Don’t prepare to go back [to the way things were] after three weeks or a month; we need to force ourselves to open a new door to the future.
– Your musical spectrum is extraordinarily wide: when and why did your mind need to break away from the orthodoxy?
– I was recently in Miami at a clarinet convention, and I met colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic and others. Though they are a bit younger than me, they told me that I walk on a different path with a totally different concept about what you could do with this instrument. This is something I had never reflected on before – that it was different than the American or German musical markets. In one way I was very happy to hear this because it caused a lot of the younger generation to say: “Oh, you can do this, or that as well, with the clarinet!”
I was always, always obsessed, first of all, by being a part of a change. I would definitely say that if I were a part of helping music change, that would be really big for me – more than anything else, actually. At a very early stage, I was always thinking about opening up new doors to the future; even though I was performing standard repertoire, I was [secretly] standing on a new field from the start. I didn’t show it so much because I was always concerned that I should do the great standard repertoire as well as I could.
– But at what stage – childhood, student years, or other — did you feel the need to go to different musical planets but still keep all your classical technique?
– That development goes hand in hand with all those traditional techniques. When I teach masterclasses, people ask me: “How do you practice the double-tongue, or circular breathing?” and I was the type who practiced the difficult stuff or new things only when I needed them. Nowadays, people generally practice them, but I needed to learn to circle-breathe because some phrases are two and a half minutes without breathing! I learned the double-tongue because it was a horribly difficult thing, and I was one of the first ones to use these techniques. I went down the wild side and then came back to the traditional with a richer version of myself and my playing.
Now I have this new project called “Xodus” and I’m totally thrilled by it. It comes out in one and a half months. It has a very good title – it’s more and more relevant today. It connects to the “Genesis” project which was all about the beginning of music. We had concerts [with those projects] in Germany, the U.S., and Sweden. Then we did “Retrotopia” which was a continuation of “Genesis” and has to do with ‘where do we go from here’ – using Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence within the music. We performed them in Germany, and so the “Xodus” repertoire is more or less a mix of these two projects. I still have the concept of starting with older music and everything is always intertwined as I talk between the chords — so there’s no silence in the concert. “Xodus” says “the way out lies within:” whether it’s exiting the concert house, or the way out from an alcoholic addition, or from a war – whatever problem there is. I’m working with a Swedish artist and a poet. This gives me some storytelling that I think is important, beside my recordings.
– Much of your work has an element of improvisation. Did you study jazz improvisation?
– No, not really, but my bass player in “Night Passages” is a great jazz player, and we’ve done recording projects together. When I do projects with him, I learn about improvisation from him. So, when I play encores, I improvise – that’s how I learned to do that. He told me: “If you want to learn to improvise, just go on stage and try, because that’s the only way you can learn it. You can’t stand in your living room or at home, and expect to master it.” I have big respect for it, and we do it on this recording – in the tune [R. Rodgers’ “It Never Entered My Mind”] that Miles Davis and I played together, and the song [G. Jenkins’ “Good-bye”] that Benny Goodman would play at the end of every concert.
– Where do you feel the most impact of all your work?
– I do feel it, of course, in my contact with the clarinet world, but now I’m developing an instrument with Buffet Crampon and three colleagues in France. We started five years ago, partly because I’d been on ‘different planets’ (as you said) when performing, but I never cared about what I played on. I just took my instrument and played it. In the last five years I went with whatever clarinets I had – like the old one for the Vivaldi album, for example. But this new Buffet creates new shapes, new sounds. It has new fingerings, a new bore and a warmer sound, and because it’s a bit longer it has some new lower notes. I play it on the “Night Passages” recording. I’m very proud of it and I think it’s a big change for the clarinet world.
But to answer your question, when I do masterclasses, I feel more and more that we should share things a lot, because that’s how we develop. I’m very proud of the new generation coming up, because they are changing things. They can play in a different way than they did in Germany, even twenty years ago, for example.
– I was very struck by your soulful singing line when you play. Have you studied singing?
– I came from a family that sang a lot, and I sang in children’s choirs, boy choirs, and I took lessons. But you know, I’m very connected to my instrument – it’s mournful quality – it’s close to my heart.
– What inspired the Martin Fröst Foundation?
