Interview with Cellist Andreas Brantelid

By Hans Jensen

Hans conducted this interview with the brilliant Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid in 2011. Hans was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen for one week in the summer and had the good fortune to be able to visit with and interview Mr. Brantelid.

Hans Jensen: I am delighted to be able to visit with and interview you here at The Royal Danish Academy of Music. First of all congratulations with all the success you have already had, including the half-million Danish Crown Culture Prize awarded to you by the Danish Crown Prince a couple years ago. That is a remarkable accomplishment, and I’m sure you were delighted to receive such a distinguished honor.

I would like to discuss a number of topics and issues related to cello playing, our profession and – if possible – some of your visions, dreams and hopes for the future for classical music in general.

Hans Jensen: But first, I’d like to know a little bit about your background as a cellist and your early upbringing. I understand that you grew up in a musical family and that you first studied with your father, Ingemar Brantelid, a cellist in the Danish Royal Opera orchestra. Tell us a little bit about your early studies.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. For those of you who hear this, you will probably hear that I’m speaking with the same accent as Hans.

Hans Jensen: [Chuckles] Yes, except mine is heavier.

Andreas Brantelid: [Chuckles] Yeah. We both have a heavy Danish accent. My father, Ingemar, is also a cellist who plays as principal cellist in the Royal Danish Opera Orchestra, and so of course I was very fascinated by the instrument and by the music right from the start. So, when I was 3 years old, I think, I started to beg my father for a cello of my own. In the beginning he didn’t think that was a good idea. He wanted me to play the violin, piano or maybe football or something instead [chuckles], because he, well, there are too many cellists in the world. Anyway, I didn’t give up, so finally I got my first cello, and that was the size of a viola actually.

Hans Jensen: Do you remember any thing from when you first started playing the cello?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes my father would practice one hour every day with me and we kept that up for 10 years.

Hans Jensen: Wow. That’s fantastic. Did you also practice some on your own or did you only do it together?

Andreas Brantelid: Yeah, sometimes I practiced on my own, but maybe not the first few years. But I played a lot for fun also. But one thing that I now, later, think is very important when I look back is that I got this one hour of concentrated practice every day, where I learned it the right way, right from the beginning. I think that it was a very good thing that there was a lot of playing around and a lot of, you know, just having fun, but also every day a little serious practice. I learned how to hold the cello and the bow properly, it was not only a game, and maybe most importantly, I learned how to play in tune. My father helped me develop a great sensitivity for intonation.

Hans Jensen: Yes to develop a great ear is one of the most important aspects of being a musician.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes I actually believe that anything to do with music and cello playing is about what you hear.

Hans Jensen: Absolutely.

Andreas Brantelid: It’s all in the ear, and when I now try to develop something new in my playing, I always realize that it’s all in the ears. I can never learn anything unless I first have it in my ear.

Hans Jensen: Yes in your inner ear… in your mind.

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly, in my mind.

Hans Jensen: And then, when we perform, we use our ears to make sure that the sounds we create are very close to what we visualize.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, and that could be numerous things, including timing, intonation, etc.

Hans Jensen: What about your studies as you grew older?

Andreas Brantelid: Well, the interesting thing is that I always had other teachers in addition to my father.

Hans Jensen: Oh really?

Andreas Brantelid: That was also a good thing. So I could… if it didn’t work with him… if we were not friends…

Hans Jensen: If you disagreed?

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly. If we disagreed, I could always say to him [my father]: “Oh, my real teacher says something else.” I first began my studies with the Suzuki method here in Copenhagen, and then I went to study with Henrik Brendstrup, a terrific Danish cellist. When I was about 11 years old I went to Mats Rondin, who was a professor in Malmo in Sweden. He was really wonderful and exceptionally good at teaching younger students. He has a very concrete way of teaching. It’s not so philosophical and it’s very straightforward.

Hans Jensen: Right to the point.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, right to the point, and he has a great way of relating to children. One great thing I will always remember is that he made me play a lot of Popper etudes, and [chuckles] it was probably good for me then… along with a lot of scales… and yet, I have never touched the Popper etudes since that time.

Hans Jensen: Did you learn all of them?

Andreas Brantelid: No, no. But, that was also because when I practiced with my father he insisted that I play them well.

Hans Jensen: Yes, perfect. I agree with that. There are a number of different ways to study and learn etudes, but in the end they have to be mastered in great detail. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean or help anything.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, exactly. I think it’s actually the opposite. It would be bad for you to learn them incorrectly, to play them out of tune for example.

