With a Rush Hour concerto performance on the horizon, oboist Julia Hantschel unlocks the door to the work of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.
THE ART OF COMMUNICATION
Describe the Martinů Oboe Concerto in a nutshell.
The way the piece is orchestrated means it’s about communication, with the oboe trying to interact with other instruments in the orchestra. The soloist is trying to express and share the emotions that are happening in that moment, and in a concerto with such strong emotions the conversations are quite easy to understand.
The first movement is very free flowing with a sense of peace, and hints of dancing rhythms, but then the second is so dark, depressing and devastating. A resolution follows, and the final movement has a sense of incredible freedom.
But it’s not just as simple as ‘the oboe’ and ‘the orchestra’ in this piece. There’s so much going on everywhere, we’re all taking cues off each other – be it the horns, trumpets or piano – and everyone is involved in this huge conversation that envelopes the whole band.
What goes through your mind while performing the concerto?
Emotion is everything. As an example, the second movement is like psychological warfare as you fight to break free but can’t. You are resigned to failure, to being trapped, and it’s deep emotions like these that I try to focus on. That process of resignation, and ultimately acceptance, is something I can relate to from my life – I think everyone probably can – and it’s a case of trying to channel that emotion into the performance.
But the piece, in part thanks to its instrumentation, is so colourful and I love that. The first and last movements are so different to the second, and there’s a huge emotional range to explore in the performance. Since I first discovered the piece several years ago, I’ve been playing it again and again.
20th CENTURY EDGE
How does the Martinů compare to other pieces or composers?
To me, this concerto is a bit jazzy. It doesn’t go as far as Gershwin, but it’s a nod in that direction and definitely has an edge to it. This isn’t a classical or romantic concerto, it’s very much a 20th century piece with hints of Stravinsky and Shostakovich too.
This mixture of influences is hardly surprising given that Martinů’s life personified the upheaval of the 20th century. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but at various times lived in France, Spain, Portugal, the US and Switzerland. Initially this nomadic existence was for artistic reward, but later became a necessity and then by-product of a continent divided by the Second World War and the Iron Curtain.
Do you think your own international background, having lived and studied in Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Switzerland and the UK, helps in performing a piece like this?
I think so, yes. In general it helps to broaden your mind and shows you different points of view, but it’s also an important experience to go through as you move to another culture. Everything in your life that you thought was stable changes and you have to adjust to your new surroundings.
Then, from a musician’s perspective, there are interesting differences between orchestras in different countries. But with Southbank being such an international orchestra, the atmosphere feels so open. You don’t have to find a way of playing to match the existing style – like is the tradition in some continental European orchestras for instance – but instead the orchestra as a whole finds its own balance.
MUSICIAN ON THE RUN
How do you escape from the stresses of being a professional musician?
I run! It’s so important for me to get my balance back, psychologically as well as physically. Sitting in an orchestra for six hours a day means you need something to release the energy, release the pressure, forget and relax. I’m not thinking about performances while I run, I’m just getting away from it all.
But the Martinů is quite heavy, because it’s a solo piece rather than an orchestral piece, so I’m making an extra effort at the moment to get fit for that. It’s important to build up some lung capacity and muscle for the performance, but there’s the useful side-effect of it helping my training for the half marathon a team from Southbank Sinfonia are competing in.
Alongside helping to raise funds for our inspirational music education projects, I’m really looking forward to running with my friends from the orchestra. As performers you’re usually in such a competitive environment with a constant pressure to excel at your instrument, so it’s fun to have the half marathon as a joint goal to support each other through.
Find out more about Southbank Sinfonia’s team running the Oxford half marathon here.
Julia is performing as soloist in Martinů’s Oboe Concerto with Southbank Sinfonia at St John’s Waterloo on Thursday 18 September. Join us for free at 6.00pm, enjoy a complimentary glass of wine and escape the rush hour! Find out more here.
Find out more about Julia here, or listen to the piece in the video below.