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Securing a position with the Vienna Philharmonic

By Sigurd Neubauer


Within the wonderful world of opera and classical music, the Vienna Philharmonic (Wiener Philharmoniker) doesn’t need any introduction: it is simply one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Some would even say the best, an assertion that the Berliner Philharmoniker may dispute. But according to Daniel Ottensamer, the Principal Clarinetist at the Vienna Philharmonic, there’s no rivalry between the two orchestras. His younger brother, Andreas Ottensamer, holds the same position at the Berliner Philharmoniker; the two brothers aren’t rivals, either.

Since its inception in the spring of 1842 by conductor-composer Otto Nicolai (1810-1849), the Vienna Philharmonic has developed a unique musical style which sets it apart from other orchestras. It is also firmly committed to preserving the majestic legacies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949); they were also some of Vienna’s most famous residents throughout history. 

The orchestra’s artistic home is at the Musikverein in Vienna, but it is also orchestra of the Vienna State Opera

Here’s how the Vienna Philharmonic describes it: “The unique relationship between the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and the private association known as the Vienna Philharmonic. In accordance with Philharmonic statutes, only a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. Before joining the Philharmonic therefore, one must first successfully audition for a position with the State Opera Orchestra and prove oneself capable over a period of three years before becoming eligible to submit an application for membership in the association of the Vienna Philharmonic. The independence which the Philharmonic musicians enjoy through the opera is returned in kind due to the high level of artistic performance gained through the orchestra’s experience on the concert podium. Without the Vienna State Opera there would be no Vienna Philharmonic as we know it, and in Vienna it is common knowledge that this symbiosis is advantageous for both institutions, and that it greatly enriches the city’s musical life.”

Daniel Ottensamer of at the Vienna Philharmonic. Photo credit: Andrej Grilic

It became clear to me from a very early age on that I wanted to become a clarinetist. Our parents never pushed us but supported us: Ottensamer

The Vienna Philharmonic is also known for its annual New Year’s Concert, which is hosted, of course, at the Musikverein. While its tradition goes back to 1939, every year one of the world’s leading maestros is invited to conduct the concert, which features not surprisingly Viennese music at its best identified by the works of Johan Strauss I (1804-1849) and his contemporaries. But the concert always concludes with Strauss’ beloved ‘Radetzky March’ and a ‘Prosit Neujahr!,’ or Happy New Year. 

The 2024 New Year’s Concert will be conducted by Germany’s Christian Thielemann.

The Vienna Music Society's Golden Hall is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic

But what does it take to secure a position with the Vienna Philharmonic?

“Haha, that’s a big question for sure,” says Daniel Ottensamer who emphasizes that the obvious requirement is the mastery of one’s instrument. “But one must also be able to make music in ‘a very special way,’ which adheres to the Viennese tradition. “The orchestra is known for its distinctive darker sound where music is interwoven with velvet, rich and homogeneous phrasing. The orchestra takes great care of upholding this tradition so that it can separate itself from its competitors.”

To drive home his point, Ottensamer explains that in the pursuit of artistic excellence, the world’s leading orchestras cannot be easily differentiated from each other. But the Vienna Philharmonic is different, whose distinct sound is intertwined with its storied legacy. 

“When the orchestra engages with an external maestro, he provides something new but has to adopt to the way the orchestra plays,” the clarinetist explains but points out that it is “always interesting to get new input, but that the maestro cannot change the orchestra because of its long musical tradition and style.”

In a separate interview last year, Ottensamer told Euronews: “It’s very difficult to pin it down to one thing. It has a lot to do with tradition, of course, but I’m not sure if it’s simply just the sound… What always strikes me is the subtlety in the sound. You try not to play too directly in certain passages. Notes gradually rise and don’t always have a clear beginning,”

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto remains one of the most beloved pieces in the classical music repertoire. Painting by Barbara Krafft (1764-1825), 1819

In a separate interview last year, Ottensamer told Euronews: “It’s very difficult to pin it down to one thing. It has a lot to do with tradition, of course, but I’m not sure if it’s simply just the sound… What always strikes me is the subtlety in the sound. You try not to play too directly in certain passages. Notes gradually rise and don’t always have a clear beginning,” 

In our interview, the Austrian – who comes from a family steeped in the Viennese musical tradition – where his father, Ernst Ottensamer, held the same position for 30 years at the Vienna Philharmonic – explains that it helps to have studied in Vienna but that it is not a requirement for securing a position at the orchestra. “But one needs to have a good feeling for the Viennese musical style and provide something special so that the orchestra wants you,” he notes.  

Ottensamer is a graduate of University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, where he studied Clarinet Performance.

