If I asked you to imagine the kind of public figure who had more than 45,000 Facebook followers, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately assume it was someone who played the clarinet. But such is the world of Andreas Ottensamer, 28-year-old Principal Clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic and general phenomenon. He’s adored by critics, audiences and colleagues alike, not to mention the fan-girl in Japan who showed him her new custom-made Andreas iPhone case last time he was there.
There’s a valid assumption that this kind of success would require a certain one-eyed, ‘lock-yourself-in-a-practice-room-from-the-age-of-four’ style of determination, but here, once again, Ottensamer defies the mould. He’s anything other than just the clarinet guy. He’s the sporty guy as well: when the Berlin Phil puts together a soccer team to play against the Shanghai Symphony and they win four goals to none, Ottensamer scores three of them. He’s also the smart guy, interrupting his liberal arts studies at Harvard to pursue his musical ambitions. His well-documented good looks are combined with a personality full of charm, directness and wit, and he also speaks Hungarian. Naturally.
The Hungarian is courtesy of his mother Cecilia, the cellist matriarch of what just might be the world’s most musical family. Ottensamer’s father, Ernst, was the Principal Clarinettist of the Vienna Philharmonic, a post he would eventually share with his son Daniel. In a way, having a family full of profoundly special musicians meant that, for Andreas as the youngest member of the clan, music itself wasn’t actually something special, per se. It was just the really fun thing you always did with your family.
“Music was always around – for me it was the most natural thing on earth. When I went to school, there was a point when I had to realise that not every family makes music at home. I thought that it was just normal that you’d come home and someone would always be at the piano or something, and there was this point where someone told me: ‘yeah, no one in my family is a musician’. I thought they were freaks,” he says with a smile.
A musical family is one thing, but the question has to be asked: why so many clarinets? Surely, as the younger brother, he thought about playing something else? “I started with the piano first and then the cello, but the clarinet was always lying around so I wanted to try one. It felt comfortable and I got to play chamber music right away with my other family members, so it just felt like the most fun thing to do.”
And thus we arrive at what seems to be at the core of it all for Ottensamer: that music is fun. So fun, in fact, that there was a real chance that he might not have pursued it as a career. “I kept other doors open in a way because the one thing I didn’t want with music was to make it my profession and then be frustrated by it… Music is something so enriching that I didn’t want to do it at all costs, which might sound like a contradiction, but I wanted it to be a positive thing for me. I didn’t really decide to make it my profession until I had this big, big chance with the Orchestra Academy at the Berlin Philharmonic. That was the point when I was like “Ok, this is going to be it.
Soon after his time at the Academy – when he was all of 21 – he was appointed Principal Clarinet, and in the subsequent seven years, the winning combination of his rare musicality, impeccable technique and bucket-loads of charisma has propelled him to the very top of the classical music scene the world over.
His upcoming performance with the APO marks his New Zealand debut, playing Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto. The Romantic period produced a number of concerti for the instrument, but it’s the two by Weber that are the most oft-performed, taking advantage as they do of the clarinet’s capacity for poetry and fireworks alike.
“Weber is the composer who probably wrote the best for the clarinet, if you look at it instrumentally,” Ottensamer explains. “He would choose exactly the right key to write the entire concerto in just because the technical possibilities would be the biggest and the easiest. The First Concerto is very operatic, with all these elegiac arias… and all the technical aspects he writes are just perfect for the player so it’s really a great showcase.”
It’s a piece that he has a particularly special connection to, having played it with his own orchestra in May 2017 under the baton of living legend Mariss Jansons. It’s a set of performance conditions so perfect that they border on definitive, but Ottensamer is determined to keep it fresh.
“You don’t have to try very hard to find new ways of interpreting things in a musical piece, whatever it is. You just have to try hard to make yourself want to do it and want to put in the effort. As long as you’re open to changing your mind on some things and learning and adapting to the situation. Anyway, you’ll be forced to reinvent your part of the music because when you come together with a different orchestra, they’re going to hand you different material to adapt to. It will always be slightly different. Ultimately, it’s all about fantasy and creativity, so you add that to the mix as well.”
Ottensamer’s irrepressible drive to pursue outlets for this creativity has led him to establish a wonderfully varied career full of solo, chamber music and orchestral work, an arrangement that seems key to his satisfaction. When asked if he had to choose one particular realm over another, he’s adamant that it’s not a very good question.
“That’s like if I asked you what you would choose if you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life!” he says with a certain air of jovial indignation, before explaining the crux of the matter.
“Musicians used to do everything. They used to play chamber music, they used to play pieces in completely different set-ups
according to who was there, they would play multiple instruments, they would conduct, compose, be soloists, play in orchestras and everything. And that’s the spirit that I love.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Phil News.