Interview with Tom Ottar Andreassen
Have you enjoyed touring with the Oslo Philharmonic, and what are the most inspiring places you have been to?
Well, my history with the Oslo Philharmonic is quite short as I only started playing there three years ago. I used to play with them as co-principal in the early days, and we used to play many festivals in Vienna and Salzburg with Mariss Jansons. We played Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Stravinsky’s Firebird and all of this made such a big impact on me. I was still very young then!
I have to admit I am not a big Bruckner fan, but after playing it in the festival it changed my idea about the piece; I understood more what this music was about, the long journey, the musical language, and the sound. And I also learned a lot about playing second flute, how to fill out the sound during big forte, and how to be very sensitive in piano playing.
What I like the most about Oslo Philharmonic is that all the players are very flexible and it is very easy to play with them. Everyone is of such high standard, and we can all share ideas, so it really feels like a group effort.
You have worked with many orchestras outside of Oslo Philharmonic. Do you find that the playing styles are very different?
Oh yes, they are very different. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra is a very small orchestra and they mainly do Contemporary performances, Opera, small-scale symphonic repertoire, and also pop/rock & even jazz. They only have 60 members, compared to my current orchestra’s 109! So I have to adapt to be able to play in the smaller concert hall, or even into a microphone.
I also play regularly with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra where we play more of the Classical repertoire eg. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I often change the flute depending on what repertoire I am playing. In the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra I like to play my wooden Powell flute with a Mancke head-joint. In the Philharmonic I play on a silver, heavy-walled, B-foot, split-E Muramatsu with a Lafin head-joint. However, if we play something like St. John’s Passion or any Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven in the Philharmonic, then I would also use the wooden flute.
You have to remember that Norway is one of the leading countries for Contemporary music and with the Radio Orchestra I have had to stand up and do many crazy things, from complete improvisation to an Ian Anderson-style solo. I do not do a lot of contemporary playing anymore because, sadly, I simply don’t have time.
What are your favourite orchestral pieces to play?
Oh, there are so many! I must admit I love to play Mahler. I like the fact that sometimes it is larger-than-life sound, and then suddenly it’s the opposite with just three instruments are playing. It creates an incredibly special feeling. After Mahler I would have to say it would be Debussy and Ravel.
I have played for 10 years in the Norwegian Opera where I have worked with many great conductors such as Antonio Pappano (who also conducted my debut concert, but that is another story), so now when I play big symphonic repertoire like Shostakovich and Sibelius I realise that I really missed it. Back then, I only played once or twice per year in the Philharmonic, so I always had the craving to play more of these types of pieces.
You have recorded a few CD’s playing concertos; what is the biggest difference between sitting within the orchestra and standing in front of it?
It is very different in many ways, from how are you tune up and how you set up the flute, to your mindset. In an orchestra you have to make a sound that blends with other instruments. I find that I had to pull out a lot more in the orchestra compared to when I play chamber or solo pieces. When you play in front of an orchestra the sound has to have more brilliance in it. One of the biggest changes is that you have to just go for it and not be so much of an orchestral musician, because often we become automatically ‘good colleagues’ and start listening, but in reality you just have to play and let them catch up.
These days I do a lot more orchestral playing and teaching, so solo work doesn’t happen very often. However, before the summer I played the Mozart G Major Concerto and it was quite scary. You know, we teach the concerto often, but rarely actually play. I found that when I played with piano the tempo tends to move forward. However, with the orchestra there is a very natural balance and gravity in the music that keeps the tempo steady.
Please could you tell us about your latest CD, The Norwegian Flute?
This CD has a French title ‘La Flute Norvegienne’ because all the composers studied in Paris. On the CD there are pieces by Finn Mortensen, who is the godfather of the new generation of composers in Norway today. A lot of flute pieces that he has written were dedicated to a very special flute player who used to work in the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in the 1950s, Alf Andersen. This composer wrote a huge, 19 minute piece, where the third moment is theme and variations, which at that time was deemed as completely unplayable. There is also a concerto by Edvard Fliflet Braein, which is also very difficult and, again, was written for the same flute player. The piece is in the neo-classical style, and I would say it’s a mix between Shostakovich and Ravel.
