Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Talking to Norwegian tuba player Øystein Baadsvik about his career playing solo music on the tuba

Photo: Geir Mogen, Dimensions

On Tuesday January 3rd 2017 I spoke to Øystein Baadsvik in Trondheim, Norway, where he lives. Øystein Baadsvik’s career is exclusively as a tuba soloist. A player with an amazing virtuoso technique, his international career began in 1991 when he was awarded two prizes at the prestigious Geneva International Music Competition. Baadsvik performs with orchestras worldwide, appearing regularly at international music festivals. He has been enjoying playing in duos and small ensembles, also collaborating with jazz- and rock musicians.

PH:  How did you, the player of one of the bass orchestral instruments, become a tuba soloist?

 Øystein Baadsvik: I started off as an orchestral player, that’s true, and that’s primarily what the tuba was invented to do, but I was later inspired hearing very nice tuba-playing by, for example, Michael Lind in Sweden and Americans Harvey Phillips and Roger Bobo. Hearing them prompted me to pursue the melodic qualities of the instrument. There is a certain misunderstanding - that the tuba is limited by its size and design. You would normally think that you cannot do a lot on the instrument, because it was designed to be a bass instrument. Well, it happens to just be a piece of metal and this piece of metal is actually more constricted by your own mindset than it is by the laws of physics. That is the reason  we do not hear so many players performing solos on the tuba: either they simply do not want to do it, or they don’t practise enough to be able to, or they are simply happy playing the orchestral role. So, as with a lot of other things, it is mostly in your head, I would say.

PH: Is soloing on tuba accepted by conductors or orchestras?

ØB: Not always by those who haven’t yet experienced good solo playing on the tuba. It’s very, very new historically. For example, the first major tuba concerto was written in 1954 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Then you have compositions by Paul Hindemith, Penderecki, John Williams (famous for his movie music) and by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who has also written a famous trumpet concerto. Arutiunian writes very Romantic music. To answer your question, the instrument is much associated with tutti playing that many conductors are simply not aware of its qualities as a solo instrument.

PH: Is there enough repertoire to make a solo career viable?

ØB: A lot of people think there must be very little written for tuba solo, but if I were to play a marathon concert, performing everything that has been written for solo tuba from the 1950s up to now, I would probably be playing a concert lasting many weeks without stopping. There is so much music, but, as with violin music, for example, not all the repertoire has passed the test of time, eventually leaving works by the way to be forgotten. I think that, for tuba players, we are now in that process, with a lot of composers writing music for us. Much of it will probably not survive hundreds of years, but there are some really great composers writing for the tuba and some of the music being written now will accumulate to become the classical repertoire people will associate with the instrument.

PH: Mr. Baadsvik, what was your earliest musical experience?

ØB: I think it must have been my mother playing trumpet as an amateur trumpeter in a wind band in Norway. She used to practise at home and that is something I heard very, very early in my life.

PH: So, you are from a musical family.

ØB: Yes, I would say so. Both amateurs, my grandfather used to play the tuba and my father sang and played guitar. So, I would say that I got a lot of music through my family. I am the first to be a professional musician…so far.

PH: How did you begin your early musical training?

ØB: At age 10, I started playing the euphonium (like a tuba, only a little smaller), an instrument used widely in wind bands.  For some reason, it didn’t click with me, not working out as others and I had hoped it would. Maybe I was too young to understand the beauty of music at that time or I was physically unsuited to play it, or there could have been other reasons. So, I stopped that after two years. Three years on, at age 15, I was given the opportunity to play the tuba in a wind orchestra. That was the only available instrument, so it was the tuba or nothing. I accepted the offer and, two years after that, I started playing in the Norwegian National Youth Orchestra, beginning to play more and more solos and winning a few solo competitions. It was now clear that I was very well suited to the tuba… it was a very, very good match.  I think my singing voice suits the tuba very well, as does the way I think in musical terms and I had a very good teacher. He was a very accomplished tuba player in the Norwegian Military Band here in Trondheim – Elvind Rise – and, after that, I was taught by a very fine player from the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra – Reidar Nilsen. What was important with Nilsen was that he had connections all over Europe: he knew how the tuba was played in Germany, how it was played in England etc., and he was able to get these ideas across to me. I think that aspect of performance is getting easier nowadays: with Internet, for example, a young player can follow what other people are doing the other side of the planet. I think this is a good thing.

