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Portrait artist Martin Fröst

By Manuel Brug

No puns, please! Though listeners do regularly get fairly hot under the collar over this anything but cool blond from the far North – and they have been for some time. The Jack Frost of the clarinet, alias Martin Fröst, has been in the wind game for many years, and he broke the reed of convention long ago. It was no accident that, after what seemed like an eternity under exclusive contract to the small if perfectly formed Scandinavian boutique label BIS, he joined industry giant and global player Sony, and immediately debuted with his first crossover CD. He has long attracted a far wider audience than just chamber music nerds – as Martin Fröst aims to prove again, with all his Swedish versatility, as the Bamberg Symphony’s »Portrait Artist« for the coming season – and he will.

Martin Fröst was born in 1970 in Sundsvall in Sweden. He took up the violin at six, though he actually found football and basketball a lot more interesting back then. He switched to the clarinet at nine, settling on that as his instrument. To raise his game, he went to Stockholm to study for 15 years, and then on to Hanover. Today, the slim Swede enjoys an international reputation as one of the instrument’s top soloists – witness his worldwide appearances, plus CDs of clarinet concertos by Mozart, Nielsen, Aho and Weber, music by Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg, and chamber works with the pianist Roland Pöntinen.

For »Close Ups«, Martin Fröst teamed up clarinet and percussion. Just as effortlessly, he left behind the sound worlds of Schumann and Brahms – and moved on long ago from original clarinet repertoire, too. On his CD »Dances to a Black Pipe«, he coupled Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with music by Lutosławski, Anders Hillborg and Piazzolla, and on »fröst & friends«, with its encores and transcriptions from »Ave Maria« to the »Flight of the Bumble Bee«, he added a mezzo-soprano and cello to the mix. He’s played opera arias and works dedicated to Benny Goodman – he’s even charted an eclectic sonic journey through »French Beauties & Swedish Beasts«.

In 2006-09, Martin Fröst was one of the artists in the »Junge Wilde« series at Dortmund’s Konzerthaus. In 2014, he was awarded the Léonie Sonning Music Prize. In concert, he regularly partners artists such as Sol Gabetta, Janine Jansen, Yuja Wang, Leif Ove Andsnes, Maxim Rysanov and Antoine Tamestit. And it’s a long time since he was satisfied with being acclaimed for his »larger-than-life virtuosity and musicality« (»New York Times«). This finally became fully apparent in 2013, with »Dollshouse«, a genre-busting project lasting a whole evening, his first devised jointly with Stockholm’s Konserthuset. »For that project, I was especially interested in communicating – with the audience, but also with my musicians«, Frost remembers. »We followed it with ‘Roots’, for me the logical next step – the origin and development of dance and folk music, of music as ritual worship and as well as entertainment.«

Fröst has been mounting these projects for a couple of years now: fitting into a grand old Swedish tradition of the one man show, if more experimental, for him they’re like a repertoire-cleansing thunderstorm: »I’ve actually played pretty much everything that’s right and proper on the clarinet. The other day, I was recording Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto for the second time, alongside Weber’s concertante works – my profession’s eternal calling cards, let’s face it, not to mention old age pension – and it struck me there has to be something more. I kept seeing myself at 85, having racked up 1500 public performances of Carl Maria von Weber’s Concerto, and feeling none too proud of the fact. Total nightmare! So I got thinking, and decided that after a twenty-year career I can cross over to the wild side a bit.«

What do these multicultural events, playing with costumes, lighting, colour and sound, mean to him? »A way of reaching back not only to the ancestors of the clarinet, but to the origins of music, in a cross-cultural, one-man Gesamtkunstwerk, mixing music with speech and dance, lighting and sound effects.« And it seems to go down well. In Stockholm, the hall sold out each time, and the audience went wild for this skinny blond solo clarinettist as sharp-witted entertainer, who nonchalantly quotes Charlie Chaplin and more, and is smart, canny, charming and very, very good on his instrument, not to mention funny.

Emerging from total darkness in a blue collarless Nehru jacket, prancing around on stage, Martin Fröst traced an audacious arc from Ancient Greek hymns, mashed up with Hildegard of Bingen, all the way to Telemann’s beer-cellar baroque and klezmer. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by himself, provided an epic, shimmering backdrop – actually, so much more than just a backdrop – while a bewitching children’s choir and three extra clarinets added to the rich mix of sounds. Into it were woven lots of sexy folk music, tangos and other dances, while the delighted audience also got to enjoy more substantial morsels of Witold Lutosławski and Olivier Messiaen.

What was his starting point? »I wanted to stage a mini-Genesis, tell a story about the origins of music, but also make some surprising connections«, explains Fröst. »That’s why I let the musical items merge into and contrast with each other, quite unlike the classical concert scenario, with its predictable sequence. People are often amazed at how varied music’s origins are. I’m also interested in the transitions between sacred and profane: for instance, monastic Gregorian chant, which developed in parallel into both music and the satirical poems of jesters who perched on the monastery walls.«

He’s someone who never stands still, always aims to keep growing. In May 2017 came the announcement that Martin Fröst will be Principal Conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra from 2019/20. He continues to collaborate on special projects with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. In the 2017/18 season, Martin Fröst is Artist in Residence at the Auditori in Barcelona, with the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya. This follows recent experiences as Artist in Residence at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, with the Gothenburg Symphony and at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Bamberg will welcome Martin Fröst as »Portrait Artist« for 2018/19 in three programmes. His first concert on the river Regnitz resembles one of his crossover projects, if admittedly not quite as lavish: for November, he has devised a complete programme called »Retrotopia«, in which he appears as both soloist and conductor, and performs his own texts alongside music by Mozart, Beethoven, Borisova and Nordin. In December, he joins the Quatuor Ébène for a chamber concert, playing Brahms and klezmer. Finally, in January Martin Fröst will perform Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Jakub Hrůsa.

(Translation: Dr. Nick Morgan)