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Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel – Hero of the Cello with a Beethoven Obsession

Meet Jennifer Kloetzel

As part of our Women’s History Month celebrations, we spoke with Professor Jennifer Kloetzel, cello soloist, chamber musician, professor of cello, and head of strings at UC Santa Barbara. She is also a Beethoven fanatic.

Earlier this year, she and pianist Robert Koenig released their complete Beethoven recordings, Beethoven the Conquering Hero. The album was named the March 2022 recording of the month by the BBC Music Magazine!

 
I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Professor Kloetzel. Her energy, ceaseless intellectual curiosity, and virtuosic command of the instrument unite in exceptional musicianship, making her truly a hero of the cello.

Also, please be sure to enter our Beethoven giveaway. Professor Kloetzel generously donated a CD copy of her album, and we have a Beethoven cello tote bag you can win as well.

Jennifer Kloetzel. Photo By Michelle Lee Photography

Jennifer Kloetzel. Photo By Michelle Lee Photography.

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Beethoven the Conquering Hero

Cello Museum (CM)

Congratulations on your new album, Beethoven the Conquering Hero, being chosen as the recording of the month by BBC Music Magazine for March 2022. Please tell us about it.

Jennifer Kloetzel (JK)

It’s such a relief to have this out in the world because it’s been a project that’s been on my mind for a very long time. It’s a big project – almost three hours of music. And, of course, the pandemic came along in the middle of it, so everything got delayed.

It was supposed to come out as a celebration of Beethoven 250. Many people were doing special things, but Beethoven has been an obsession of mine for a long time, so I had to add my voice. But, there were other plans being made in the world. I like to think that Beethoven wouldn’t mind that 251 is what we’re celebrating.

“Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.”

CM

I think it’s wonderful to add a new voice. In another interview, you likened it to different actors playing the role of Hamlet. Also, playing the same pieces at different times in your career, it’s interesting to hear how this voice changes.

JK

I think many people don’t realize that when you make a recording, it’s capturing a moment in time. It’s not how I think of it forever; it’s how I think of it right now. As soon as I leave the recording studio, I have new ideas for these pieces and new things I want to try. Maybe I want to not take that repeat, for example. It’s a constant exploration, and I think that’s the way it should be.

Ludwig van Beethoven portrait

I love the Beethoven quote:

“Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.”

I think of that as I’m playing his music, because I think you can see this throughout his music – he never does the same thing twice. It’s interesting that his final work for cello and piano is a fugue. The last movement of the last sonata is a fugue. There had been nothing like that in all of the other pieces.

Beethoven Horn Sonata on the Cello

CM

The horn sonata was least familiar to me. In Beethoven’s time, the horn was extremely different from what it is now, so is this work more or less idiomatic for the cello? Did it feel different to play the horn sonata than to play the cello works?

JK

It really did. I decided to include that piece in this collection because Beethoven himself wrote it. There are other works that people often include in a Beethoven cello and piano set because there was a version of the Kreutzer Sonata. There’s a cello and piano version of the opus three string trio, which is opus 64. Neither of those arrangements were written by Beethoven himself.

The horn sonata – something clicked in me when I heard it and saw that there was a cello possibility. I wasn’t familiar with it, either. But I also loved where it fits into the time frame. Beethoven wrote this piece in 1800 for the greatest horn legend of the day, Giovanni Punto.

Beethoven wrote this piece in F Major, the key of the natural horn. When he sent the parts to the publisher, he wrote a cello part – and it is different. He made some idiomatic changes. In the cello version, we have chords and different arpeggiated runs.

When I was playing this and working on it with Bob, I felt like it was almost like our missing Mozart sonata. The Beethoven horn sonata from 1800 falls right between the two sets of Mozart variations in 1798 and 1801. So the way Beethoven writes melody feels very different from his other sonatas, which have more textures in them, and more back and forth dialogues. If you sit back, you can imagine a horn playing the part that I’m playing on this recording.

Beethoven, the Conquering Hero

We thought it was going to be a two-CD set, initially. I take every repeat; I believe in form. So, we had to spread it into three CDs. I invite people to come on this journey with me to listen to Beethoven’s development from the beginning in 1796 through to 1815.

When I recorded the string quartets with the Cypress Quartet, we started with the late quartets, then we went to the middle, and then to the earliest. It was fascinating to me to do it in that in that order because you could see all of the kernels of Beethoven’s brilliance in those early quartets once I knew what he was heading towards.

My album title, “The Conquering Hero,” is about that first track – the Handel variations. It’s all about joy. It’s about celebration. Coupled with the fact that Beethoven had a lot of suffering in his life – suffering from hearing loss, suffering from not finding a partner, suffering later with his nephew. Then there was the war, and he could barely buy what he needed. There was a roadblock every step of the way. And yet he continued, and I find that inspiring. I think of him as a conquering hero.

