Martin Fröst is known for his expressive and free-spirited performances on stage, his dancing and his unique and unconventional programmes. But listen to the second movement of his Mozart concerto and you know why the Swede is considered one of the most outstanding and extraordinary clarinettists of today. He puts his heart and soul into it and you can hear it in every note of the Adagio. He talked to me about the soul of the clarinet, his upcoming projects, his residency with the Bamberg Symphony next season and, of course, Mozart.

Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Fröst was born into a musical family. “My parents were doctors, but my father played the viola, my mother played the violin. My older brother plays piano and my younger brother plays the viola. We were soaked in music.” He himself started playing the violin when he was five years old, but at the age of eight he “stopped quite quickly” when his father got a recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Jack Brymer, “an English clarinet legend. I listened to this recording a lot and then my father brought a clarinet home and I started to practise. The second movement of the concerto… I was right into Mozart, right from the beginning.”

I wondered what makes the clarinet such a fascinating instrument for him. “I thought of it a lot, where is the soul of music, where do you find it? And of course it’s in the colour of an instrument, how the whole sound is built up with overtones and everything around it. But it also has to do with the start and the end of the music and of a note. And for the clarinet, I think, it’s the thin line between silence and sound: that’s the soul of the clarinet… there’s a sort of magic. As a player, when I start a note from nothing and I feel the sound, you can hear the vibration before it starts, you can feel it physically in your body and there’s something whispering in your body before it starts.”

Next season, Fröst will be the Bamberg Symphony’s Portrait Artist. Besides playing Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto as a soloist in January, a chamber music concert with members of the orchestra and a concert with the Quatuor Ébène in December that features Brahms’ wonderful Clarinet Quintet, the Swedish clarinettist presents his new programme Retrotopia which sees him both as a conductor and a soloist. Fröst has been to Bamberg a couple of times and is excited to work together with this “wonderful orchestra”, especially because this residency allows him to broaden his field both as a clarinettist and as a conductor before taking over the post of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra's chief conductor in 2019.

“I came from quite different angles into conducting, so I tried a lot. I tried to direct and then play, I tried to only play and let the orchestra be on its own and I also even did something I call 'conductography'. I have pieces written for me which were with choreography and the orchestra reacted to my movements, and that also worked… Of course, you need very good ears and leadership and you have to know how to shape music and how to shape sounds.”

Fröst's programme Genesis is a journey through musical history, from ancient jester traditions to contemporary music, that creates and explores new ways of presenting music on stage, and his latest project, Retrotopia, digs even deeper into this subject. It consists of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and three new works for clarinet and orchestra, Exodus: Departure by Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Nomadia by Martin and his younger brother, Göran Fröst, and Emerge by Jesper Nordin, for which motion sensors will be attached to the clarinet and each of Fröst’s movements will be transformed and integrated into the music.

“The last piece features a Gestrument, it’s called ‘Space in the Air’ which has music DNA in it. When I touch the air, it becomes sound, created by an infrared camera. I can play in the air with my fingers which needs a choreographer for the movements. And that’s also sort of the future of the music; my line before this piece is: ‘Where does the music go?’ Can I feel it? Does it go into the future? Can I touch it? And then I literally take my hand into the air between me and the audience and suddenly the sound starts. So that’s a conversation between me, the Gestrument, the space, and the orchestra behind me. It’s very exciting actually.”

Martin Fröst
© Nikolaj Lund

The term Retrotopia describes a retrospective praxis of looking back. “It’s a very present and important subject nowadays, because we can see it in politics and religion and culture. We are looking back, we are being nostalgic and we say that we had a better life before, which is probably not true. In politics you can see it very easily, for example with ‘Make America great again’. We are turning our faces to the past and our backs to the future. We are quite scared about what’s going to happen, not only with our planet, but with our societies… I think that’s what created this project. Everything is through music so I don’t want to start talking politics on stage. Everything is related to music.”

Martin Fröst wants to open new doors and therefore works together with the composers to create unique programmes. “Sometimes they are instrumentalists themselves so they know a lot, also about my instrument and then you don’t have to interfere so much or you don’t have to be involved, you can just try to be inspiring.” For the Dollhouse Project he also worked together with various choreographers. “But I was not a dancer. I was never a dancer, I was very shy actually”, he admits, quickly adding “maybe less shy on stage” with a laugh after hearing my disbelieving “Really?”.

Anders Hillborg wrote his Clarinet Concerto “Peacock Tales” for the extraordinary talents of the Swedish clarinettist. It is a theatrical, playful and eclectic work which Fröst considers part of his core repertoire, along the classic clarinet repertoire. “I basically play the whole repertoire from the past and then I have a couple of new concertos that I do a lot. I’m a bit selective. I think it has to do with the feeling of limitation. You can’t really play every piece that has been written, so I do the pieces that I do a lot, that’s my trick. I’ve done the Hillborg Concerto almost 300 times. You spread the music, you believe in the music and you get to know it very deeply. And I try to do that with all pieces that I learn... though maybe not 300 times. I try to learn them by heart and I try to play them as much as I can.”

Most clarinettists would give the same answer to my next question, so it comes as no surprise that Fröst names the Mozart as his favourite clarinet concerto. “For a clarinet player the Mozart concerto is part of your life. For me, he was the one who invented the solo for clarinet and invented it for all the other composers. With his second movement you can see the whole repertoire through the Romantic: Schumann, Brahms, Weber. Everything is so related to Mozart in terms of sound and structure. Mozart is the creator of the clarinet spirit, I would say.” He recorded the concerto twice, once with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta in 2003 and ten years later with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie – this time conducting and playing. He agrees that his way of playing has changed, but it’s hard to put a finger on it. “A recording is actually just a way of playing that happened that date or on two dates. That’s what’s so fascinating about music. It’s so sudden and then it’s over. It’s not like a painting or something that stays, it’s just a little mark, a little reminder: this is what happened in 2003.” Since he was 17 years old, Fröst has been playing the Mozart concerto on a reconstructed basset clarinet. At the moment he’s planning two early music recordings for which he also considers playing on an historical instrument.

Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Fröst has a very close partnership with the clarinet maker Buffet Crampon and they are not only working on a new clarinet together. “Now I’m starting a new journey with them. I thought, what have I done with my life, with my musical life? I’ve tried to broaden the repertoire, tried to develop the instrument. I started being interested in the instrument itself. So what I did, I talked to some builders at Buffet and asked what we can do for the instrument and for the young generation. And I decided to start a foundation which Buffet Crampon is supporting a lot and they are giving away a lot of instruments for this foundation.” Fröst's foundation will give instruments to people who cannot afford instruments and the clarinettist will meet them and give masterclasses. Music education is very close to his heart, and he describes it as a way of learning how to concentrate. “We are so distracted on our focus, everything goes fast, everything [you do] is multi-tasking. To sit down with the clarinet and to learn how to play is like a big meditation. Of course it’s also a difficult thing, because it’s kind of nerdy to go in and practise an instrument. I would say it’s a fantastic thing for the brain and for the heart to have a music education.”

Having small children, Fröst cannot always decide by himself what music is played at home, but he tries to listen to as much contemporary music as possible. “I think it’s very very fascinating to see what’s created today. I listen to a lot of Scandinavian composers, I listen a lot to everything from John Adams to Jörg Widmann. And I listen to one symphony a day maybe, because I’m also running a lot. So one hour running, one symphony.” And what’s today’s symphony? “Today it will probably be a Beethoven symphony, either the Eighth or Fourth. The Fourth I know very well so I might listen to it.” Even when he's out running, Fröst is soaked in music.

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The interview is sponsored by Bamberg Symphony.