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Artist Profile: Spotlight on Martin Kuuskmann

Grammy-nominated, Estonian-born bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann’s performances around the world have secured him as one of the leading solo instrumentalists. He has played with such esteemed orchestras as the American Composers Orchestra (performing in Carnegie Hall); the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra; and as guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

Kuuskmann, who lives in Blaine, joins Seattle’s Brazilian-born, Grammy-nominated pianist and composer Jovino Santos Neto in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at Jansen Art Center, 321 Front St., Lynden.

Question: When did you arrive in Whatcom County?

Answer: I first came to the U.S. in 1990 as a student at San Jose State University, all with the help of a host family I’m still very close to. Soon after, in 1992, I continued at Yale University School of Music and, in 1995, as a student at the Manhattan School of Music.

I might be one of the very few who has actually turned down a full-scholarship offer at Juilliard. I enjoyed a very busy and rewarding freelance career in New York City playing with all of the great orchestras there, on Broadway, and at the recording scene.

In 2003, my wife, Tiiu, and I decided on a move from New York City’s upper east side straight to Blaine. Quite an unusual move, but an intentional one, due to then pending U.S. permanent residency status and proximity to my wife’s family in Vancouver, B.C. Plenty of pluses there — small-town environment for raising a family, nearby airports for my travel needs, and, of course, the location being right by the bay, near mountains. And, I also wanted to focus on my solo career.

Q: What was your childhood like?

A: My mom is a piano teacher at a children music school in Tallinn, Estonia. So I started with piano at the age of 6. It one of these instruments every musician should know how play, even a little.

At 12 I took on the clarinet, and at 15 the bassoon, which really happened more as an accident. I was simply suggested to try it out by a family friend on a day when I was successfully auditioning on my clarinet to the Tallinn Music High School. I took the bassoon home for the summer, and by the following October the clarinet didn’t emerge from its case. That was 1986.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all music —I played as much basketball in that music high school as I practiced the bassoon. It was fantastic! Singing and choir? That aspect has probably been the most influential part of me being a successful musician, being able to convey my feelings to the audience through my breath. Really!

Q: So you’re a singer as well as an instrumentalist?

A: I started singing in the Estonian Philharmonic Boy’s Choir when I was 9, and continued in its young men’s chorus until I left for the U.S. I also sang in the Tallinn Music High School chamber choir through my high school years. The heralded 2006 documentary— “Singing Revolution” — I sang in so many of its scenes.

But Tallinn Music High School and its choir were really quite spectacular — so many successful world musicians emerged from there just from my generation, like conductors Anu Tali —she’s music director of Estonia’s Sarasota Orchestra — Olari Elts; composers Tõnu Kõrvits and Helena Tulve; opera stars Annely Peebo and Lauri Sirp at the Vienna State Opera; and others.

Also, the renowned conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, a recent Grammy-winner and an Arvo Pärt specialist, is one of its graduates. Amazing legacy for such a small nation for one little school in a little country.

Q: What kinds of music do you enjoy?

A: I love everything, from Gregorian chant to Coldplay. Can’t ever say no to Bach or Miles Davis or Tom Jobim. I like a good melody, good groove, no matter what time period.

Bach has a serious groove, no less than that of Miles. I definitely draw inspiration from other performers, be it instrumentalists or singers of any genre. Today’s music scene is full of fantastic and very original artists.

Q: Why do you enjoy performing?

A: Sure, I can do abstract and ultra-modern, but nothing is better than a heartfelt melody — “singing” through my bassoon. Showcasing flashy technique is fun, too, and necessary to an extent.

However, the ability to expose your soul to the audience and to feel this intensity, this magnetism, of the feelings being channeled from you to the audience and then in turn back at you; that’s magical. That’s joy! And I look for that every time I play.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

A: Definitely all of the concertos I’ve been able to do with the legendary Estonian maestro Neeme Järvi. Playing with him has been a huge honor and a dream of mine since I was a kid.

I’ve been lucky to have been able to work with some of the foremost composers of today; it’s such a privilege to have concertos written for you. I have premiered 11 so far, and there are a few in the oven.

Also, performing all alone for 20 minutes in a spectacular sequenza for solo bassoon by Luciano Berio, on this huge stage in Lincoln Center in New York City in front of an audience of a couple thousand in 2008 was unforgettable, as well as my 2013 Carnegie Hall concerto debut with the Christopher Theofanidis’ Bassoon Concerto.

But really, every year there’s something special. I’m happy with recordings I’ve made, and now there’s a new concerto CD coming up in May with the Theofanidis Concerto and live takes of Mozart and Hummel concertos.

Q: Why is music important for young people?

A: Learning a musical instrument is one of these things in life that everyone should consider elementary. It should not be considered a privilege or an alternative to some other activity. The ancient Greeks had it right —mathematics, philosophy, athletics, music —they were all equal part of essential learning.

Children should have at least two music, band or orchestra classes per week, mandatory. Whoever can, should take private music lessons.

Music and learning an instrument invigorates more parts of the brain than just about any other activity. When playing an instrument (or singing), one has to focus and keep tabs on multiple things at the same time —starting from reading or playing music from memory, keeping the pitch, playing the right notes, playing the correct rhythm, blending in with others around you.

It’s invaluable, it’s about multitasking and mixing mathematical aspects of music with the artistic ones, it’s about teamwork, self-esteem, self-control, respect. I can keep going.

Q: What can people expect at the concert Saturday at the Jansen?

A: I’ve always been fond of Brazilian music, especially the bossa nova. You can expect that, for one. Bossa nova and music of Tom Jobim’s is one of my short-term future concert and CD projects.

Jovino has already been a big part of it, I’ve played several concerts with him. He’s a good friend and phenomenal musician. In the past few years I’ve done several of Jovino’s arrangements of Jobim tunes, including some fantastic tunes of Jovino’s himself.

With all of that, I can’t help but bring in some Estonian vibe as well, music of Arvo Pärt and Tõnu Kõrvits. It’s definitely going to be very intimate, high-energy and soulful evening of music.

To top things of for me personally, I’m actually doing a concert near my home, on my daughter Anneliis’s 10th birthday! And she, along with my family, are going to be present in the audience. Now that’s a real highlight for me!

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