The son of a prominent Spanish clarinetist, Pascual Martinez-Forteza has fulfilled and surpassed his boyhood dreams of becoming a professional instrumentalist; as Acting Associate Principal of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he is among his native country’s most accomplished musicians.
Woodwind & Brasswind (WWBW): Do you have any performances scheduled for the weekend?
Pascual Martinez-Forteza (PMF): Well, yes, we have a concert tomorrow. I just finished a concert this morning and we’ll have another one tomorrow night.
WWBW: Is that with the New York Phil?
PMF: Yes, New York Phil.
WWBW: What is the program right now?
PMF: We are doing opera actually. We do the first act of Wagner’s Valkyrie. Which is very long. It’s an hour-and-a-half piece of music. It’s great with singers and something unusual for our orchestra, it’s great.
WWBW: And you play at Lincoln Center.
PMF: Yes, but it’s called David Geffen Hall now.
WWBW: How often are you scheduled there? I mean, do you play there every weekend and through the week?
PMF: Usually we have three or four concerts a week. Many weeks we play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and then we repeat the same program on Tuesday the following week. So that makes four of them.
WWBW: And where do you fit the rehearsals in around all of that?
PMF: In the morning. Wednesday and Thursday we have double rehearsal. We do two and then Thursday morning is usually a dress rehearsal, and then we play the performances.
WWBW: Do you work on a program that you’re going to be presenting the following week before you complete the performance?
PMF: You mean with the whole orchestra?
PMF: No, usually we rehearse the week of the performances. So we start Monday or Tuesday, and then the concert is on Wednesday or Thursday. Because we have so many different programs and concerts, we don’t have time to do much in advance.
WWBW: How long does the season go?
PMF: The season here in our Lincoln Center home goes from mid-September until mid-June or something like that. Then after that we do outdoor concerts in other venues or we go on tour. But it’s pretty long. We work for many, many months.
WWBW: When you say we go on tour, is that with the New York Philharmonic?
PMF: Yes. We go to Europe or actually this year we are going to Asia. We’re going to China, Japan and some other places. Taiwan, I think, too. So we travel every year. Tours are usually three weeks long, so we are away for 21 days. That’s the normal length of it. We have some time off, sometimes after the tours. Sometimes, we have a week off here and there. But my main occupation is with the New York Philharmonic.
WWBW: Did you used to do more chamber music and more solo recital kind of work?
PMF: Yes, we also do these kinds of things. We have a chamber music season. So at the Philharmonic, we play seven or eight times a year and then the summers when we are off from the orchestra most of us go play chamber music in other festivals or we do some teaching. So we’re trying to do other things besides the orchestra. It’s very important.
WWBW: When you’re busy like that, do you continue to have some element of private practice time?
PMF: Yes, we have to find that precious, precious time to practice and to prepare all those concerts and programs that we do with the orchestra or chamber music. It’s absolutely vital that we practice. I’m trying to find a little time every day to do that.
WWBW: Are there still some technical things that you don’t yet have, that you have to find practice time to pursue and maybe even find an instructor who has command of this component of technique that you would love to acquire?
PMF: Yes, definitely. I’m speaking for myself, of course, but every day I’m trying to improve something when I practice. Also through the years that I’ve been working, you get more experience. Hopefully I’m doing things better than when I was in my twenties. And yes, that’s the only way to be able to keep doing this, to improve every day and through practicing and through working with a great orchestra. All the musicians are fantastic so you learn by listening to your colleagues.
WWBW: Of course.
PMF: I have my teacher in Los Angeles, still. He’s my musical father, I want to say. Sometimes when I have something very important, I call him and he helps me. He’s in L.A. most of the time and I can’t go there. Sometimes, I send him a video of me practicing something and then he goes, “Oh, be careful with your notes because…” There’s always somebody that can give you… even if you are a very good player, at a very high level, there’s always something you can improve.
WWBW: Would you care to share his name with us?
PMF: Yes, of course. Yehuda Gilad.
WWBW: Oh, okay. I read about him.
PMF: He’s from Israel.
WWBW: I read about him in some of the biographic material.
PMF: Yes, Yehuda Gilad. He’s a very famous teacher and conductor.
WWBW: Maybe you could illuminate to me something about your title with the New York Philharmonic? Acting Associate Principal.
