Jennifer Kloetzel

Event Date: 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Jennifer Kloetzel (photo by Gregory Goode)

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel recently joined the UC Santa Barbara Department of Music faculty as an assistant professor. Having concertized throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia as both a soloist and chamber musician, Ms. Kloetzel brings with her decades of experience and serves as a valuable resource to not only her own cello students but many students within the Chamber Music and Strings programs at UCSB. Ms. Kloetzel continues to maintain a vibrant career as a soloist and chamber musician, performing classics by Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvo?ák alongside newly commissioned works by Elena Ruehr, Daniel Asia, George Tsontakis, and Jennifer Higdon, to name a few. This coming weekend, Ms. Kloetzel will give the world premiere of a new concerto for cello by Lee Actor, commissioned by the Palo Alto Philharmonic. Ms. Kloetzel has taken the time to answer some questions about the process behind commissioning original works and her love for new music.
Q: Congratulations on your upcoming world premiere of Lee Actor’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra with the Palo Alto Philharmonic! How did this collaboration come about?
A:  Thank you! I’m very excited to introduce this new work to the world. There is a different kind of energy when I give a world premiere of a piece, and the minute it’s over, I want to play it again! I feel that a work really takes on a life of its own after ten or more performances, and I love to watch how it can develop and expand. Just as we have relationships with the older music we perform, our relationship with a new piece grows and changes over time. I find that thrilling.
Lee Actor’s new cello concerto is a big piece, and scored for a large orchestra. In the composer’s words, “This is an extended work of 33 minutes with a wide range of emotional expression, and includes lyric melodies, driving rhythms, a tango (!), mysterious contemplation, some Latin flavors, and a wicked cadenza (sorry, Jennifer!).”
In terms of our collaboration, I met Lee a few years ago. He came to a performance I gave of the Beethoven Triple Concerto, and just before the concert, his wife (a violist in the orchestra) handed me a CD and said, “My husband wrote this violin concerto and would really like to write a cello concerto for you.”
Now, I do have a lot of composers contacting me, and it did take me a few weeks to actually listen to that recording, but as soon as I did, I was sold. His violin concerto is fantastic! The next day I sent an email to Lee telling him that I would love to be involved with a new cello concerto project. He and I met for lunch about a month later, and he picked my brain about all sorts of things, including which cello concertos were my favorite and why, and why I chose to play the cello as a child and even which note is my favorite on the instrument (I was thrilled when I got the score and the cello part in the first movement starts and ends on that very note!). He composed the piece between April and November 2017, and would send me reports, but also each movement as it was completed, along with a MIDI file to hear how it was taking shape. He wanted me to test things out to see if they worked and give him comments. In the meantime, I got to know his musical language by attending the premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and by listening to a lot of his recorded music. Having not worked with him before, this was an important part of the process for me.
I have composer friends that I’ve worked with for many years, and I know their background and musical language already, so the process is quite different in that case.
Q: You’ve commissioned and premiered nearly forty works for cello, including five concertos. What draws you to commission new pieces, and at what point in your career did you begin commissioning works?
A: I should first say that many of the works are not just for cello, but for string quartet, piano trio and duo as well. Performers today are fortunate to have an abundance of fantastic living composers to choose from, and I adore finding new artistic visions and voices that speak to me. It’s important to listen to a lot of music, of all kinds.
What draws me to the process of commissioning or premiering new works is that I am interested in keeping this art form alive and “of our time”. I want people to look back at this era and see what art was happening, and how composers were responding to the world. I’m not just a “historian”, bringing older music to life (though don’t get me wrong—I adore that older music!) but I’m helping to keep this art form going. 
The process that it takes to commission and premiere a new piece inspires me, and I find that I’ve learned a great deal from living composers about the creative process. I was surprised to discover that working with these living composers informs how I approach older music as well. I count many fine composers as close friends and feel fortunate to do so. From a young age, I was interested in what composers were doing, but it was 1996 before I was involved in my first commission.
Q: How have most of your commissioning projects originated? Do you reach out to composers, or do they reach out to you? How closely do you work with the composer during their creative process?
A:  Each project has a unique ‘creation story’. Most of the pieces that I’ve premiered or commissioned are based on relationships. These relationships develop in wonderful ways: being connected by friends, attending performances and workshops or simply contacting someone who has written music that touches me. Sometimes I get a ‘cold call’, but that is rare.  My connection usually grows out of something else—an idea, a conversation, a project.
There are commissions that take a long time to plan, others are rather spontaneous. Some of my more memorable experiences involve co-commissioning a piece with the Library of Congress (which has the most dazzling history of commissions, thanks to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and others), or being part of a course at Harvard called “First Nights”. That class studies important premieres in history and raises money each year to do their OWN commission (and be present at their own “first night”). Wonderfully creative stuff.