Andreas Brantelid: When I was 15 or 16 I moved to Stockholm to study with Torleif Thedeen at Edsberg, and those were probably the best years in my life so far. I think I was there for three years, and not only Torleif, but the school were both fantastic.

Hans Jensen: Edsberg is a castle?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes the school is located in a beautiful castle outside the city… sort of in the countryside, and you have a little lake right next to the castle, and it’s really this fairy tale kind of beautiful place, to study in such a place and to practice in those beautiful rooms in the castle every day, it’s really inspiring. I liked the concept of the school a lot. That’s also why I chose to study there. The school is designed for younger students and they have a lot of time for practicing which is so important in those formative years

Hans Jensen: Yes I totally agree with that.

Andreas Brantelid: I think it’s a shame when people really want to practice – when they really need to develop their fundamentals – and then they are studying in a school where they don’t have time for practicing.

Hans Jensen: Yes that can be a problem. It is important to develop a rock solid technique before the age of 18.

Andreas Brantelid: I agree with that and I’m so grateful that I had the time for that, not only practicing but just learning how to think and study.

Hans Jensen: Your teacher in Stockholm, Torleif Thedeen, is a great cellist and has a wonderful reputation as a teacher. He has produced so many terrific cellists.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes he’s a wonderful teacher and a great cellist. Additionally, what is wonderful about him was that he is very flexible. He didn’t demand of us that we all play certain pieces or in a certain way. He didn’t force us to play really difficult stuff if we didn’t want to. Every student was so different from one another, and I remember when I went there that I had a goal and clear idea of what I wanted to learn and accomplish. Including how I wanted to play at that time and which pieces I wanted to study, and he really allowed me to do that.

Hans Jensen: I totally agree with that philosophy because each person is unique and as a teacher you have to help develop that uniqueness in each person.

Actually, when I listen to your playing you have a fantastic classical style and a lot of variety in how you play and do everything. It’s incredible musically, and it’s perfect technically and stylistically. It is very seldom to hear such maturity in a young player.

After you were in Sweden, you went to study with Franst Helmersson in Germany?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, at the Kronberg Academy, which actually reminds me a little bit of Edsberg. It’s a newly started school. It’s five or six years old, and I think that Frans Helmersson gave them a lot of information about Edsberg because he used to teach there.

Kronberg is a unique place because it’s designed for young people who already have a soloist career. I think a lot of young people in that situation have problems when they are studying in a big school which tends not to understand that these students already have their own concerts to play in, so they may not always be available to come to every lesson and rehearsal. In Kronberg, it’s almost like the students tell the school when they are free, which is wonderful.

Hans Jensen: Yes, it is important early in a young musicians career to still have time to get inspiration and a solid influence from a great teacher. So I think it’s fantastic to have a school such as Kronberg. Could you tell us something about your studies at Kronberg with Frans Helmersson?

Andreas Brantelid: Well, it’s funny because Frans is the teacher of all my other teachers.

Hans Jensen: Really?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes. My father studied with him; Mats studied with him; and Torleif also studied with him. Frans is a fantastic guy. When I came to him, he started to make me think in completely new ways. I think I was a very intuitive player when I came to him, and in a nice way he made me go in different directions, and if I have to describe his teaching, the thing that I probably learned the most from him was playing and thinking like a conductor. If you play a cello concerto or sonata, or really anything that you play like… how do I say… a little like a conductor, you develop a feeling of pulse and speaking in a way that people can understand. Not everything has to be organic all the time, but you start to gain a sense of how to communicate those ideas in a natural way in different settings… in a big hall, for example. It requires a lot of acting skills, and it is extremely important to be very assertive with what kind of impulses to give to an orchestra [or to whomever else you are playing with].

Hans Jensen: Yes it is very important to really look at a score from the conductor’s point of view.

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly, that’s also something that I spent a lot of time on with Franz Helmerson.

Hans Jensen: So at your young age, you already have a really wonderful career that’s growing and expanding, playing in many different countries with many different orchestras. You perform a lot as a soloist and in recitals. Do you have a different mindset when you are a soloist than when you play a recital, with a pianist, or do you find this pretty much the same?

Andreas Brantelid: Of course there are a lot of things that are different. First of all, playing a cello concerto takes much less time than a whole recital, and sometimes I actually find that a little hard because if you play a recital, you will play for one-and-a-half hours. That’s a lot of music. So it’s difficult in a recital to keep your concentration when you play a lot of different repertoire. When playing a cello concerto, you know every note in the orchestra; you usually know everything about everything in the performance. And that is wonderful, but it can also be a little… I don’t know how to say it… you can feel a little limited because you know it so well and you only play for 20 minutes maybe. What I like about recitals is that you get much more freedom; there’s much more room for being intuitive.