But an element of luck is also required to secure a position with the venerable institution. “One must also have ‘a lucky day’ so that the audition works out,” the clarinetist explains with a laugh. Ottensamer was 22 years old when he auditioned before the orchestra in 2009 but didn’t expect to get it. “I was very young, and the orchestra provided great trust in me,” he recalls.

He’s been with the orchestra for 15 years. 

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is the standard repertoire for any clarinetist aspiring to join the Orchestra. The second and third rounds require playing difficult excerpts from operas and symphonies. “All the candidates play the same parts so that the jury can compare them to each other. After each round, candidates are eliminated.” But if a candidate does “exceptionally well” during the first round, he or she may very well have secured the position and does not need any additional rounds, he says. Some have to go through up to eight rounds before securing a position. Ottensamer secured his after four rounds. 

Growing up, the Ottensamer brothers faced no pressure to follow in their father’s footsteps, but music was always in the home, he recalls. They started out with piano lessons. “For me, I grew to admire how my father enjoyed – and lived his job – which included performing for an audience and being able to travel around the world doing it. He also had nice colleagues.”

Ernst Ottensamer never taught his sons but “he was always available to answer any questions that we may have had,” the son says. The two of them held the same position at the Vienna Philharmonic for eight years where “we both were colleagues. He showed us the way.”

Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna
My father was a colleague, but he never judged me. He accepted me as a colleague, which I appreciated. Our relationship was never like that of a father telling a son what to do; It was quite nice: Ottensamer

Responding to how it was sitting next to his father in the orchestra, Ottensamer describes it as “very special” as the orchestra made him feel welcome and at home. The father-and-son-duo rotated – because they held the same position – which is to say, when the father was off, the son was performing.  They had the same position for eight years. 

In addition to performing orchestral music, Ottensamer believes that performing opera – with the Vienna State Opera – has made him a better and more versatile musician. “By performing an opera, one must follow and support the singers,” he explains. 

Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) Tosca, which has a clarinet solo in the third act, played a critical role in influencing Ottensamer to become a clarinetist. The clarinet solo is, of course, one of the most recognized melodies from the opera.

Benny Goodman has inspired generations of clarinetists, including Ottensamer. Photo credit: Jammes J. Kriegsmann, 1942 

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto 

It was composed only because of his friendship with Anton Stadler (1753-1812) – a clarinetist and drinking buddy – who Mozart admired. “He composed the Clarinet Concerto, Clarinet Quintet, and beautiful parts for the instrument in his various operas because of his friendship with Stadler,” Ottensamer says. “It wasn’t as if God told Mozart to compose a Clarinet Concerto and he did, but rather because of his close friendship. He even composed it in G-Major – as opposed to in A-Major – because Stadler may have told Mozart that ‘I cannot play it like that.’ And that’s why the Concerto is in A,” the clarinetist says. “This is a funny fact about how this Concerto came about even if we all agree that Mozart is ‘the biggest genius’ in music history.”

Responding to what is special about the Concerto, Ottensamer explains that it is full of folk tunes and that it is a very simple Concerto; “it is genius in its simplicity, and it doesn’t have to be made more complicated than what it is. I always try to perform it as naturally as possible.”

The Clarinet Trio Anthology: From left to right: Stephan Koncz, Christoph Traxle and Daniel Ottensamer. Photo credit: Andrey Grilic

Mixing musical genres  

During the global pandemic of 2020, Ottensamer – along with Stephan Koncz and Christoph Traxler – established The Clarinet Trio Anthology. “We spent a lot of time together to create this new project, which included recording the entire repertoire for the clarinet trio for Sony Classical.” They recorded a 7-CD collection. 

But the clarinetist also enjoys mixing genres. He’s a member of the Philharmonix, a play on words – which was established by members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.

“We perform swing, jazz, klezmer, and sometimes even pop,” Ottensamer explains with obvious pride. The ensemble even composes its own music. “The clarinet is not only at home within classical music, but in folk music, klezmer, and jazz,” he adds, pointing out that this is precisely why he loves the instrument so much as it allows for expressing different musical genres.

Ottensamer is also a strong admirer of legendary American clarinetist the-one-and-only Benny Goodman (1909-1986). “Aaron Copland (1900-1990) composed for Goodman. It is important for every clarinetist to be open to other types of genres,” Ottensamer says, pointing out that Goodman had “inspired lots of composition for the clarinet and was an amazing musician himself. He was an outstanding storyteller – through his instrument – who has been a very important figure for the clarinet.”

The Philharmonix performs swing, jazz, klezmer, and sometimes even pop
The Philharmonix is comprised of musicians from the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics. Photo credit: Max Parovsky
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