PMF: A little confusing. I’m the second clarinet player in the New York Philharmonic. That’s my title. That’s the audition I took and the job I wanted when I came. But right now we have a vacancy in our section so the Associate Principal clarinet and E flat left the orchestra almost three years ago. Right now, I’m doing that job. Acting Associate Principal. So that means I’m temporarily moved to that chair.
WWBW: To E flat?
PMF: Eventually, we have to have an audition at some point. But, the orchestra didn’t have time because our music director left and now we have a new music director. We haven’t had auditions yet. I believe we’ll fill that position next season.
WWBW: So you’re temporarily in the E flat chair?
WWBW: And would you consider yourself more of a B flat specialist?
PMF: For me?
PMF: Well, most of the time, that’s what I play. B flat and A clarinet. But, also, I specialize in playing E flat because I did it many, many times and for many years now and I like it a lot.
WWBW: It’s a great sound.
PMF: I love to play E flat.
WWBW: Now, you mentioned that the E flat player departed a couple of years ago. Does a vacancy typically stay open that long?
PMF: Sometimes it takes a long time to fill a position. In our situation I think that it was because our current music director, Alan Gilbert was about to leave. This year, we won’t have an official music director. The new director will come later. We also have other vacancies to fill. For instance, in our strings section. It takes time.
WWBW: I would just think that it’s such a prestigious engagement and such steady employment that it would attract a wide range of great musicians.
PMF: Yes, it does. I hope that when we have the audition, a lot of people come from many places and we can find the best players possible. Sometimes, it takes a long time. Even two or three auditions. I mean, you have an audition and you don’t find anybody that you like. Then you try some people invited to some kind of private audition and then sometimes they even do another. Who knows what’s going to happen? I hope we can find somebody quick.
WWBW: Now, are there other elements in being selected for a chair? There’s probably the soft science of getting along certainly. Are orchestras and musical directors generally aware of who might be around and who might be available? At the high level, I would say in professional sports, all the coaches and agents, they know who’s available and who’s at the top. Is it kind of like that?
PMF: Yes. I know that sometimes some conductors, they call people and they check. Like, “Hey, would you be interested in playing with us or auditioning for us?” They do that. I know. It’s kind of like behind the scenes. Right? Nobody knows really, but it happens and I think it’s normal. If you really like the way this person plays, nothing wrong in checking.
WWBW: Your father was a professional musician.
PMF: Yes, we both are. I play there in the orchestra in Spain. Palma, Majorca which is the name of the city. The name of the orchestra is Balearic Island Symphony Orchestra which is the name of the islands. The Balearic Islands. In Spain, there are two islands. The Canary Islands, you’ve probably heard of them. It’s in the Atlantic and the Balearic Islands that are in the Mediterranean. So the main city is Palma, Majorca. My father was principal player in that orchestra and also, he was a teacher in the conservatory. So I learned with him since the very beginning.
WWBW: Now, Majorca is a sizable city. When you were growing up, did it have strong school music programs? I mean, I know you learned mostly from family.
PMF: At that time, the conservatory was basically starting and it was small. There is not that much tradition in Majorca for classical music. So I was very lucky that I had the music at home since I was born. I remember my father practicing and I went to many, many rehearsals and concerts with him. I was already a musician because I was trying to imitate my father and listen to classical music all the time.
WWBW: You didn’t have a little rebellion to make you want to pick a different instrument?
PMF: My sister did. She’s not a musician, but my father, of course, wanted her to play. I think she started with the piano and she didn’t like it. So she switched I think to flute. I always liked the clarinet. Always, always. When I was big enough, I was nine years old, my father let me try the clarinet and that was it. I would never try other instruments because I loved the clarinet.
WWBW: When did you come to the United States?
PMF: In ’96 when I was 23. I went to study with Yehuda Gilad. I was already playing in the orchestra. I played next to my father in the orchestra in Majorca. I wanted to spend a couple years studying and having a different experience and that’s why I decide to go to USC with Yehuda.
WWBW: What was your routine while you were at USC? Were you doing long days of practice?
PMF: Yes, I was practicing all day long.
WWBW: Like eight hours?
PMF: Six, seven, eight -- depends on the day. I mean, not all the time practicing but we always had lessons and we had rehearsals.
