Tuesday , October 20 2020
Cellist Jakob Kullberg
Photo credit: Charlotta Miranda

Exclusive Interview: Danish Cellist Jakob Kullberg

Cellist Jakob Kullberg will be performing pieces for cello, clarinet, and piano by Nordic composers, some of them world premieres, at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on Feb. 2, 2020. The noted musician, recipient of two Danish Grammy Awards, will be joined by clarinetist Chris Grymes and pianist Jeremy Gill. Kullberg spoke with us about his career and the upcoming concert.

Many American listeners won’t be familiar with some of these composers. Can you tell us a little about some of the works and how they’re meaningful to you?

The music of Nørgård, Saariaho and Sørensen has a special place in my heart.

I have been working very closely with Per Nørgård for more than 20 years in a myriad of constellations and roles. Recently I recorded a work for violin, cello and orchestra with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Norway that stands as a particularly good example of the creative and collaborative way we have developed.

The work, called “Three Nocturnal Movements,” had its premiere at the Bergen International Festival in 2015 and has an unusual creation story. The second movement is my composition on Nørgård’s piano fragments, meaning that I have chosen sketches and unfinished fragments from a recording I made of Nørgård playing the piano.

After making a selection of material I decided on the form of the movement, composed connections, superimposed material from the surrounding movements so as to make a coherent whole and finally orchestrated it.

In general I find that Nørgård, Sørensen and Saariaho represent some of the best Nordic music from their generation. I felt I understood Saariaho’s orchestration better after experiencing the Finnish summer nights where the sun never really goes down but instead creates a flamboyant spectrum of purple, red and blue hues.

Both Nørgård and Saariaho feel a connection to the music of Sibelius and for me [their music] has a profound quality. It represents both traditional cello playing and new invention and so fits me like a glove.

Eivind Buene and Niels Rønsholdt are both contemporary classical composers who have begun composing music that connects with contemporary music but also with popular music. In this sense I feel a natural connection to what they do as I myself am interested in many different styles of music such as jazz, blues and indie-pop.

I feel I have an opportunity to explore a less classical side of myself through the collaboration with them.

I see that on one piece you’ll actually be singing too. What’s the story behind that? And does it make you nervous?

When my daughter was born I began singing to her every night. In the last few years I began improvising these lullabies while playing my cello like a guitar. Through this process I slowly began composing a kind of popular music. I noticed that there was something fascinating for me in the act of singing, it felt like such a direct form of expression.

This experience coupled with a rare experience of exhilaration that I had when hearing the premiere of Danish composer Niels Rønsholdt’s beautiful and strange piece “Me Quitte” in 2012. It made me want to experiment with the idea of singing and with the concept of the expressive inherent in the imperfect.

I was immediately taken by Rønsholdt’s combination of contemporary instrumentation and the fact that he himself and a female untrained singer both sang their hearts out. It was very expressive partly through the fragility of their lack of formal training.

Niels’ music spoke to me on a deep level because it connected two worlds or styles that I feel connected to.

In May last year I gave the first performance of a new work for cello and orchestra called “Country” which was a piece I commissioned from Niels with the intent of trying to combine my classical cello playing with my love for playing the cello like a guitar and my newfound interest in using my voice.

I might add that I in fact have been adding my voice to solo works that Nørgård and Sørensen have composed for me, though never in the exposed way that these new songs by Rønsholdt, Buene and myself ask for.

There is certainly an element of fear as I am completely untrained as a singer, but I feel that I need to explore new paths of expression, and that I need to keep myself at the vanguard of my own capabilities to stay interested in what I do.

In a certain way everything for me currently is about exploring the next somewhat unknown step.

You’ve collaborated for some 20 years with composer Per Nørgård. This kind of composer-soloist relationship calls to mind past examples, such Brahms and Joachim, but it doesn’t seem to be very common these days. Can you tell us how this association came about, and what it has meant to your career?

Nørgård has been my mentor for such a long time.

The first piece of his that I played for him was his incredible duo for violin and cello called “Tjampuan” which I released some years ago on the album called Nordsending (BIS Records).

My work with him transcended from being the common performer-composer relationship to one where I was constantly allowed more and more creative input and collaborative freedom. He has taught me creative arrangement (some would call this composition).

One piece that might be interesting to mention is our “Secret Voices” which is my composition on his viola solo piece called the “Secret Melody.” Basically I composed a duo based on his solo work where he would give me feedback on my ideas but never tell me what direction to go in.

In later years Saariaho has become such a mentor figure for me and in fact it was she who gave me honest feedback when I made “Three Nocturnal Movements” based on Nørgård’s music some years ago.

I suppose being the one cellist for whom all Nørgård’s solo works in the last 20 years have been composed has made me somewhat central to his music. The thorough and creative specialization I have undertaken with his music as well as that of Saariaho and Sørensen obviously generates opportunities for me.

But in some ways I would say that the deepest impact these collaborations has had on me is as a musician and a human being rather than in mere career terms.

Jakob Kullberg and Per Nørgård
Jakob Kullberg and Per Nørgård. Photo credit: Kåre Viemose

This program, as well as your Momentum album from a few years ago, focuses on Nordic composers. Do you feel a special calling to promote the works of composers from these countries?