Here’s a more recent story: this last spring, I received a cardboard tube in the mail from an old friend that I met when I was on my Fulbright in London. Inside the tube was the first movement of a cello sonata, a lovely letter saying that he was writing a piece for me—as he “had dreamed of doing for years”—and a whole lot of chocolate! He went on to say that he was hoping to ‘bribe me’ to play the piece with the chocolate, if I wasn’t inspired in other ways. I emailed him that very evening to say yes and though chocolate is appreciated, it’s not necessary! He completed the piece this summer, and I am delighted to premiere the Cello Sonata by Joseph Landers in December 2018 (with UCSB pianist Robert Koenig) at the Eureka Chamber Music Series. That’s a more entertaining story than some, I suppose. But I have so many wonderful stories, and hope to continue to collect them!
Q: With no existing recordings, and often very little to go off of in terms of program notes, learning a newly commissioned work can be an intimidating process. Can you describe your approach to practicing new music?
A: I find the process of having no recording or history of the piece a refreshing change. Often it’s daunting to approach a piece that has been played by every cellist in history and is filled with “tradition”. There’s a level of freedom in a new work, as I will be the person to ‘set the bar’ for that opus. But I also know that it’s a great responsibility and I want to give it my all. If it’s a new composer to me, I start by getting to know their other works. I like to strike up a friendship with the composer as well, to better understand their values, their process and their background.  When I get my actual part, I learn the music painstakingly and ask a lot of questions. I know that I am often bearing the burden of the success (or failure!) of a piece, so I make sure to take a lot of care.
Q: Which artists and composers most influenced you as a young musician? Did you have a professor or mentor who encouraged you to pursue contemporary music and commissioning?
A:  My mind spins with answers for this question—the list would be far too long!  But I can relate one story, about an experience I had with the legendary conductor Otto-Werner Mueller, while I was a student at The Juilliard School. The orchestra was working on our spring concert program, which included an overture, the Symphony #1 by Brahms and the premiere of a piece by Juilliard faculty member Robert Beaser. Over the course of rehearsals, the members of the orchestra became impatient with the fact that we were spending so much time on the new piece. We all felt like Brahms, which we were keen to dig in to, was simply not getting enough rehearsal time. At the dress rehearsal in Avery Fisher Hall, the Maestro set down his baton and turned to face the grumpy orchestra. “I know that you all are unhappy with the work we’ve been doing this concert cycle. But I have something to explain to you: we have an important responsibility. If our Brahms sounds not so good, or under-rehearsed, the audience will go home thinking exactly that. They will not judge the piece. But if we don’t sound good on this new work, the world will say “The piece is bad and we won’t listen to that again.” It will reflect on the composer directly. So it is up to us to give our best.” That moment is seared into my brain and changed the way I looked at music.
Q: What guidance can you offer young musicians who are interested in commissioning and premiering new works?
A:  Be curious. Be open to what is happening around you. Try new things! And above all, meet lots of people and go to lots of performances. You’ll be amazed at what strikes you and inspires you. And you’ll be building a community of like-minded artists. And most importantly: if you want to play new works, make friends with composers!
Q: What’s the most valuable piece of advice you would offer young composers, specifically composers writing for cello?
A: Don’t think of a cello like a violin, which sounds simple, but is a common mistake. The way the instrument works is entirely different, and the range of sound of the cello is vast, but can be easily covered in lower (or mid) registers. Make sure to reach out to the cellist who will be spending so much time with your music. If someone is serious about playing your works, they will often be spending more time with the piece than it took you to compose it!
Some of my favorite musical moments come from experiences I have with composers, trying new things, having conversations about what is possible. A favorite memory: having a composer email me a few lines of music and calling me a few minutes later to hear what they sounded like over the phone (I was on tour at the time and sat on my hotel bed playing back what they wrote into the speaker of my phone and making comments). Those moments build friendships that last a long time. It’s a great way to expand your musical world and your circle of influence.
Upcoming Performances
Lee Actor’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra with the Palo Alto Philharmonic
Saturday, October 20, 2018
8 pm
Cubberley Theatre
4120 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94306
Elgar Concerto and Fauré’s Élégie with the Waynesboro Symphony
Monday, November 5, 2018
7 pm
First Presbyterian Church
100 East Frederick Street, Staunton, VA 24401
UCSB Department of Music Showcase Concert
Sunday, November 11, 2018
7 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
1500 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Learn more about Ms. Kloetzel at
Photo by Gregory Goode