There is another flute concerto by Johan Kvandal, which was written for Per Oien, who was famously the duo partner with Robert Aitken for all of the Doppler Duos. This piece reminds me more of Bartok with a lot of eastern influences. The whole CD is recorded with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, but it was after I had already left them.
Who were your teachers, and who was most influential in your musical development?
You know, when I was growing up all kids played in local bands. So all the talent was found in the school bands. I started playing the flute quite late, when I was 12 years old, but I always liked to listen to music. Then I heard a flute on the radio and I thought it was a magic sound. After one year I started travelling to Oslo to have flute lessons with the principal flute player there, Torkil Bye, who was a student of Julius Baker and André Jaunet (who was a student of Moyse). So every lesson I had to learn a new piece and a new study, just like the old fashioned French School, and most of the time I had his flute in my ear when he wanted to tell me how a certain passage should sound. He left for his professorship in the USA when I was 17.
Then I started at the Academy and my teacher there was Ørnulf Gulbransen, who was also a student of Marcel Moyse. He was a great teacher, but it was totally different because he couldn’t play very well anymore, so sometimes I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong or right. But he was great in the sense of teaching me how to practise difficult passages by making small patterns, and constantly change rhythm and articulation. This keeps your brain busy and you make progress. But after a while I realised that I needed to think for myself, and this was a very big learning curve. We played through many of the ‘Golden Age’ pieces, which, as I’m sure you know, are very hard. And this really taught me how to practice.
I also took private lessons with Andreas Blau, legendary principal flute of the Berlin Philharmoniker from 1969-2016. I studies with him from 1986-88 when I worked in the Norwegian Opera. It was great to play orchestral studies for him!
How do you prepare your pupils for orchestral auditions?
One of the main things is that we start this quite early. Of course I have to make sure that their basic technique is very good, so things like intonation, sounds, articulation etc. I find that these days the students have so many resources at their disposal like YouTube, Spotify and Principal Chairs. Back in my day I had to go to the library and write the flute parts out. But with this ease of access to the information it is difficult to get them dedicated. I try to convince them to come to concerts and give them free tickets, to make sure that they listen to the music and know the whole piece. I make them read the score to make sure they know which instruments are playing with them. One of the elected subjects at the Academy is Preparation for audition. My colleague from the Orchestra, the principal clarinet player, and I run this module, and we have a pianist that comes and plays orchestral parts with students, and then we practice with mock auditions. They all have to listen to each other’s performance and give feedback. This creates a thought process for the students so they start thinking what didn’t go well, what can be better, and think about tempo, articulation, tone-colour and style.
You have a very busy lifestyle. How do you manage to find time to practice?
I live quite far away from Oslo. It takes me about one hour of travel each way. So when I get into the Philharmonic building at around 8:30 am I tend to practice until the rehearsal at 10:00. I find that this is the best time for me to practice. I tend to do some harmonic exercises, scales, and I try to play everything as beautifully as possible, which is the opposite to how I sometimes practice the difficult music that I have to play. Quite often my colleague in the flute section also turns up around the same time and we play some passages together, which is very useful, and we play slowly to match intonation and sound. In the section we have some quite young players who are always very eager to search for the ultimate. This pushes me to always be at the ‘top of my game’, so to speak and I like it.
Unlike most string players, and quite possibly most orchestral players, flutists often seem to focus on orchestral careers and not on being soloist or playing chamber music. Why that is is a topic for other venues but the fact that orchestral playing….
I had the good fortune whilst still at a special music school to meet composers and literally ‘grow up with them’, so that contemporary music was a natural part of my background. When I was 15, my classmate John Rausek wrote a piece dedicated to me. Later on I developed a close relationship to the composition…
Do you approach learning contemporary music with the same principles as for something earlier? Yes, of course! I never make differences between the 'repertoire' and the new pieces, and maybe this approach makes it new and refreshing. I play a lot of contemporary music...