Much to the webosphere’s delight, a clip of arguably the most famous upwards glissando ever (“Rhapsody in Blue”), executed totally and satisfyingly by a Viennese woodwind ensemble, recently made the rounds and went viral. The musicians comprising the Vienna Clarinet Connection are modest guys, though, and said it was just a matter of practice.
So beautifully did they tackle the well-known passage that if they weren’t known before, they are now. The pinpoint accuracy required of such mind-boggling cohesion seems as easy as pie for this four-piece band. Besides “Rhapsody in Blue,” the warm-toned woodwinds are stellar, smart and jovial in “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and other 1930s classics at Austria’s 2017 Clariarte Festival, even inserting a brief humorous musical reference to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”.
Helmut Hodl (clarinet, composer) says recording their 2017 CD “Clarinets à la King” was an experience of “unbelievable spontaneity and indescribable moments on stage.” This compilation includes original music and pieces from Aaron Copland and Benny Goodman’s songbook.
As the foursome (including Helmut; Rupert Fankhauser, who responded to this interview; Hubert Salmhofer; and Wolfgang Kornberger) play in a tight grouping, each one bobs and weaves towards the mic and away; no doubt riffing off each other’s body language as much as the music. In sync doesn’t begin to describe it. An upward gliss, a downward fall or a breath-defying sostenuto, these superior musicians add so many textures with, when you think about it, just one instrument among them.
How early did you start learning music?
We all started to learn an instrument as kids. As soon as the clarinet turned out to be our favorite, we all started to play in the local wind orchestra.
In the small villages and cities where we grew up, wind orchestra (Blasmusik) plays an important role in music education and also socially.
What was the moment you remember wanting to do this for your career?
I think we all enjoyed music and chose it to be our favorite hobby, so by getting better and being motivated by our teachers, other musicians, parents and friends gets you to begin thinking of being a musician.
For me it was the moment I successfully got into the University of Performing Arts in Vienna, then I felt that I would go for it.
Were you always looking to join an all-clarinet group?
Ensemble playing has always been an important part of music education, so in music school and at university we played in different clarinet formations: duo, trio, quartet.
How did the four of you come together?
We met each other during our studies and touring together in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, founded by Claudio Abbado in the mid 80’s.
Helmut, Hubert and later Wolfgang already founded a legendary basset horn trio “Trio Clarin Wien,” playing and recording all these fantastic divertimentis and adagios written by Mozart. (Basset horn and clarinets were the instruments he loved most! )
I already joined them from time to time to play the repertoire with three basset horns and clarinet, like the famous “Adagios,” but also new arrangements. So in 1995 Helmut had the idea to found Vienna Clarinet Connection. In the beginning as a quintet (two clarinets, two basset horns, a bass clarinet) and after a few personnel changes, since 1997 we’ve been playing as a quartet: two clarinets, a basset horn and a bass clarinet.
This is actually the equivalent of a classical string quartet.
What is your own particular training and what did you get out of your music education?
We all studied classical clarinet, so our education was quite limited concerning the repertoire and mainly focused on an orchestral career.
I think a long process of learning and trying by ourselves made us the musicians we are today.
What have you developed in your own playing to become a stronger musician?
The main point is to know about your own qualities and what you can “sell” on stage.
Can you play all the clarinets? Which do you prefer?
We can all play all the different clarinet instruments. In orchestra we even play sax as well. Helmut and Hubert are quite good sax players, and they often play in jazz formations and big bands.
I love to play basset horn and on historical clarinets as well.
Talk about your other three members and what is the difference between “basset horn” and “bass clarinet”?
In this special quartet formation, you need absolute specialists on basset horn and bass clarinet.
Basset horn means small bass. It is tuned in F and because of a very wide range it is like viola and cello at the same time.
Bass clarinet is a kind of cello and double bass, but also can go very high. So both instruments can play bass and melody as well.
Hubert plays on a Schwenk & Seggelke basset horn and Wolfgang on an Arthur Übel bass clarinet.
Helmut uses a Karl Rado clarinet in B and I am playing on the Gerold B clarinet.
How do you maintain your individual sounds while meshing so well as an ensemble?
I think this is very special about our group. Everyone has his individual sound, but in playing together and listening to each other we manage somehow to blend and even imitate everyone’s color and timbre.
That classic GLISSANDO of “Rhapsody” – do you have any particular insights into why Gershwin wrote it?
As I heard it, Gershwin wrote just notes, like a C major line. But when it was performed with the big band, the clarinet player tried the glissando…and that’ s how Gershwin liked it as well.
So this is what I know, but I am happy to learn more about it. In our arrangement Wolfgang tried to make everyone happy in letting all four of us do the gliss together.