WWBW: Of course.
PMF: There was Wind Ensemble and I had a quintet. If you put all the hours together, it was every day from when you woke up until you went to bed. So I practiced. Six, seven, eight hours. I don’t know. Maybe more? A lot.
WWBW: Was there a degree associated with that?
PMF: I was doing a program that was called “Accented Studies” which I don’t think they have it anymore at USC. It’s some kind of art diploma or something like that. I didn’t do my bachelor’s there.
WWBW: Is it like a Master of Fine Arts?
PMF: No, it wasn’t a Masters. No. But I did all my studies in Spain and then I just wanted to practice the clarinet with this teacher. So I didn’t do any major degree.
WWBW: What was your first United States symphonic job?
PMF: It was in the Cincinnati Symphony in Ohio. That was my first job.
WWBW: Did you just audition for it?
PMF: I had a job in Spain in my hometown and I was playing with my father. It was perfect for me. So my idea was to spend two years in Los Angeles, improve, learn and get all this experience and then go back home. I wasn’t thinking of auditioning for any job. This Cincinnati Symphony audition came up and one of my teacher’s students was already playing in the Cincinnati Symphony and he told me, “Oh, Pascual, you have to go take this audition.” And I told him I didn’t want to work in the United States. That was my mentality in that moment. But, every lesson, every time he saw me around, he was telling me, “Did you send your resume? Are you going to Cincinnati?”
WWBW: Why did he think that was such a great opportunity?
PMF: I don’t know. He thought that it would be a good experience for me. Just to take the audition. He probably wasn’t expecting me to win that audition and me I didn’t either because…I mean, I handed in my resume and they accepted me in the audition and I prepared the audition but not actually, the way I normally would. I didn’t practice that much because I didn’t really want to do it. It was because my teacher wanted me to, so I went there and I played. It was my surprise that I advanced to the semi-finals from the first round and then I advanced to the finals. And it was a big surprise for me. Because really, I wasn’t expecting it.
WWBW: So there were three separate auditions for you?
PMF: There were three rounds. Yes. The first round was one day, and then the next day was the semi-finals and the finals, the same day. So it was in two consecutive days.
WWBW: Now did they have you sight read something or was it all prepared?
PMF: I prepared everything I needed to play, but sometimes they give you something to sight read. I don’t remember if I did. Here in New York, yes, I remember that they gave us something to sight read when I came.
WWBW: When did you get to New York?
PMF: That was three years later. I saw the New York Philharmonic audition in the Union paper and then this one, yes, I mean saw it and I thought okay, this is a good chance maybe to play in one of the biggest orchestras in the world. I really prepared that one. I practiced and I was very focused and I tried my best and I made it. Also, was a big surprise because you never expect to win such a big job.
WWBW: It’s a very prestigious position.
PMF: I’m already in the United States, so I thought why shouldn’t I try one of the big ones? So that was why I did it.
WWBW: Now, do you enjoy living in New York?
PMF: Yes, very much.
WWBW: It’s an exciting city.
PMF: Yes, it’s a great place and I’m very happy here.
WWBW: Now where do you live?
PMF: I live in Harlem.
PMF: I like it. Very much.
WWBW: Fantastic. How about we talk about equipment for a little while?
WWBW: You’re a Buffet Crampon artist?
WWBW: The Tosca, do I have that right?
PMF: Yes, that’s the model that I play right now. Yes.
WWBW: That’s both B flat and E flat?
PMF: Yes. And A also. Yeah. I liked that instrument since it first came out. I think in 2004 or something like that. I tried it the next year and I loved the instrument and I’ve been it playing over the last probably 15 years, only the Tosca model with the Greenline material, which is a little bit different material. It’s not exactly wood. It’s some kind of synthetic material that they came out with. I love it.
WWBW: I’m sure it’s your option to play a fine wood clarinet. Can you describe your preference?
PMF: I think it’s great that there are so many options right now with different brands and models and all the makers; they all make beautiful clarinets. You have to find the one that you think is best suited for you and the one that you feel more comfortable with and that’s it. If you feel comfortable, you’ll play better. I’m not saying that Tosca is the best instrument because I have so many colleagues that they play other instruments, other models beside Buffet and they sound great too. So you have to really find what works for you and then that’s going to be reflected in your playing.