I feel a strong connection to Nørgård, Saariaho and Sørensen whose music I have specialized in. However whether this feeling of kinship is to do with the fact that I am Nordic I cannot say with certainty. I have grown up with Nørgård’s music in particular as my father also worked with Nørgård in the capacity of choir conductor and musicologist, and Nørgård’s music speaks to me in a deep way. I sometimes feel it is an extension of myself.

I’ve read that you’re at work recording cello concertos by Nørgård, Kaija Saariaho, and Shostakovich with the BBC Philharmonic. Is this project underway? And is there a planned release date?

The album is finished. It’s an interesting project for me in the sense that I have looked for niches of creativity through composing cadenzas for Saariaho’s 2nd Concerto and my recording of Nørgård’s viola concerto.

The CD should come out on BIS Records in 2020 but we are just in the process of formalizing the specifics.

It will comprise Nørgård’s 1st Cello Concerto called “Between,” and “Notes on Light,” Saariaho’s 2nd Cello Concerto, both recorded with the BBC Philharmonic and conductors Michael Francis and John Storgård, as well as Nørgård’s beautiful viola concerto “Remembering Child” which I recorded with Sinfonia Varsovia and Szymon Bywalec in Warsaw.

You’ve played Bach’s cello suites and Beethoven’s string trios in concert in recent years. In what ways do you have to “switch gears,” either mentally or physically, in moving from the baroque and classical eras to contemporary music?

Bach is a composer I have likewise specialized in through years of study with legendary Dutch baroque cellist Anner Bylsma. I feel a similar freedom when I play Nørgård, Saariaho and Sørensen that I do when playing Bach. So it feels natural switching between these idioms.

I think the crux of the matter lies in feeling a fluency in different styles and having a sincere interest in not superimposing your own style onto the music you play. When you have spent a lot of time on a particular type of music it doesn’t feel like you have to consciously change to perform it.

I’ve retained an interest in the Danish music scene since I lived in Denmark for a year when I was a child and studied piano with Poul Rosenbaum. I’ve never forgotten seeing Michala Petri in concert when she was just a teenager. Last year I had the chance to see the Danish Trio Vitruvi at Carnegie Hall, an example showing there’s much young talent today in Denmark. You have a very active international touring career, but you’ve also performed in your native country in recent years, for example at Tivoli Gardens. Do you have many opportunities to work and perform in Denmark with other leading or up-and-coming Danish musicians? Or is this a rare pleasure for you? And do you believe the local classical music scene is thriving?

I probably perform more abroad than in Denmark at the moment, but I do play quite a bit in Denmark still.

As I studied extensively abroad I made many long-lasting international musical friendships early on, which has led me to think of Europe as part of me. I don’t really think about where the colleagues I perform with come from, and since I teach at the Royal College of Music in London it’s quite natural for instance that my pianist lives there.

I think the part of me that feels deeply rooted in Denmark is the part of me that is devoted to the work with our composers. I have collaborated for the longest time with especially Nørgård and Sørensen and feel a certain level of pride in the fact that such a small country has generated so many original and prolific composers. In recent years the music of Hans Abrahamsen has had a resurgence, and I also work with the younger generation of Danish composers such as Niels Rønsholdt, Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen and Kasper Rofelt to mention a few.

I am however not interested in them because they are Danish, but I feel we share a tradition.

What are your touring, collaborating, or recording plans for 2020?

I will soon embark on recording my second CD as a soloist with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, which will comprise concertos by Shostakovich, Lutoslawski and Unsuk Chin. Unsuk Chin is up there with Nørgård and Saariaho in my opinion and her cello concerto is one of the most exciting concertos I have heard in the last five or so years.

I perform Shostakovich quite a bit as I am preparing for this recording, and Lutoslawski and Unsuk Chin are obviously also a high priority for me.

Then I am considering a recording project around Schumann’s Cello Concerto after the next BBC Phil disc, as I greatly admire this work. Also I will commission the 2nd Cello Concerto of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, and plans are in early stages for me to record Tommie Haglund’s hauntingly beautiful quasi-romantic but highly original cello concerto, “Flaminis Aura.”

And then there are projects with three Nordic composers, two of whose music I perform at the National Sawdust, to have these peculiar hybrid concertos written for me where I further test the possibilities of using my voice in conjunction with the cello played both traditionally and as a guitar.

And I have decided to spend time finding myself as a composer.

So in general it feels like a time of great change and very diverse projects, some of which deal with free improvisation with, among others, Danish drummer Kresten Osgood and jazz guitarist Jakob Bro.

Cellist Jakob Kullberg performs his “New Music by Nordic Composers” program at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on February 2. The concert is part of Chris Grymes’ Open G Series.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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Open G Series Presents: Jakob Kullberg. Photo by Jill Steinberg

Concert Review: Cellist Jakob Kullberg (Brooklyn, 2 February 2020)

Music by six Nordic composers, including Kullberg himself, allowed three fine musicians to focus on the cellist's ongoing search for new ways to build on the past century's musical traditions while forging his own path.