Do you consider that your signature piece?
I wouldn’t say it’s our signature piece, but it’s a fantastic arrangement done by Wolfgang and it gives us the chance to show all our qualities; especially in the video we did to promote our last CD, “Clarinets a la King” which is quite successful.
But there is one piece we played in every single concert for more than 20 years, “Autumn Leaves.” I guess this is kind of our signature piece.
What do you do to vary “Rhapsody,” or is it the same each time?
There are small variations every time. We never play the same thing twice, because every concert has its own atmosphere, mood and different interaction with the audience. For example, here in Turkey, people used to applaud within the pieces, especially in “Rhapsody.”
Does Helmut “hear” different instrumentation when he composes?
He does “hear” different instruments and lot of his compositions are inspired by other musicians from all genres.
I think that’s the point also in playing. We try to forget about “only” playing the clarinet, trying to sound like what is intended by the composer.
But this is the interesting challenge and a chance to learn and try out new things.
Has the quartet ever collaborated with other instruments?
We love to play with other musicians. Helmut wrote two concertos for the VCC and symphony orchestra : “Concerto Crosso” and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but there are other arrangements with us as soloists and orchestra as well.
And we have a few programs and did recordings (for example “Electric Woods”) with additional musicians, pianists, singers, percussionists, a double bass and string quartet.
Having our own festival “Clariarte” in Styria [Austria] for the past ten years, we are developing a new program every year. We also did interesting projects with actors, painters and with the Vienna State Ballet.
How much do you spend on reeds in a typical year?
As students and young players we all used to spend a lot of time on reed-making. I learned how to cut the reed from the cane and I’ve produced my own reeds for more than 15 years.
These days it is so easy to buy fantastic reeds and there are actually only a few adjustments to do. Most of the time I just take it from the box and play.
How do you maintain your instrument?
Actually there is not much to maintain…clean, oil and sometimes I send it to the maker to service it.
What composers do you favor?
There are many, from all genres. Classical speaking I love to listen and even more to play Mahler and Richard Strauss, but Mozart and Schubert as well.
Most time in listening, I am more into jazz and there is so much to discover.
What do you like most about jazz?
You don’t play the exact same thing twice. It gives you freedom and is more creative than classical music.
There is so many players to admire, but I still love the music of Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Bob Mintzer, Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera. But as I said before, there is so much to discover all the time. By all these media platforms the possibilities of listening to music from all over the world is limitless.
What is “Spiral Dynamics”?
Spiral Dynamics is a way of being aware of the quality of movement and posture, looking for the best and most natural use of ourselves. It was developed by a group of doctors and physiotherapists in France and Switzerland. To know about the use of our body as the real instrument is an absolute necessity for every musician.
There are so many methods and ways of working with the body, and all four of us being teachers as well, everyone has found his own personal way.
Talk about your recent tour of Turkey. What do you like about performing there?
It was not the first time to tour and play here. We have a lot of fans in Turkey. For us it is a special journey every time, because people are very friendly and warm hosts. And they are a really open and thankful audience.
One of the privileges of our job is that we get to know all these fantastic places and people. Whenever you have a chance you must see Istanbul and have a few days at the Black Sea.
Do you have to make a mental switch when you are playing classical vs. jazz?
I would not say so. I think all of us try to concentrate as much as we always do. There should be the same quality in intonation, sound, rhythm, phrasing and exact playing together.
Favorite venue to play?
All places have their own quality, big or small. It is great to play at the Wiener Musikverein or Konzerthaus or big halls like Palao de la Musica in Barcelona or Valencia, but to play in a small club or venue can be very special too, because the audience is so close.
Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?
Maybe Carnegie Hall?
Most recent CD and what you enjoyed most about producing/recording it?
Our most recent CD was released in 2017, “Clarinets à la King.” All the pieces are our own arrangements and compositions.
It is the first time we did the complete recording ourselves. Helmut got completely into recording and became a real technical expert. As we got our own equipment, we could record without the pressure of time and money. It is really ideal to develop pieces during recording.
Some pieces we even re- recorded because we did not like the first version. Except for the final mastering, Helmut did the whole recording and sound work!
What should people know about you as a group that they don’t know?
That we are quite nice guys.
What are you looking forward to with your music this year?
We are working on a new program “Breathless” for our festival at the end of August, featuring Philipp Sageder from the ensemble “Bauchklang,” singing and beatboxing. And we’ll record a new CD in September.
For more information, visit www.viennaclarinetconnection.org.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the Vienna Clarinet Connection. Second photo (c) Leah Fankhauser and Matthias Kock.
© Debbie Burke 2018