Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I had a wonderful childhood in a family of professional musicians. Both of my parents where classical guitarists who met at the academy in my hometown Aarhus, Denmark, where my father taught my mother throughout her studies. My father had a substantial concert career and released thirty (!) solo albums, while my mother pursued a career as a landscape painter. It felt as if our home was always full of Danish and international musicians, composers and artists. Spurred by this vibrant atmosphere I did all I could to learn an instrument – piano first, then cello. One of the returning guests and a good friend of the house was cellist and professor Morten Zeuthen, who became my cello “father” from the very beginning and later my teacher and today colleague at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen. He plays the cello with a Scandinavian, yet unmistakably personal sound, a concept that I instinctively set out to imitate. At the age of fourteen I began to study music full-time at the local Royal Academy of Music, which seemed like a natural continuation of the wave of creativity and music my childhood was so filled with. Later influences from teachers and fellow students during my studies, and incredible colleagues during my career as a soloist, teacher and orchestra/chamber musician, have impacted me greatly, and I am profoundly indebted to all of them!
One of the most important influences was professor Hans Jensen from Northwestern Bienen School of Music (then Northwestern University School of Music), with whom I studied at Meadowmount School of Music and in Evanston, Illinois. Jensen convinced me that I could achieve musical excellence through intensive work, and he taught me how to practise with a real focus, something from which I greatly benefitted. Late in my studies I encountered the Croatian cellist Valter Dešpalj who showed me the way to a relaxed cello technique and opened my ears to versatile playing styles. I thank him for that on a daily basis! Among the musicians who influenced me directly and indelibly are the members of the Paizo Quartet, in particular Mikkel Futtrup, our incredible first violinist whose constant search for natural and free quartet playing became part of my musical DNA. Through the years, pianist Yaron Kohlberg, together with whom I recently released Beethoven’s works for piano and cello, has become a great friend while showing by example how a world-class musician works and plays.
I would like to add that the inspiration and drive to play music have been constant forces since a very young age. As John Rutter says in his interview here on Meet the Artist: You don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. I think that is very well said.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
On the one hand the art of balancing jobs to earn a living, and on the other to keep living artistic dreams and ambitions. Over the years, these two needs have been at odds many times! But I think I am getting better and better at balancing them, and dreams and ambitions are currently winning! In 2020 I decided to leave my secure job as principal cellist of the Copenhagen Phil to pursue a solo career.
Full-time positions are relatively rare for musicians, and if you are lucky enough to be part of a group like the Copenhagen Phil, the decision is almost impossible. At the end of the day, I decided to go with the basic musical instinct that has been with me since childhood.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I have enjoyed the process of all my recordings. Personally, I think each of them tells a story about where I was in my development at the time they were done. Many more are on the way, and I really treat them like small infants that I nurture. Singling out one of them would be unfair to the others! If I had to mention one performance that I remember well, it would be the European premiere of John Williams’ cello concerto with the Tivoli Copenhagen Phil under legendary conductor Lawrence Foster.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
My ambition is to deliver an interesting approach to any piece of music that I have in front of me. Andres Segovia, the great Spanish guitar legend, said that an amateur is free to show which pieces he likes best, whereas a professional musician has an obligation to treat all music with equal interest. I’m very fond of that approach, and I think that now, in 2021, close to 100 percent of all professionals are doing just that.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I play quite a lot of piano at home. To me, as a single-note instrumentalist, the piano is bliss. I had a ten-year career as a quartet cellist, so I got to know all about sharing chords with others! However amazing and fun that can be, I enjoy the sensation of being in charge of all the notes in a chord myself – it is simply a fulfilling experience. I use the piano as an inspirational work tool, and I use it to “accompany” myself, which is such an effective work strategy when preparing concertos, chamber music, sonatas, and even short pieces.
I do the five Tibetans (ancient yoga exercises) every day. The exercises are part of my plan to one day achieve a complete and uninterrupted floating energy on stage. A good run on the morning of a concert also enhances your perspective, and wherever you run you always see something new and potentially inspiring. I have run quite a lot in big cities around the world, and it has been a wonderful way to discover them. I remember a concert after a long run in Shanghai with my head full of images of crowded streets, markets, loud voices, parks, crazy intersections, and of getting lost shortly before the concert. Not bad material for an artist to work with!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Lately this has been linked directly to my albums, and I have been lucky to be able to use concerts to prepare for them.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in, and why?