PH: When did you start performing in public?

ØB: Very early on. I think I did my first solo concert just one year after I had started playing the tuba. It was in the countryside outside Trondheim, where I grew up – a small town of about 2000 inhabitants. Despite its size, the town had four wind bands, two choirs and a number of traditional fiddle orchestras as well! So, almost everyone in the village played an instrument or sang – a very vivid musical environment.

PH: Where did you take higher studies?

ØB: In 1986, I moved to Sweden to study with Michael Lind. There, I was working in a symphony orchestra, starting off my solo career (I met my wife there), then moving back to Norway after almost ten years. Actually, I only studied with Lind for a short period of time, but took a lot of private lessons with other teachers; I went to the USA and studied with Harvey Phillips, Roger Bobo and other very accomplished tuba players there. John Fletcher (UK) was one of my mentors.

PH: Did these teachers encourage your solo career, or did they see you as most tuba players in symphony orchestras?

 ØB: Actually, I picked my teachers carefully, choosing those who had had solo experience from before, teachers who respected that kind of playing. This is not always the attitude of tuba players: some see solo work as a side interest for your spare time, but not anything to pursue as a career. My teachers, however, were very open-minded when it came to that. Michael Lind, for example, had been running a solo career all by himself, likewise Harvey Phillips. John Fletcher was a fantastic solo tuba player, but was reluctant to go for that career as he had a full-time position in the London Symphony Orchestra. He also did question whether the tuba really was a solo instrument, but he was still open-minded enough to teach solo playing to students like myself.

PH: So, would you say that it is not yet a routine career?

ØB: It’s an evolution and that is what it’s all about. I really feel I am a part of some kind of evolution, standing on the shoulders of those before me who developed the instrument to a certain degree; hopefully, I am able to take it a few steps further. I know that I have been inspiring other young tuba players to grab onto what I have discovered and probably they will pass this on further. The evolution is moving incredibly fast, if you compare it, for example, to the development of older instruments.

PH: Do you see a new generation of solo tuba players emerging?

ØB: Right now, unfortunately, I don’t see there being young players who have had that same appetite for the classical works, wanting to 100% dig into that solo repertoire. But, on the bright side, I have seen a lot of fantastic innovations, where people, for example, are bringing the tuba into jazz; not only are they playing jazz, they are playing totally new types of jazz. Here in Norway, we have several very accomplished tuba players who are having great success in jazz, rock- and folk music, not only providing the bass line but also letting the tuba do some melodic work; and the way they play bass is totally different to how you would on an electric bass guitar or double bass. This is just Norway, but, of course, in the USA you have a lot of brass bands consisting of a couple of saxophones, maybe a trumpet or two, a drummer and a sousaphone or tuba. These bands are very popular nowadays; there are several in New York playing at parties, outdoors and in clubs. This is also really a specific way of using the tuba.

PH: I hear you play a lot of chamber music.

ØB: Yes, I do. I very often play with piano. I have a few pianists with whom I work fairly regularly; we do concerts in different corners of the world. I also do some tours where I perform in different universities in the USA, playing with different pianists on each campus; so it’s rehearse in the morning and concert in the evening…the same the next day, and so on. This is very challenging but also very rewarding, because you learn so much from playing with different great musicians.

PH: Would you like to mention works that have been written for you?

