When Roman Gerber talks about how he discovered his instrument, the clarinet, it almost sounds like a fairy tale. “I started with the traditional recorder, but when I was allowed to choose a new instrument, I came to the wonderland that is the music school.” String instruments were out of the question for Gerber; the results that the children got despite the many hours of practice seemed a meagre success to him. “Behind a door, however, there was a sound I’ve never heard before,” he recounts.

Roman Gerber
© Ralf Luethy

The 29-year-old has maintained a close friendship with his first teacher, Stefan Komarek. At the music school in Starnberg, Komarek not only teaches Gerber how to play the clarinet, he shows him the meaning of art. Gerber talks to his teacher about new productions at the opera in Munich, gets book recommendations, learns about the connections between Alban Berg and Thomas Mann. It is a time that continues to shape him today.

Perhaps this is the reason why Gerber, who is supported by the Claussen-Simon Foundation's stART.up programme, is particularly interested in expanding the narrow repertoire for the clarinet; despite the fact that he has already explored every nook and cranny of its well known literature. Whether as a soloist with orchestra or as a chamber musician in a duo or trio with the unusual combination of clarinet, bassoon and piano, his repertoire ranges from the early beginnings of the clarinet literature of Carl Stamitz to the American 20th-century music of Bernstein and Copland. An advantage of the clarinet repertoire may be that many composers wrote works for the clarinet very late in their lives, explains Gerber. “That's why the pieces are almost always of high musical quality. The disadvantage is that there is only a very small repertoire.”

That's why Gerber regularly embarks on “treasure hunts” with the aim of looking beyond the usual suspects of German or French Romantics. With his duo partner Oliver Bunnenberg, he is currently using what he calls an enforced sabbatical to comb through Russian repertoire. It's a true treasure trove, although Russian music history is comparatively short, says Gerber: “That's the immensely exciting thing for me, to discover works that no one has really taken notice of yet, but which can definitely compete with those of Schumann or Brahms”. And besides the Romantics, there is also the music that disappeared in 20th-century Russia because it didn't fit the musical vision of Soviet ideologies. Yet this repertoire is a wonderful complement to contemporary music, if not a musical heavyweight in itself, Gerber thinks.

There was no key moment, no specific experience that made it clear to Gerber that he would pursue a career as a musician. An alternative might have been to study law, because the logical argumentation appealed to him. Instead, Gerber, who was already a young student at the Musikhochschule in Munich, moved to Lübeck and studied with Sabine Meyer, one of the outstanding clarinet soloists of our time, and her husband Reiner Wehle. When Gerber talks about his time studying with them, you can hear his gratitude. “I wouldn't have wanted to study with anyone else,” he says. That was mainly because each student was perceived with their strengths and weaknesses. Gerber confesses that he had difficulties with his staccato playing for a long time – a core element of the clarinet's sparkling sound. “I would often get a call from Reiner or Sabine saying that they had 20 minutes to work on my staccato with me.” Gerber describes his studies in Lübeck as a rock-solid education in the best sense of the word. Because even without the pressure of a permanent drill situation, Gerber has gained sovereignty over his instrument: “Even after three weeks of holidays without the clarinet, I immediately remember how to approach my instrument and what practice strategies I need.” Gerber doesn't use such statements to highlight his talent. It is merely an unbiased reflection on his own abilities.

Aware Fantasy for clarinet and orchestra by Tristan X. Koester

His professors in Lübeck also sparked Gerber's curiosity for other members of the clarinet family, especially the basset clarinet, the correct instrument for Mozart's famous clarinet concerto. “The sound of the basset clarinet cannot be conjured up on a normal clarinet. In Mozart's second movement, the clarinet sounds very dense, the basset clarinet suddenly sounds very silky, almost fragile.” Apart from the high clarinets, which Gerber calls “E-flat and D peeps”, he plays every member of the clarinet family. He is interested in exploring the sound cosmos that the instruments offer. And with his drive for novelty, Gerber finds many like-minded people. “When I offer a composer to write a piece for bass clarinet, their eyes light up like a Christmas tree.” Apart from the physical aspect of the larger and heavier bass clarinet, the change between the instruments creates constant variety. Stagnation is not an option for Gerber. “I don't want to confine myself to Brahms and Mozart,” he says. And even the compositions he has commissioned over the years are constantly changing: ”For me, commissioned works are always pieces where I can explore new things, where I can go wild and challenge myself. In the past, I couldn't get enough of pieces sounding like fingernails scratching a blackboard,” Gerber admits, calling it his personal Sturm und Drang. “I still like those today, but I find that nowadays I also appreciate it when there is a melody.” Instead of small-scale sound experiments, it is now the compositions that draw a large arch through a melody that interest Gerber.

Roman Gerber at the NDR studios in Hanover
© Oliver Bunnenberg

From his audience, he hopes for a similar curiosity for the unfamiliar, which may not immediately catch the ear. Gerber doesn't want to be a revolutionary who shocks his audience for effect; in fact, he is interested in going on a discovery journey alongside the audience. “When I play works by Krzysztof Penderecki, I usually tell the audience beforehand that they have to ‘get through it’ now. After the concert, however, people often come up to me and ask why I had warned them about it in the first place.” And yet, it often turns out in conversation that there is still a certain reluctance among the audience to approach less familiar composers.

Besides his normal concert activities, Gerber also takes his music to unusual concert venues and to audiences who do not have the opportunity to attend a performance. As part of his commitment to the initiative Live Music Now, founded by star violinist Yehudi Menuhin, he has played in prisons, hospitals or institutions for persons with disabilities. “For us musicians, it is incredibly important to play these concerts, because on the one hand we are not standing on a concert podium and on the other hand we get just as much back from the audience as we give through our music,” Gerber says, explaining his commitment to the initiative. Moreover, these concerts also make for unexpected encounters. “We played Beethoven's Gassenhauer Trio in prison and afterwards I was in a music theory discussion with one of the inmates and he asks me how I see the work in the context of the Razumovsky Quartet.” Of course, playing in a hospice is not easy, he says, nor does Gerber want people to use these performances as a means to an end, to make personal challenges out of it. “The unique thing about Live Music Now is that it gives you musical as well as human experiences. That's why I recommend every young musician to be part of the project.”

This year, Gerber wishes to finally be able to perform again, partly because this year marks the anniversary of a work that is very close to his heart. It is Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which is 80 years old. The eight-minute long third movement of this powerful work, written for solo clarinet, is full of sacred-apocalyptic mysticism, hauntingly evoking bird calls. It certainly isn't an easy piece for the listener either, but whoever listens to Gerber talking about it is eager to know what this music sounds like. Perhaps this is the treasure hunt for the audience.

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

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Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.