– The text I wrote for the “Night Passages” is based on my dreams from the past – very unorthodox memories – and thoughts regarding ‘what should you do with the rest of your life’ and how much should you work, and what should you work with… That was the time when I got Ménière’s and I made two important decisions: I started to conduct an orchestra, and I started the foundation. I [reckoned] this was the time to do something totally different. This foundation is aligned with Buffet because I designed this clarinet for them; they helped me with it and the funding for the foundation. They are helping with the projects in Madagascar and Kenya and Afghanistan where we send instruments and education. We’re building a music school in Madagascar now.
– What are your thoughts about musical education, regardless of the country, for the development of human minds?
– Yes, absolutely important! Our music school in Madagascar, for example, is in one of the three poorest countries of the world. We actually take people from the street into its education system, giving them one meal each day, an instrument, and a musical education. I always thought: why give just musical education but not food? It’s a wonderful system for them.
– Stepping into a time machine, what musical figures of the past would you like to have dinner with?
– I would go back to the beginning of the twentieth century when Europe had all these composers and artists. It was a fantastic time. Nijinsky, Chaplin, Picasso, it’s difficult to choose. As Woody Allen said in his film “A Night in Paris,” one always thinks that everything was better in the past… I mean, it’s always a big task to stay in your own time. I guess I never thought of this because I’m always paying attention to the thing that I’m doing right here and now.
But to answer the question, I would go with a big range of people, like Chaplin, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Gertrude Stein…ha-ha, of course you would absolutely disappear in this company at that table! It would so interesting to feel the energy of all those personalities, because they were part of the change. This is how I think: to live in the artist who tries to make a change. I think the classical scene is suffering by being extremely conservative. It’s not only the musicians, it’s the recording companies, the agencies, everyone is trying to protect what they think is right and what they can earn money on, etc. Then as soon as someone comes along who creates something different, and if they’re a success, the system wants to be part of it. I think it’s important to have conversations to try to create new things.
– Conversely, what would you look forward to talking about in an interview five years from now?
– To pretend it’s five years from now is very difficult. I always have a plan. I plan four years ahead for my concerts. [In reality] we don’t know anything about five years ahead – we actually don’t know one year ahead. We didn’t see the pandemic coming, we didn’t see this war coming, we couldn’t have predicted this, you know?
One childhood game I was doing a lot was just the opposite: I pretend that I’m 80 and I look back in order to feel what I could be proud of, and perhaps of what I’d not be so proud. If you ask that question to people – it doesn’t matter if you’re Nelson Mandela – whoever you are, you will regret some things and be proud of some things in your professional life or personal life. Most people would say ‘I would have liked to spend more time with my family,’ for example. When I ask myself that question, I would not be proud that I’ve played hundreds of Rossini concerts – that’s what everyone does. Rather, I think I would be very proud of the new things I tried. But the question should be: “what would you change now?” That is, pretend that you are 80 years old, looking back, be proud of this but not of that… so, maybe you should just change it now?
– What are the ways you manage all your planets?
– My artistic goal is to [respect] my limits, because I think having limits is very good. So, if I’ve been playing 150 concerts a year, I now should play only 60 or 70—doing what is important … important for the foundation, my orchestra, Buffet Crampon, my projects, and my residencies. I have a residency with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra coming up, and with others as well. To create these projects with orchestras is important. And then pay attention to how things develop.
Helping each other is important. The soloists nowadays are too focused on themselves. I saw the movie “Imitation Games,” about a guy who lived during WII. He was slightly autistic and he helped decipher the Enigma Code that revealed where the Germans would bomb. There is a scene at the end when a woman says to him: “You shortened the war by two years! I live in a village and go to a school that wouldn’t now exist if it weren’t for you.” He was undercover so no one knew what he was doing. The beauty of it is that he was so grateful and happy from what she said to him, and that someone saw who he was and understood what he had done. Nowadays, it’s exactly the opposite: in social media, everyone needs to tell everything about themselves. Artists are posting: “I’m playing here and there, and this is my dinner…” This is a development that is a bit sad, because I think we should concentrate on helping each other rather than “Look at me, look at me…”
– Is there a question, that nobody has ever asked you? Or, a ‘what if’ question…
– While I was sick for four months, the question I was asking myself was ‘what shall I do if I cannot perform anymore? Should I move out of the country and buy a dog?’ It’s actually refreshing to have these thoughts now, because when I was younger (and even now) I never asked this question. I couldn’t have done anything other than what I was doing. It’s scary, but you should ask it.