Q&A with Annelien Van Wauwe

APO’s Joshua Clark spoke to clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe ahead of her performance with the orchestra for The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Mozart’s Clarinet.

Basset clarinet and Mozart, what a treat! What are the beauties as well as the challenges of performing on this instrument, and can you share your thoughts on the significance of this instrument when playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto?
The basset clarinet literally gives depth to the concerto. A lot of melodic phrasing through the basset notes makes the concerto what Mozart intended it to be: pure, natural music. The instrument is longer than a normal A clarinet and therefore heavier. Carrying it is not always the most ergonomic and in addition to physical strength, requires more strength in the blowing technique because the air has to travel a greater distance. I personally find that this extra effort makes the music even more special.

Tell us about your process for learning a major solo work with orchestra.
Learning a concerto requires a lot of discipline in order to be able to play every little detail in the clarinet part as perfectly as possible, and also to be able to perform it with the same conviction in a performance. This is a process that takes an immense amount of time. Knowing what every other musician in the orchestra has to play is also a must, of course. This is the only way to turn a solo concerto into a chamber music experience. This way of making music, of being together, benefits everyone, and I am convinced that an audience hears and feels this interaction.

You practice yoga and meditation, how does this inform your approach to music making?
It creates physical, mental and emotional strength, flexibility and stability. What you learn on the yoga mat – also philosophically – is perfect for making music. In particular learning patience, acceptance, endurance, focus, concentration, (breath!) control and discipline has a very calming effect on clarinet playing. Control also means that true emotions can be expressed during a performance which is often prevented when stage fright or general stress arises.

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Can you tell our audience a bit more about your recently commissioned concerto SUTRA?
As a musician and especially a wind player, posture and breathing are extremely important. When I started doing yoga, I quickly noticed its positive influence on my clarinet playing: I developed greater physical control, stronger breathing and better concentration. The philosophical side of yoga soon proved inspiring: the total concentration on one point, the positive attitude and the emphasis on self-confidence left their mark on the emotional dimension of making music.

The focus on technical perfection gave way to a deeper focus on the path to it. Even under stress, emotional depth does not disappear. Finally, a musical fascination also grew for the sutras (short texts in Sanskrit that succinctly describe the various steps on a yogi's path) as a kind of reminder. Out of this triple interest grew the idea of commissioning a clarinet concerto inspired by breathing, meditation and the philosophy of yoga. With my four sutras under my arm, I tapped Wim Henderickx on the shoulder a few years ago. With his knowledge of Eastern music and philosophy, he was the perfect composer to write a new work for me. The result was Sutra, a concerto for basset clarinet orchestra. It premiered in Glasgow in 2021.

Can you describe to us some of the environments that you play in other than the concert hall?
My favourite place to play music and study is my soundproof study room at my home. It is about the size of a garden shed, the acoustics are very dry and yet it feels like the most perfect place for me to make music because I can hear every tiny detail and there are no outside distractions. It is an important way for me to prepare concerts, CD recordings and generally work in a structured and focused way.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced during a concert?
There are several examples of ice-cold halls or churches and I tried to make the best of it, and also of blood-hot halls where people in the audience fainted and I still kept breathing and playing the clarinet. One of the biggest challenges was a Weber concerto recorded live by German radio in which a light bulb caught fire behind me, high above the stage. I heard crackling but didn't know what was going on. Fortunately the bulb went out by itself and the concert could go on as usual.

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

What has been the high point of your career so far?
For me, it was winning the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. I also have very fond memories of the three BBC Proms I have played at the Royal Albert Hall. Being a soloist there really does make you feel a bit like a rock star. Playing in front of such a big hall almost gives you the feeling that you are really going to stage dive!

What are your favourite music albums to listen to?
It's probably rather unusual for a musician, but I almost never listen to music in my spare time. I hear music almost incessantly in my head anyway and I can enjoy that immensely! If I organise a party, I will of course put on music and it would be Latin American dance music and Balkan. As long as it makes me active and happy.

What are you looking forward to exploring while you are in New Zealand?
I am very curious to explore your amazing nature.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Always focus on what you have accomplished rather than what remains to be done.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring musician?
Enjoy the process of learning, because it's through that journey that you will become an artist.

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