Hans Jensen: If you play with the greatest orchestras it is possible to play very soft, but overall when performing as a soloist it is nessesary to always be aware of projecting the sound out in the hall.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, and I think it’s very interesting that some cello soloists that I’ve heard in big halls, they really know the art of playing in big halls. That’s a difficult art to know because if you play yourself you cannot hear how it sounds in the hall. So you can use other people helping you in the hall, or you can just use your imagination for how it might sound in the last row. I’ve thought a lot about that when I play as a soloist.

I remember I heard a wonderful, wonderful cellist perform the Elgar Cello Concerto here in Copenhagen with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, and I sat in the first row in the rehearsal. I listened to him and there was really… how should I describe it… so much noise, and it seemed almost messy at times. And then, I moved quite a bit back in the hall and it just sounded fantastic. People have sometimes told me that I should think more about that when I play as a soloist.

Hans Jensen: As a soloist it is important to develop the art of projecting out in a big room. It is not only volume that is important, but also all the various ways of articulating the beginning or end of a note or phrase.

I understand that you’re also very involved with chamber music and have also collaborated with a number of fascinating musicians. What are some of your rewarding experiences concerning chamber music, or what ideas do you have about chamber music and how it is evolving in today’s world?

Andreas Brantelid: Well, I love to play chamber music in festivals, and maybe that’s because I’ve never really had a group. How do you say…?

Hans Jensen: A steady group – a permanent group?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes I’ve only played chamber music in festivals, so that’s the only relation I have to it. I do think it’s wonderful. The experiences I have had have been great. What I think about the most is the Kuhmo Festival in Finland, for example, in which I think I played 10 concerts in 8 days or something, and we would have rehearsals all the time. It’s a little crazy but wonderful at the same time.

Hans Jensen: You have also been involved with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Program. I remember listening to a concert with Baroque Music that I heard while driving in my car in Chicago. It was a great concert. How long have you been involved with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Program?

Andreas Brantelid: A few years now. I have one year left of my contract. They have a wonderful thing at the Chamber Music Society in Lincoln Center that is called Chamber Music Society II, and the concept of that is they invite young people from all over the world – Europe, Asia, everywhere, and anywhere – and then they mix the seniors with the juniors, which I think is a wonderful thing. The young players are there for three years at a time.

Hans Jensen: That is fantastic!

Hans Jensen: Now, I would love to talk to you about competitions. Your recording on YouTube of the first movement of the Arpeggione Sonata from the Paulo Competition is an absolutely wonderful recording. Your playing is very creative and very spontaneous, and the style is just perfect for Schubert from my perspective. You of course won the Paulo Competition. Do you have any advice for younger players on how to go about preparing for such a big competition? Can you tell us something about your experiences in relationship to that?

Andreas Brantelid: Well, I’ve only done two competitions in my life. Well, three… but two big international competitions. The first of them was the Eurovision Competition. I had to play for 15 or 20 minutes in the semifinal and 10 minutes in the finals, so that’s nothing to talk about.

Hans Jensen: What did you play actually?

Andreas Brantelid: I played the Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate (my own arrangement), the first movement of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in the Semifanals, and the first movement of Haydn C Major in the finals.

Hans Jensen: Then, for Paulo’s there are a number of rounds there.

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly. So that’s the only big cello competition I’ve ever done, and that was… let’s just say I will never forget those months before that competition. I practiced a lot simply because some of the pieces were new to me. I’d never played the Sinfonia Concertante before by Prokofiev. That was the first time, and I played three cello concertos: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Haydn. I also had a big first round program.

Hans Jensen: And a recital program in the second round.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes.

Hans Jensen: That’s a lot of repertoire to keep under your fingers.

Andreas Brantelid: It was! I remember two weeks earlier I told my father: “I’m going to cancel this. It’s too much.” And then a friend of mine told me: “Just give it a try. It’s probably the same for everybody.” And, I thought: “Oh God, I’m going to be sent home after one round.” But then I went there, and I realized rather quickly when I was there just the day before it started that I didn’t want to think at all about the later rounds, only just the first round. And, I played and advanced to the second round. Then, I was only thinking of the second round program. I would never touch the Sinfonia Concertante. Then, I remember that I played the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations late in the night, and I was the last one in the concert. I finished at 11 o’clock, and we had to go to play with another orchestra in the second round that was in North Finland. After the concert we had to wait one-and-a-half hours for the results. And then I realized, “Okay, I reached the finals, and then there is a rehearsal tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock in Helsinki with Prokofiev.”