Cellos Two Centuries Apart

CM

You played a 1901 instrument in this recording. Please tell us about this instrument and any other cellos you play.

JK

The cello I played this recording was made in 1901, in Milan, by Camillo Mandelli (1873 – 1956). He’s not a well-known maker, but it’s a beautiful cello – healthy – and responds well to travel, life, and whatever I throw at it. I’ve owned this cello for quite some time. It’s the only one I’m playing on currently.

I’ve borrowed cellos in the past; when I was playing in the Cypress Quartet, I was playing on a 1701 Amati cello that was bought for me to play in the group. So it was fun to compare 1901 and 1701 cellos and also think about when that tree would have been planted to make each one of those instruments. It’s mind-boggling. The tree used to make the 1701 cello might have been planted in 1400 in order to have a piece of wood that big. That is supposed to be one of those secrets to why the old instruments sound the way they do – that the trees grew slower and stronger during the Dark Ages. I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The Mandelli has been my companion for a while – Gertrude, as I call her. It’s not a very Italian name, but Gertrude was her travel ID name when they would let you name your cello on airplanes, instead of being cabin baggage or whatever they make us call our cellos now.

Gut Strings and Starting from the Sound in Your Head

CM

Have you ever played Beethoven on a period cello or bow?

JK

I have not, actually. I haven’t explored that world, partly because I haven’t had the equipment at my disposal. I would love to try that out. I do play on gut strings. No matter what music I’m playing, my lower strings are gut strings.

I have been playing on Oliv strings since college. Somebody suggested them to me, so I put them on my instrument – it was like the whole world opened up to me. They’re very temperamental, but I’ve gotten used to them, and I love the quality. I’ve tried some others, and I keep coming back to the Olivs.

The bottom three were all gut for a long time. When I played in the quartet, the D string was very temperamental [because] we were traveling so much, and it was my nod to my colleagues to change the D. Still, the C and G have remained, and no matter what instrument I’m playing on, I put them on. To me, it’s the way I want it to sound. It’s the sound I hear in my head.

I think everything starts from there. To make the sound I’m going for, I have to start in my head. I think all of us do. It’s something I teach my students. I don’t want them to sound like me. I want them to sound like what they imagined and what they’re happy with. So none of my students sound the same as each other, and I celebrate that.

First Music, First Cello Experiences

CM

What is the first piece of music you remember hearing as a child or baby?

JK

My mom was a singer. She was still singing some opera and I think I heard that in utero. I have a big family, and everybody had to play a musical instrument. So there was music around a lot. I don’t know if I could remember the very first piece I heard.

I do remember the first time I heard a cello. I was five, and my mother brought a cellist to the house to play for my brother. In my family, you had to play piano, and then you had to choose another instrument. My oldest brother chose percussion, and my second brother wanted trumpet. My mother was thinking, “Oh, this experiment is not working.”

So, she told my second brother, “I think you might like to play the cello,” and she brought a friend to play Bach, Prelude in G, from the first suite. I was transfixed. My brother ended up playing trumpet, but I was five, and I heard that, and I said, “I want to play the cello.” I would not stop asking. They told me at the time: “You’re too small.”

When I was six, they finally relented and rented a half-size cello. The same woman who came to play for us was my teacher for that summer. At the end of the summer, she told my mother, “She scares me because she’s learning so fast. Take her to Peabody and let’s get her into a program there.” So I think that piece has meaning to me because of that.

Over time, I played piano, sang, danced, and did theater, but the cello was a constant. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to conservatory. I ended up going to Juilliard, but I remember getting to Juilliard and thinking, “Wait, I’m just here studying cello. That’s it.” That was a shock for somebody who had done so many different things.

“The Living Beethovens”

CM

You’ve had a long-standing relationship with Beethoven and Dvořák, but you’re also a champion of new music. Of course, it’s one thing to choose repertoire that already exists, but how do you choose your commission projects?

JK

When I was in college, I was already excited about – I like to call them “the living Beethovens.” We’re looking for the great composers of today. It’s not that we’re only looking back; we’re also looking forward, sharing what’s happening now.

I’m constantly listening. If a friend tells me: “You must hear X’s music,” I will go, and I won’t just listen to one thing – I’ll listen to four or five, to get a sense. How do they write for strings? How do they write for piano? What’s their favorite medium?

During the shutdown, one of the projects I was working on was commissioning companion pieces for the Bach cello suites. I was looking for some new voices because I had more time to listen and a little more time to talk to people and figure out what I wanted.

When I commission a piece of music, I will live with it for a while. I’m going to perform it a lot and probably record it. I often spend more time with it than the composer spent writing it, so I have to be sure I want to spend that time.

There’s not enough money and not enough hours for me to commission all the people I would like to commission. There are so many wonderful composers around us. Just like I get obsessed with Beethoven, I get obsessed with living composers. I don’t get them to write me just one piece – I want another one, I want three more, and I’ll get caught in that cycle.