ØB: Yes. There have been many. In fact, Christian Lindberg’s tuba concerto was written for me and I think I have premiered close to 60 works for tuba by different composers. A violinist/composer called L. Subramaniam - India’s greatest player of traditional violin music - has just written a double concerto for Indian violin, tuba and symphony orchestra. We have already recorded it and will now record some new pieces as well to complete the CD in Bombay in February.  Being part of the fusion movement back in the 1970s, Subramaniam has also worked with many artists, such as jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Hubert Laws, merging, for example, Indian music with jazz.  The tour that I am doing with a pianist in Sweden early in February will include another world premiere – a piece written by American composer Andrea Clearfield. And in the USA in July I will premiere a piece by Japanese composer Das Fujikura. I am practising on that now, too.

PH: What genres do you play, apart from classical repertoire?

ØB: Funny you should ask that right now, because two months ago, I was given the opportunity to play a concert here at an event in Trondheim. The concert organizers said: “Here you have some money (I think it was like 8000 US dollars). You can do whatever you like with it, but it should be something you have not done before due to lack of time or money, so it has to be new.” As it happened, I had a lot of rock songs lying in my drawer, like ballads and up-tempo things. They hadn’t been played because I had not had the opportunity to play them before. I also didn’t have a band, for example, and had never had time to pull it all together. So, here I had the opportunity to put together a concert of rock music with lead singer and a fantastic complement of drums, electric bass, keyboard and electric guitar. That was quite an experience. Well, I have been playing jazz over the years, with small combos and doing concert tours with US jazz pianist Chick Corea, for example.  Also, engaging in more fusion-like projects and, of course, the Indian style that I have been checking out lately with Subramaniam. I am very curious when it comes to different musical styles and do think that I have learned very much from trying out many, even when it also comes to putting  classical music together.

PH: What about early music? Do you play it?

ØB: I do. However, the tuba was invented in 1835. It must be the only instrument whose exact birthdate is known: September 12th, 1836. That is when the German musical instrument inventor Wilhelm Wieprecht took out a patent on it. Although there is no early music written for tuba, that doesn’t prevent us tuba players from playing, say, Baroque music. We simply “steal” the music from other instruments – ‘cello, viol or other instruments – and with a clear conscience! And anyway, Baroque composers often did not designate on what instruments a work should be played. In which case, it works beautifully. We can take, for example, Bach flute- and ‘cello sonatas. I have played Vivaldi… more for fun than for anything else, but, hey, I’m in this for fun! I have a friend - Tormod Dalen - living in Paris, who plays Baroque ‘cello. He makes fun of my playing Baroque music on the tuba, but I guess one has to live with that.

PH: What teaching do you do?

ØB: I don’t have a regular teaching job anywhere. There is no time for that, but I do give occasional master classes. This is very interesting. I really learn a lot from teaching and, after 30 years of doing it, being able to help quite a few students with their specific problems. You can split the work up into musical issues and technical issues. The technical issues relate to how to hold the instrument, correct breathing, how to press the fingers correctly, how to shape your mouth and how to place your tongue. Surprisingly enough, all of this technique has not really been fully standardized on our instrument. You would think that, after 150 years, we would have agreed on how to sit, how to breathe etc., but the consensus is slowly getting there. When I go to China to teach there is a totally different approach to what I see when teaching in the USA, for example, so this is something I do hope the Internet can contribute to standardizing. Then, there is the musical aspect of teaching -  purely about how to phrase and even some simple musical rules that get forgotten and need to be brushed up, one of the most important being that every phrase must have a destination. You cannot simply just start to play without knowing where you are going.  Without that, the audience does not get the music’s “punchlines”. There are a lot of simple rules like this I use in teaching.  

PH: Do you edit publications?

ØB: Yes. Over recent years, the publishing industry has changed tremendously since digitalization; distribution has changed so much. For example, I myself have a publishing company that is run by a colleague in the USA; he has 6000 to 7000 publications for winds. The way it is distributed nowadays is via PDF or it gets locally printed on demand. This development, of course, has led to the downfall of a lot of publishers. I do publish quite a lot.