That was tough. So I slept four hours, and had rehearsal with Prokofiev.

And it was actually a good thing… that I didn’t have any time to prepare for it, because when I came to the orchestra it had been weeks since I had last played a note on Prokofiev Sinfonia. But, I knew the music, and it went surprisingly well.

Hans Jensen: In the rehearsal?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, in the rehearsal. Then I had two days to prepare and it was all okay. If I had to give one piece of advice to people who are doing big competitions: take it easy and don’t think of the next rounds, only the round that you are in.

Hans Jensen: Oh, that’s true. It is much like professional competitive sports: one game at a time.

Andreas Brantelid: Precisely.

Hans Jensen: Now, when you practice and have to learn a lot of music, time spent away from the instrument is just as important as time spent with the instrument. Do you spend time on mental practice? What are some tips that you would give to people about practicing away from the instrument?

Andreas Brantelid: For me, that’s something I do a lot. I could never be without it. I sit a lot with the music just looking at it, and sometimes when I’m in airplanes or trains, I’m just sitting with a score and maybe not even thinking so much about it, just looking at it graphically… you know, and then some idea pops up and I realize something that I hadn’t thought of before. I also spend a lot of time just seeing and visualising the music inside my mind.

Hans Jensen: When you do that, do you have the music next to you?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, most of the time, but sometimes I just walk around and think about it. I think it’s a little – for me it’s a little dangerous – that it becomes too much cello playing. Then you start to make decisions about how to play based on what is most comfortable on the cello. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do when I’m not practicing with the cello.

Hans Jensen: To get a vision / concept of the whole piece?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes.

Hans Jensen: Not from the point of a cellist…

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly.

Hans Jensen: …but more from the composer or conductor’s point of view. That is truly great. It goes back to hearing it in our inner ear, our mind, first.

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, exactly.

Hans Jensen: But I think it can often be hard to make younger students understand that practicing without the instrument is just as important, even more important, than practicing with the instrument.

Andreas Brantelid: Yeah.

Hans Jensen: You seem to have a healthy balance of the two.

Andreas Brantelid: I’m really a believer in that, that it’s not a question of how many hours you practice but how you are doing it. For example, Rostropovich, whenever he would pick up his instruments and practice a new piece, he already knew how he wanted to play it or how he wanted to start playing it. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to achieve with his practice.

Hans Jensen: On another topic, it’s a different time now with the Internet: iTunes, YouTube, and so much music being shown and downloaded online. Do you think there could be a way of looking at classical music from a different perspective? And do you think there are things that maybe are problems in classical music today? Perhaps one of the problems is that the music and playing have to be so perfect, and because of that expectation of sheer perfection the message of the music is sometimes lost?

Andreas Brantelid: Yes, exactly. There’s a lot of tradition in classical music which I think is dangerous for us as classical musicians, that feeling that we have to fit into a certain mold and expected way of playing.

Hans Jensen: Yes, the freedom to be intuitive or to really be creative in the moment can be suppressed because you are always concerned about fitting into the system of how it’s supposed to be played.

Andreas Brantelid: Precisely. When I think of the players that I admire the most – for example the wonderful Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto… I don’t know if you know him – I think he’s wonderful because he sort of just gave up fitting into the system.

Hans Jensen: No, I don’t know him.

Andreas Brantelid: And what he does actually is wonderful for classical music because he presents it in a way to the audience that is totally honest to himself, and he really shows that classical music is not about tradition; it is not about playing perfect or keeping up traditions. You can actually play music that is 200 years old and make it seem necessary to play it right here and now.

Hans Jensen: You’re making a very good point. It’s important for performers not to seem like they’re bringing out some old dusty object from a museum, but rather like you are creating something totally new and fresh.

Andreas Brantelid: Exactly.

Hans Jensen: What are some ways that you think people can be creative in that way. What do you think younger players should try to do.

Andreas Brantelid: I think that when you play in public, it’s important that you do it because you want to do it and that you are not afraid of being creative and giving into the emotions and feelings the music evokes from within you at the moment. It is also important not to worry about being perfect when you are performing. Like in ice skating where you get penalized for falling on the ice, skaters of course should not think about that when skating. They (and us) should dare to be free in the moment.

Hans Jensen: From my perspective I think you absolutely have those qualities when you perform. Your playing is very unique, but it is also stylistically correct and beautiful.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I wish you lots of luck with your career as a performer. Thank you.

Andreas Brantelid: You are welcome.