But that’s part of the relationship. Whether it was Beethoven writing for the Duport brothers or Kraft or whomever, there are people that those composers are writing for. I like to be part of that dialogue as well.

I think of music as I think of friends. You see people at different points in your life, and they mean different things to you, or they have different conversations. If you studied a piece of music, or performed a piece of chamber music with friends at a certain period of time, and then you haven’t heard it for a while, when you hear it again, you’re immediately transported back to that moment when you played it first.

I think music is magical that way.

Beethoven’s Walk

CM

Music does seem to move through time, and it also transcends time. What is the one thing unrelated to playing the cello that has the most significant impact on your playing? Beethoven took lots of long walks, which had a marked impact on his composition. Do you have something like that in your life that affects your cello playing and who you are as a musician?

JK

I like to take long walks, too. I just don’t have as much time these days to do that. I’m always looking for things to fill my brain or soul.

I’m always telling my students to be more curious, and I completely live that. I’m constantly wanting to learn. Even if it’s something I know a lot about, I often go down a rabbit hole. If I’m preparing for another concert of Beethoven’s music, I’m not just going to talk about what I know – I’m going to go read.

That was a roundabout way of saying that I’m reading, listening, and using my time to learn. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about music and stories and emotions and how it all ties together. So that’s my Beethoven’s walk, I guess.

Asking Better Questions

CM

Basically, you have an unquenchable intellectual curiosity. I love that you are teaching your students to have that as well. 

JK

And also teaching them to ask better questions. I had a cello studio class, and my students got nervous – of course, we all get nervous. But we try to get to the root. What are you worried about? If your memory fails, it’s going to be okay. I’ll let you pull up the music if you need to. But what did you learn about yourself as you’re doing it?

My students all record their performances. They can go back and watch and see where that broken or weak spot is so that they can fix that for the next time. They can learn from it.

They all have to watch their performances and, within 48 hours, give me comments on what they want to change and how. I want to teach them to be their own teachers and be as curious about themselves as they are about things outside.

Teaching Practical Skills for Cellists

CM

You teach not only music to your students but also entrepreneurship and other practical skills. Please tell us more about the non-musical but essential topics you teach your students?

JK

When a student comes to me, whether they’re a freshman or grad student, [I have] to figure out what it is that they want to do with music in their lives. If someone wants to be a teacher, we’re going to be looking for more opportunities for them to become Suzuki trained or learn all the different methods. If someone wants to be a studio musician, I will do my best to hook them up with people who have that kind of background. I want to make sure that they know about all the options out there.

In my grad string seminar this quarter, we covered letter writing, resumes, your social media presence, and all the ways people can know about you. If an opportunity came up and you had to send in your materials to them tomorrow, how ready are you? There are so many different ways to make your way in music, especially now.

What would you like to see changed in the music world? Can you be a voice in that? We did a class on commissioning music because I think it’s a significant thing for people to think about.

We did a class about curating concert programs. When you walk into a concert hall, when you look at that program, how was it put together? How do you want to shape that evening for your audience? I think many times people aren’t thinking about what the experience is like for the audience.

Last year, we were fortunate to have a zoom Q&A session with Yo-Yo Ma. He said some inspiring things. And one of them is that when he’s performing a concert, he thinks of himself as the host of a big party. He wants everybody to have a good time. Performing can be nerve-racking, as you’re sharing so much of yourself, but it changes your perspective. I’m the host. I’m going to give you this music – this is my present to you.

Upcoming Projects

CM

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

JK

I have a Bach suites project with newly commissioned pieces. Before I record that, I will be premiering those pieces in public spaces. I plan to play outside each of the California Missions in pop-up concerts. I’m looking at the history of where art comes into the center of towns. Missions are some of the oldest places here. I want to explore the old and the new and where art was created.

A pianist and I have been working on a project. Our mothers were musicians, and our project is called “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” It’s songs for cello and piano that were meaningful to us either through our mothers or things that we learned from them and from the music they played. I am exploring how the cello is like a voice. After all my years in the quartet, I wanted to explore more melodic lines.

I have a jazz quintet, and we were talking about a recording project where I’m almost like the vocal part of the band. They back me up, and we do some standards. That’s a fun exploration. It takes me a little bit out of my comfort zone. I love that music, but it’s not what I’m used to playing.

How to Follow and Support Jennifer Kloetzel

Enter Our Beethoven Giveaway

Enter for a chance to win a copy of Jennifer Kloetzel and Robert Koenig’s Beethoven: The Conquering Hero – Complete Works for Cello & Piano. The winner will receive the 3-CD album and a Beethoven Cello tote bag. Two runners-up will each get a Beethoven cello sticker. The random prize drawings will be held on 7 April. Only one entry per person, please. Good luck!

Beethoven Giveaway Prizes



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Comment(1)

  1. Reply
    Debbie Davis says:

    Beautiful cello playing and clearly a wonderful teacher.

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