PH: Do you write articles?

ØB: Yes, occasionally. I did more of that earlier on, but I do sometimes write, for example, when a student has a problem common to many players, to which we find a good solution. That’s when I tend to write a few lines in order to help others.  I usually post it on Facebook or on other social media. Also, when sitting on competition juries, I very often get many ideas. One of the last subjects I wrote about is the “selfishness of performing”.

PH: What do you mean by that?

ØB: When you listen to someone playing, you, as the audience, want to receive something. The very nature of playing an instrument is about giving. You have an idea, an emotion or a story you want to tell and, through your instrument, you give this to the audience. It’s an unconditional gift. The audience can take it or leave it. But, in many competitions, it’s actually the opposite. You can hear in the competitors’ playing that they want to receive something. They are on stage in order to achieve something, such as jury recognition, perhaps a grand prize, financial gain, glory and honour etc., and it is all about them getting something. This contradicts the very core idea of making music, so the music-making becomes very selfish. And so my last article was about this dilemma that we often experience in competitions.

PH: Do you do a lot of recording?

ØB: Yes, I think so. As to solo tuba repertoire, there is nobody who has done more recording than I have. At the moment, I have ten solo CDs out. I am planning three more; the Bombay one is half done, there is one with the rock project and then a disc of new repertoire for tuba and piano.

PH: How do you manage to keep up with your large and sometimes new repertoire?

ØB: I think that this is really one of the biggest challenges for a musician…to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. Ideally, you should practise a lot of works simultaneously – one hour practising this piece, another hour practising the next piece. For most people this is hard, because you tend to want to finish one work, focusing deeply on it and then continue on to the next piece. Very often that is not possible. In my present situation, I have to practise on the February repertoire and the works for Israel (January 21st-29th). The week before Israel, I will be playing with the Krakow Philharmonic in Poland, and I need to practise for that, too. Well, some of it is “maintenance”, keeping the old material fresh, but it is strange how fast a work deteriorates if you have not played it for a year. You really have to be able to jump from one thing to another several times per day, and that does not come easily to me.

PH: Will this be your first concert tour of Israel?

ØB: Yes. I will be soloing with the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. I’m very curious. We are doing seven concerts.

PH: Would you like to talk about some of the unique works you will be performing?

ØB: One work will be a very nice tuba concerto by the orchestra’s musical director Christian Lindberg (who will be conducting the program); this is one of the classics that I believe will, in time, become part of the core repertoire for the tuba. I have also  written a tuba concerto; however, another composition of mine – “Fnugg Red” – will have its world premiere in Israel.

PH: Would you like to talk about the work?

 ØB: Yes. “Fnugg Red” was composed as a variation on a theme called “Fnugg”, which I wrote many years ago.  (“Fnugg” is Norwegian for “snowflake”). And…I don’t know…maybe because it is very light and very different in weight from the tuba…. The music was also inspired by the Australian didgeridoo, and I use the tuba in the way they play the didgeridoo. Another technique in the piece is something called “lip beat”, a technique I myself invented, creating rhythms that do not sound like specific pitch on the instrument; they sound more like a drum or other percussion instruments…a little fun thing I have added to the piece. There is also some inspiration from American fiddle music. (Aaron Copland wrote a piece called “Rodeo”, in which there are some elements from this American fiddle, bluegrass tradition.) Plus, of course, I have incorporated Christian Lindberg’s virtuosic trombone playing into the whole work. It’s going to be great fun to play. I hear from Christian that the NKO is a fabulous orchestra, so I am really looking forward to that.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

ØB: Radio-controlled airplanes: small model airplanes comprising a motor, propeller and receiver; you have a transmitter in your hand, with which you control the ‘plane. This is what I do for relaxation. And of course, being a Norwegian, you don’t get away from skiing, and there is also fishing in the fjords, another of my hobbies.

PH: Øystein Baadsvik, thank you so much for sharing so many aspects of your very unique musical life and career.