On the sidelines of the Hamburger Gitarrentage, GitarreKonkret met up with successful guitarist and new professor at the Musikhochschule Lübeck, Otto Tolonen, to talk about his research on the music by Hans Werner Henze, Finnish guitar music and more.
GitarreKonkret: Congratulations on starting your new job as a professor at the Musikhochschule Lübeck! How do you like Lübeck?
Otto Tolonen: It’s beautiful, and I enjoy it. It’s a very unique city and full of small details in the architecture. I like it a lot. I live very close to the Musikhochschule, so I just walk a few minutes there. It’s very convenient and quite peaceful. At first, I was actually thinking of moving to Hamburg and commute to Lübeck, but I have to say, I’m pleased that I didn’t do it.
GK: Yes, Lübeck is very lovely, not too small.
OT: Not too small, but not too big either. And there’s a lot of culture. It seems you can go to a concert or an exhibition every day; it’s a very active place.
GK: How often do you travel back to Norway to teach?
OT: I go every second or every third week for a few days. This is also how I was doing it when I was living in Finland. The flight connections between Hamburg and Norway are very convenient, so it’s quite comfortable, I would say.
GK: You successfully participated in plenty of guitar competitions over many years. In your opinion, is participating in competitions a crucial element of becoming a successful concert guitarist?
OT: I think the right frame of mind towards competitions can be beneficial. When I was studying, competitions for me meant setting goals. Not only did I have to practice for a lesson and a class concert, but I had a big goal that I was looking towards. It was also beneficial for my development and to get to know myself: How can I prepare myself most efficiently so that I can manage to do my best in a stressful situation? That was really important for me. Of course, it was also nice to get to be successful. Because that is also important for a young person – to have this kind of success and to know that you are doing something right.
Lately, I have been thinking that when I am looking at students who are doing competitions and who are upset when they don’t win, that there is also that teacher’s point of view that you can be successful in more than one way. You don’t need to be the winner of the first price. For example, success can mean collaborating with a composer and doing a premiere of a piece. Or that you form an ensemble with fellow musicians – that can be considered a great success! Learning to play continuo, that’s a fantastic success and so on. I think that young people want to impress people and of course, that’s normal – but to keep a healthy mentality, that success can be something small and that you don’t necessarily need to impress people to be successful in what you do.
Going back to the question if they were crucial: I would say that they were vital for me, at least in the way I developed. But I am a more or less laid-back person so even though I didn’t pass through to the final – of course, that is still a disappointment at that moment – I could always learn something from that. I remember the first competition I entered; that was in Poland, and I was very young, 14 or 15 years old. I was cut in the first round, and I remember that I learned a lot from watching the finals. I saw people who were for example, technically way better than me, and it meant seeing how certain pieces could actually be played and that I could do it also if I paid attention to certain things. Also, if you go to competitions, you meet fellow students and players from different cultures, and this is also a fantastic opportunity to learn from others.
GK: You focus on guitar music composed by Hans Werner Henze. What about his music captures you?
OT: That is a big question and difficult to put in a few sentences. I think the first piece from Hans Werner Henze that I heard was his Royal Winter Music. That was back around 1996, and I had never heard such a long piece, it is about half an hour-long, and there is this sheer complexity, those many layers and of course the beauty as well – all this intrigued me to take a closer look at the piece. When I started studying it, it revealed many other things, for example, the references to Shakespeare and the possibility to look at it from different perspectives. I think it is this sheer complexity that his music offers, its endless sources of ideas and ways to look at it. That is what interests me about his music. Also, from a guitarists’ point of view, it is incredibly challenging, but it has, for example, taught me a lot about the dynamic range and the colours of the guitar. Of course, I went quite deep into his guitar music, focusing my doctoral studies around it. I have been doing it for eight years now and hoping to finish it soon.
I have been studying his manuscripts at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, and I am now preparing his edition of the second Royal Winter Music Sonata, which Schott will publish quite soon. In my thesis, I am, among other things, researching the notational devices that he uses. As I have been doing what is called ‘artistic research’, the central part of the degree has been the concerts that I have played already or am preparing now. In those concerts, I’ve been focusing on the music by Hans Werner Henze, but also the modernist repertoire of the European guitar music in the latter part of the 20th century.
GK: One of your albums is dedicated to Finnish guitar composers. It is beautiful music, quite unknown in Germany though.
OT: Yes, for sure.
GK: What was the background to this project of yours? And do you understand yourself as an ambassador of Finnish guitar music?
OT: The album “Toccata: Finnish guitar music” contains pieces which are dedicated to me or that I have commissioned and then there are a few others which are a little bit older. For example, the Guitar Suite Op. 32 by Erik Bergman on the recording can be considered as the first Finnish guitar piece, it’s from 1949. Next month I will play a concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and I am preparing a piece by Antti Auvinen, which is going to be a premiere. It is an interesting and big piece. Initially, it was supposed to be 7 minutes long, but now it’s almost 20 minutes long. So, I have got a lot of work to do!
In Finland since around the 1970s, you can take it for granted that instrumentalists, who have a concert career, dedicate quite a big part of their work to working with Finnish composers. Do I see myself as an ambassador? That is too dramatically said because everybody is doing this more or less. We have lots of fantastic guitarists in Finland who are preparing works with composers and then playing them in their concerts around the world. Ismo Eskelinen, Petri Kumela and Timo Korhonen, for example, are very active in that way and have also recorded full albums only dedicated to Finnish composers. So, my album is just one in that sea of recordings. But still, I see it as an absolutely crucial part of my work to also promote the music from my own country. This is a mentality that I see in Finnish instrumentalists and that I find very positive. We are a small nation, and we are supporting each other, and I think that this is why the musical life in Finland is also so rich. We have fantastic significant composers, like Magnus Lindberg or Kaija Saariaho – after Sibelius – and others. So, all in all, I consider myself as one of the ambassadors.
GK: You play in a group called Tjango!, a mixture of folk, jazz and tango. Please tell me about it.
OT: Tjango! is a fantastic and exciting project and group. We started out almost 10 years ago. As for the name: We had our first gig coming up, and we just needed to invent something within 15 seconds. Tjango! it was and that just stuck. In the beginning, we played pieces by Piazzolla or Django Reinhardt, but nowadays our program contains original music, mainly composed by our accordionist.
Especially our violinist and bass player have strong roots in folk music, and they brought those influences with them. It would be hard to say that our music is jazz because I am not a jazz player at all, but it has for sure some jazz elements and also some tango influences, some Finnish folk influences – a mixture of those.
What I enjoy about playing in the band and our music are the improvisations and the rhythms. The rhythms and beats are entirely different from classical music, and so it’s been challenging and fun at the same time.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to join Tjango! for almost the past two years because of my appointments and moving to Germany; my road has taken me geographically far away from them – it’s a little bit sad. I am going to join them for some projects in March though when I am visiting Finland.
GK: Thank you very much for the interview.
OT: Thank you.