While I’m sitting on the plane next to Tibor Reman, the recently confirmed principal clarinetist of the Staatskapelle, his colleague Matthias Glander comes by to inform us that we are now flying over Rumania, Tibor’s birthplace and the source of countless jokes and innuendos during rehearsal about Rumanian rhapsodies, gypsy music and the like for our chief conductor Daniel Barenboim. We would have been much further by now, over Istanbul at least, had we taken off at the scheduled hour; yesterday evening while throwing un-ironed and probably inappropriate (for Abu Dhabi and Qatar) articles of clothing into my embarrassingly large suitcase, the phone call came from the orchestra office that our charter flight would be leaving three hours later than scheduled, something to do with landing permission and a replacement airplane. Check-in time was now 12:30 PM rather than 9:30 AM. As I wandered through the duty-free shop at Tegel that seems to have become a standard security procedure in all airports (distract the terrorists with perfume and alcohol!), I noticed several colleagues stocking up on certain fluids that would be unavailable in the hotel mini-bar or anywhere else, for that matter, in the alcohol-free United Arab Emirates. I spent a further hour of unannounced, unexplained delay pacing around the deserted wing of terminal C in Berlin Tegel airport and observing my colleagues’ last rites before passage: phone calls to spouses, emails on smartphones, beer out of the bottle.
At 3:00 we finally took off on the jet2 charter plane, a roomy Boeing 757, just four hours later than scheduled. The good news is that this new airplane (its procuring being the reason for our delay) is bigger than the one that had originally been ordered, which means we can all spread out for the six-hour flight to the Gulf. There are no larger instruments on board today; they are being shipped in crates on another cargo plane, which is bliss for us cellists and other players of XL-instruments. For the duration of the tour we can pretend to be ordinary human beings, unburdened by our alien-shaped, person-sized permanent accessories, unharrassed by the usual well-meaning “don’t you wish you played the piccolo flute, haha?” The unsung heroes of this procedure are the stage hands like Michael Frohloff who pack, heave, and take care of our precious cargo, ensuring that what gets locked into these crates in one concert hall magically materializes in the next. I’ve often wished for one of these ‘magic boxes’ in my private life: load it up with all the stuff you want to take with you, travel to your next destination, and pouf, there it is!
For the first half hour or so of the flight I sit next to Tibor, which is convenient because I want to congratulate him on passing his trial as principal clarinetist (the pre-verdict discussion took place last week and the last votes were tallied up just two days ago) and because I want to write something about his background. It turns out that all those Rumanian jokes are somewhat amiss: Tibor was indeed born in the Rumanian village of Vulcan, but is in fact of Hungarian descent, Vulcan being in that gray area that kept being annexed and re-annexed by Rumania and Hungary respectively over the previous century. His grandfather was born a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; without ever moving from his village, he became Rumanian, Hungarian, and once again Rumanian. Tibor’s parents, both teachers sent by the Communist regime to pursue their professions in a remote rural area, sent him to boarding school with a heavy emphasis on music at the age of eleven in order to protect him from the fate of a provincial education. From then on, he saw his parents rarely, once every three months or so at best.
Tibor’s lips were immediately pronounced unsuitable for producing sounds on a clarinet by the most renowned clarinet teacher at the school. Undaunted, he turned to his older brother, who was at the time already the principal clarinetist in the orchestra in Klausenburg (Rumanian: Cluj). After a few years of study with his brother (who, being fifteen years older, was more mentor than competitor) and with a few first prizes to show from national school competitions, Tibor made a second attempt and succeeded in convincing the teacher to revise his opinion of his lips.
After studying at the Liszt University in Budapest, where he sometimes substituted in the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Tibor went to Berlin to pursue his graduate studies at the Universität der Künste, where he studied with Francois Benda – playing on the French system. What, the French clarinet, in Germany?? Well, yes, for the first year. When it began to look like it would be nice to stay in Germany, to audition for some of the great jobs that were coming up, the switch to the German system became inevitable. Tibor had auditioned for the university with one of the most difficult clarinet concertos in the repertoire; a year later, after switching to the new instrument, he felt unable to play much simpler pieces, let alone to the standard he demanded of himself. For two years he was bad, he claims. Really, really bad. After two and a half years he auditioned for the academy of the Staatskapelle Berlin on the German clarinet and was accepted: this was the first proof of the rightness of his decision, the first hurdle he had successfully cleared. In the academy he was noticed immediately; Daniel Barenboim recognized him as an exceptional talent and asked him to come on tour with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra when a principal clarinetist from the Middle East was unavailable. After finishing in the academy, Tibor landed his first professional job as assistant principal clarinetist of the Hannover Opera Orchestra, where he remained for a year before auditioning for and winning the position of principal clarinet here in Berlin.
When the concertmaster in Hannover heard of Tibor’s new job, he patted him on the back and said: “Well, my friend, from now on you have to show everyone how it’s supposed to sound.” This was not exactly reassuring, though it seems destined to become one of those quotes you never forget throughout your entire career, one of those quotes that prove annoyingly accurate, even prophetically so. Back at home in Rumania, his acquaintances were less impressed; opera orchestras in Tibor’s homeland do not enjoy the reputation of a Staatskapelle Berlin and tend to be seen more as downtrodden accompanists of Verdi’s and Donizetti’s greatest hits.
And how does he feel about passing his trial year? There are no traces of euphoria in his fatigued-looking eyes. This is not because he is not thrilled at having been confirmed in his dream job, but rather because, as he puts it, he feels he now carries an enormous responsibility. Most great gifts, whether spiritual, physical, or material, come with a price tag of responsibility, and this one is no exception. Tibor, an outsider, a Rumanian-born Hungarian who has been playing the German clarinet for all of five years (and is incidentally the orchestra’s first foreign principal clarinetist in its 400-year history), has been entrusted with the task of maintaining and propagating this great orchestra’s tradition, of showing them “how it’s supposed to sound.” Well, it seems he managed to do so convincingly over the last six months. Congratulations, Tibor!
After three hours of flying and a spectacular sunset off to the right shortly before we flew over Istanbul and the Black Sea, all is peaceful on flight LS6168. The fluorescent overhead lights are still glaringly white but most of the musicians have dozed off after dinner or are talking quietly in small groups in the aisles. We will most likely arrive at the Hotel Khalidiya Palace after midnight local time, and rehearsal is scheduled to begin tomorrow at noon local time, or 9:00 AM CET, a painfully early hour for most musicians. Tomorrow’s program: Mozart D-Major Coronation Concerto performed and conducted by Daniel Barenboim and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.