WWBW: Some players who tour a lot and find themselves in widely varying humidity and temperature environments prefer the Greenline and of course military and parade clarinet players.
PMF: Sure, sure. It’s the material that doesn’t change with the temperature or humidity, so it’s extremely stable and you don’t have to worry about cracks in the wood or problems. So in a way, it’s very safe and it sounds beautiful.
WWBW: You were an early adapter of the technology. You said it come out in 2004 and you were fond of it the very next year.
PMF: Yeah. I guess. I’ve always been very courageous and I like to try things. When something new comes out, I like to try it and see if it works for me. Sometimes it doesn’t. You feel it’s not that great. So then you know it. It’s great to try different things.
WWBW: In general, that’s a very healthy outlook on life rather than being suspicious of new things.
PMF: Yes, I know. Of course. Absolutely.
WWBW: You’re also a Vandoren endorser?
WWBW: Like all the way…you use the Vandoren mouthpiece? Is that correct?
PMF: Yes. I use Vandoren mouthpieces and ligatures and reeds.
WWBW: So when the Greenlines ship, they don’t come with a mouthpiece, correct?
PMF: No. Well, it comes sometimes with a Buffet mouthpiece, but it’s not good. I mean it’s kind of like a student level and you need something better.
WWBW: Which Vandoren? Is it the M30?
PMF: Yes, right now I’m playing the M30D.
WWBW: What is the D? What does the D mean?
PMF: The D is from Deutsch from German. It’s kind of like a German inspired mouthpiece.
WWBW: For the German system?
PMF: Yes. I think it fits the German system, but it’s designed to assist a little bit of a German sound than playing with French. And same thing, I feel so comfortable with that mouthpiece that I’ve been trying many, many other things for the last eight or nine years, but I love that mouthpiece and that’s what I’m playing.
WWBW: Vandoren ligature and reeds as well, I understand?
WWBW: You’ve had that relationship for a long time?
PMF: Well, the first note I played on the clarinet when I was 9 years old was with Vandoren materials because my father was playing Vandoren. Reeds and everything. I’m so used to those reeds and mouthpieces that for me, I think it’s impossible for me to change. Again, I know there are many, many options and many mouthpieces on the market that are great. But I just feel so attached to the sound and the feeling. It’s part of the way I play.
WWBW: As busy as you are, you manage to maintain a schedule of master classes and clinics. Why do you remain passionate about teaching?
PMF: Well, I’m only 45. I’m not that old. I’m much, much more prepared now than when I was 28, and I think it’s very important to take all the experiences and things that you learned through the years and pass it on to the younger generation. It’s very important and I don’t see myself only playing, because it would be incomplete. You need to have that part of being in touch with younger students and trying to help them. It’s really rewarding. If you help somebody get a job or improve their playing or even give them some direction on becoming a better person also, because everything reflects when you are teaching music. For me right now, it’s important to teach and to help the younger students.
WWBW: It’s interesting that you mentioned assisting somebody in finding work. A friend was talking to me about one of his teachers and one thing that he appreciated was how hard he worked at getting students started in their careers.
PMF: Yes, of course. If you have a student who has some technical problems, you help with that but when they arrive to a high level, you still have to encourage them. You have to help them with the right frame of mind to be able to achieve success in an audition. It’s mentally difficult.
WWBW: I’ve never taken auditions at that level. I’m a decent trumpet player, but I certainly never had the Maestro clearing his throat and tugging on his bowtie while he considered the relative honesty of my slurring.
PMF: Auditions are very tough.
WWBW: With the Olympics on television right now, I’m thinking it must be kind of like that.
PMF: Yes. Exactly. I mean, you practice for years and then you have to give everything in like five minutes. That you are playing behind the screen, by yourself. It’s very, very weird and you have to be strong mentally. I mean, you have to be a great player and to learn the excerpts and to have some experience doing it, but it’s in your mind. Sometimes it helps if you have some help with somebody who already went through it. I took many classes with great players when I was young and I was always trying to figure out why these guys are so famous and why they got the job. What was the difference between them and the others? You can only get it with somebody that had success and won an audition. So I’m just trying to help my students with that part of it, as well as with the playing.