Over the years I have developed a kind of bond with the concert hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. During my time as principal cellist with the Copenhagen Phil I performed in the hall more or less every week. I have played there several times as a soloist and in chamber music concerts, and just last week I recorded a new album there. Apart from it being a fantastic concert hall with a perfect mix of intimacy and grandeur, I can’t avoid feeling a bit of nostalgia when performing there.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
The question has been asked throughout the last fifty years. I remember my parents talking about it over the dinner table as early as the eighties. My father was very preoccupied with it, and worried about the future of classical music. Sometime in the nineties I asked him if he thought that pop songs would still be using the same chords in fifty years. And if people would still play cello and Beethoven in 2050. I don’t remember his answer, but around thirty years in we have to admit that the tonal material for a good pop song is more or less the same as it has been since… I want to say Rachmaninoff, but I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes! (But sit down and listen to the 2nd movement of his 2nd piano concerto or the cello sonata – there you have it, hits of a century, and sounding like many later songs!). I’m pretty sure we will have accomplished cellists, tenors, harpsichordists in 2050 as well, performing Beethoven and the like. And everybody will be trying to answer the question in their own way. And that is good! Although I’m sure most musicians sometimes take a nostalgic look back to a time when Deutsche Grammophon’s sound engineers flew all over the world in business class! Back then classical music simply existed and didn’t need to reinvent itself at all. Now we have to come up with many more reasons why we do what we do. And great things have come of it, really. I believe we have a much richer classical music scene thanks to all the wonderful artists and ensembles, orchestras and institutions who are trying to answer the question in their own very special style. In our time (excepting Corona), if you like Tchaikovsky’s 5th in a beautiful concert hall full of people with the best orchestra and the best conductor, you can go and listen to that. If you want to experience a symphony orchestra spread out over fifty balconies of a three-story apartment building in a bad part of town, that too is a possibility.
I think the answer to the question is: Let’s keep doing our best to get the music out there, creating visionary programming, exciting education on all levels. Let’s launch crazy projects and just do what we are best at: performing as if our life depended on it. And let’s be sure to get some statistics on the actual numbers of listeners in the concert halls. My dad used to complain about those numbers, too. But from my view here in Denmark, Europe, it seems like more and more people are actually getting interested in the wonderful world of classical music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably a concert in Paris at the auditorium of the Musée d’Orsay, where my quartet borrowed one of the violinists of the Danish String Quartet, Rune Sorensen, to play second violin. We played Death and the Maiden by Schubert, and I remember looking over to see some kind of fire blazing between the two violinists, challenging and following each other as if their life depended on it. I think the audience experienced exactly the same thing, because after what felt like a brief musical hurricane, everybody rose right after the last chord and applauded as if they were at a rock festival. I wouldn’t mind experiencing something like that again soon!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Relatively basic: Can you pay your rent while still maintaining your inspiration? Personally, I have always been impressed with any musician who actually manages to make a living from it, by whatever means. Go popular, if that’s what does it for you. Retreat to a monastery to practise for a year if that is your thing, but make sure you can pay the rent, and provide for any children you might have!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
1. Dream big and do all you can to achieve this dream. If your dream fails, dream a new dream.
2. Learn when you are learning. Don’t ask questions all the time, just follow along and see where it takes you. If you don’t feel that you are learning enough, change teacher or institution, but maybe wait until you’ve finished your next exam.
3. Practise all the time. With the instrument and without it: read, see, understand, feel.
4. Trust your instinct, it is usually right. If you are not sure about a decision, go to an isolated (maybe even dark) room for ten minutes, consider, make the decision and stand by it. If you have a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse – by all means, run it by him or her!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Happy to continue what I am doing now!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Generally, I try to focus on the moment rather than achieving happiness. That sort of thing can make you very happy!
What is your most treasured possession?
If I possessed my wife and kids, they would be it!
What is your present state of mind?
Acclaimed as “A star” (New York Times), “Tomorrow’s man” and even a “A consummate perfectionist on the cello” (Politiken), Danish cellist Toke Møldrup has performed across Europe and the United States, South America, Australia, the Middle East and Asia for two decades.