Interview in Fanfare with Jonas Frølund
September 2, 2023
Interview with Jonas Frølund
“Fragments” of a Conversation with Clarinetist Jonas Lyskjær Frølund
BY ALLISON ECK
When I spoke with up-and-coming clarinetist Jonas Frølund over Zoom, I was impressed by his relaxed demeanor and humble approach to speaking about the music on his debut album, Solo Alone and More. I expected a more dynamic presence from him over video chat, maybe because he puts forth such intense energy in his recordings. Throughout this captivating, mind-blowing album, Frølund performs a range of Danish music, historical and contemporary, alongside composers of other nationalities for variety and context. He also showcases a sizable subset of the clarinet “family,” from the bass clarinet to the alto (basset) clarinet to the standard B and A instruments. He even moonlights as a percussionist during De profundis by Simon Steen-Andersen. Perhaps he has the space to be so radical and effervescent in his musical life precisely because he is more measured in conversation.
Frølund is currently principal clarinetist of the Danish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Adam Fischer, and his recent performance with the orchestra of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto was featured on a BBC Radio 3 Afternoon Concert. While you won’t find anything close to Mozart on this album, the first track is a snippet from a different clarinet concerto: Carl Nielsen’s. The following is an edited and condensed version of my interview with Frølund.
Why did you put the Nielsen cadenza on the album first, before the other pieces?
This is an excerpt from an important piece in Danish music of the 20th century. It stands up as a point on the curve—you have to go through it not only as a player, but also as a listener and as a person who’s interested in modern music. When you look at this concerto, you’ll find two cadenzas. This first one is especially easy to take out of context. You get an idea of what the whole picture is—what the full concerto sounds like. I’ve played this concerto a few times, and it was an eye-opener for me in terms of what the clarinet could sound like. So, I love this piece and it is part of my story.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo are notoriously difficult to shape into something that feels coherent and has direction. Without careful planning, these pieces can end up sounding like a lot of noodling and not much more. How do you make them “convincing”?
I try to stick with one concept for each piece, because they’re so short. If you try to do too much within that shortness, you confuse yourself and the listener. So, I’ve found peace in having one mood in mind, or one way of playing in mind, and then I try to fit everything into that. Every time I play it, I’m also trying to remind myself about the historical circumstances behind the piece. Everything was different after the Great War. Much hope had been lost, and it was kind of a vacuum—but a lot of artists actually found inspiration right afterward. If you compare Three Pieces with what Stravinsky wrote before the Great War, it’s clear that this is completely the opposite of that. There’s still a twinkle in the eye, but it’s very simple compared to the big orchestral works he had created before.
It’s not so “official” what Stravinsky was thinking of in these pieces. For me, I hear some sort of chant in the first movement, maybe Renaissance-inspired, or it could be Russian folk or traditional music. For the second movement, for me it sounds like a little jazz improvisation—maybe not the middle part, which is more of a communication or conversation between birds or something like that. And then the last movement, there’s more groove—the downbeat is changing all the time, but there’s a steadiness to it. In that way, it resembles the first movement more.
One frequently cited description of Bent Sørensen characterizes his work as embodying “extreme emotional fragility.” What do you make of that comment, and do you experience Lontanamente: Fragments of a Waltz in that way?
I get the point just by seeing the dynamics he’s writing—he’s mainly working in this piano and sub-piano area, and it sounds fragile, hesitating. But still, I think Bent Sørensen seems very convinced about his idea for this piece. I know him personally, and he’s definitely somebody who has found his identity as a composer—at the same time, he’s sort of adventurous and curious. And that’s sort of a neighbor to fragility. To be curious is to open yourself and your mind to new impressions, even though they might hurt you or they might change you.
My favorite composer is actually Schubert. I find his melodies very touching—they go straight into your heart in a way that very few other composers can do. Bent Sørensen is, for me, similar. He writes beautiful melodies, and he has a simplicity combined with complexity. Even though it’s contemporary and even though it can be harsh sometimes, it’s quite easily absorbed.
“Lontanamente” means something like “far away offstage.” But the subtitle tells me even more: “Fragments of a Waltz.” I think that’s a beautiful subtitle because these are definitely fragments.
In both Lontanamente and the third movement from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps—actually, throughout the album—you have the chance to show off the clarinet’s extremely wide dynamic range. I once heard that of all the woodwind instruments, the clarinet can achieve the softest sound. I don’t know for sure if this is true, but you make it seem plausible! What does it take to produce sound that is that close to silence? Mechanically, how do you achieve that?
It requires some training and patience. My approach is that I shouldn’t be comfortable—because if I’m comfortable, it’s not soft enough. But you can prepare yourself so that you’re able to take huge risks. If I leave at least 10 percent room for insecurity, I have the option to create these magical, magnificent moments. With this album, I made something that would be difficult to reproduce, but it should be like that. If you can control everything, it’s wrong.
I noticed the piece by Mette Nielsen was commissioned for you—did you ask her to write a piece that would utilize the lower registers of the basset clarinet, or was it Nielsen who wanted to diverge from writing for the standard B and A clarinets?
It wasn’t something I asked her to do. At the time, I’d had the basset clarinet for a few months, so it was quite new to me. The composer and I had a meeting where I took all of my instruments, including the basset clarinet and the bass clarinet, and I demonstrated what the different instruments could do. The basset clarinet has a special sound, and I’m so happy she chose to use it, because it’s the first step into contemporary music that I’ve taken with it. It’s also a lot of money to spend on an instrument you only play Mozart on, so I was very interested in trying to find other things to play on it.
The last piece on the album, Simon Steen-Andersen’s De profundis, is a gargantuan work originally written for soprano saxophone. This is the world premiere recording of the composer’s 2019 version for bass clarinet. It honestly sounds like a full-body workout, demanding exceptional attention to detail and an almost wild, savage attitude. Do you enter a different state of mind when you perform a piece like this?
Yes—because it’s a long piece, too, it engages you differently than a short piece. You become very far from your initial state of mind and body. I try to have a mindset of being an explorer of this piece—it’s so fascinating, the shape and combinations of sounds. Steen-Andersen really takes things to extremes with expressions and has an uncompromising attitude. When he has an idea, he goes all the way with it.