The performance began with a scream. Or was it a bang, followed by the cry of the wind? In the next half-hour, recorder player Dora Donata Sammer whistled, bleated, cried, crowed, whirred, rattled, purred, hummed, sang, and chirped her way through repertoire from the Baroque to the contemporary, from the Renaissance soprano recorder to the electronics-assisted contrabass recorder. Sammer combined Giorgio Tedde’s “Austro” and Luciano Berio’s “Gesti” with Bach’s A Minor Partita, Fausto Romitelli’s “Seascape” and Jakob von Eyck’s “Fluyten Lusthof,” leaving the listener with a dizzying question: Did she really make all those sounds on the recorder? But Sammer, who is finishing up her master’s at the Mozarteum in Salzburg with Dorothee Oberlinger (and also doing an undergraduate degree in piano at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna) makes it all seem easy. We met on a recent afternoon in a café in Berlin.   

VAN: What are you working on right now? 

Dora Donata Sammer: I’m actually on a little break. After the competition, I had to go right back to Salzburg, and there was so much to do: student concerts and especially my master’s thesis, a recording of a CD titled “ex tempore.” On the album, I combine early music with really contemporary music by three Italian composers. It’s a trip through Italy, geographically and temporally. As the title “ex tempore” says, it’s about “going outside time,” through diminution, ornamentation, and playing with rubato. 

Are you always doing so much at once? Or is this an unusual time because you’re finishing up your studies? 

I’d say it’s pretty normal. The unusual thing is me having a few days off in Berlin.

In the program notes for the Berlin Prize for Young Artists, it said that you applied on the recorder and not on the piano because you happened to have a program ready on the recorder. Where did that program come from? 

I already had some of my favorite pieces—pieces I love playing—in mind. What’s fantastic about this competition is that you have absolute stylistic freedom, and that you have to play solo. It’s about your concept and about how you present yourself as an artist. That’s very rare. On the piano, you get used to playing solo competitions, but not on the recorder. Of course there are some competitions just for the recorder, like the Moeck Solo Recorder Competition or the Telemann Competition…  

Photo © Verena Brüning

Are you interested in those competitions as well? 

Competitions are always interesting in the sense that they give you a goal to work towards. It’s a different kind of preparation and motivation.

How did you end up with your final Berlin Prize program? 

I had a few set pieces, and then I tried to figure out what I could add to them.

What were the set pieces? 

Romitelli’s “Seascape,” Berio’s “Gesti” and Giorgio Tedde’s “Austro.” Then I came up with the concept “From Imitations to Illusions.” All these pieces deal a lot with imitation, especially of sounds from nature. They work with the idea of illusion: simulating, but also contrasting with the original sound. They’re concerned with the difference between what you hear in the piece and what the composer intends to imitate. Take “Austro,” for example: It doesn’t really sound like wind. And if you don’t know the background of the piece, I’m not sure you’d immediately think of wind. But that’s exactly what I find fascinating. It’s an imitation, but it still isn’t wind, it’s always at a remove. It’s an abstraction. I’m interested in precisely this discrepancy. 

The imitation of nature has been around for so long in music history. In the High Baroque period, van Eyck and Vivaldi imitated nature, but in a stylized way. And then, in the 1990s, Romitelli and Tedde imitated nature again with a completely different approach: more naturalistic, but still at a remove.

You play practically the entire recorder family.

Yeah, that’s important to me, the diversity of instruments and styles. In my studies, early music and contemporary music were given almost the same weight. Of course, you’d get more of one or the other at times, but I always consciously put a lot of emphasis on new music. For me, it’s closer to our reality and often easier to understand. The contrast to the music of the Baroque period is huge. 

What about new music makes it easier for you to understand?

When I study Baroque music, Renaissance music, or even earlier music, there are all these tracts I can read. I can figure out how things were at the time and learn about the composers. But it’s different with contemporary music: Sometimes the composers are still alive. That means I can get in touch with them and actually ask them questions. I really like doing that. And then, there’s the fact that the sound world of the pieces is closer to the sound world of our daily lives. The understanding of sound is more natural, closer to our lived experience.

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Is that how you choose the works you want to prepare? 

It’s definitely part of it. The sound is the be-all, end-all. I’d never played “Austro” before. But I knew it, and I thought: It’s such a magical sound world, I have to play it. The funny thing is that it requires circular breathing and I couldn’t circular breath at the beginning of January, but that’s when the deadline for the program was. I’d been planning to learn “Austro” for years, but I didn’t really know if I could learn circular breathing: some do, some don’t. But I did know that I’d need a really good reason to take the plunge and learn the coordination of breathing in and out at the same time. I also thought, “Austro” is so important to me. I have to learn it, I’ll just put it on the program. And I started working on my circular breathing. When I found out I was in the Berlin Prize finals, I knew more or less how it worked, but I couldn’t do it at the instrument yet. So of course I was really happy, but then I thought: Oh. OK. Now I have to learn it. 

At the beginning of the piece, you breathe in once, and then it goes… 

…on for nine minutes or so, yeah. I mean, it’s primarily a muscular issue: You just have to train. You can’t run a marathon on a moment’s notice either. I’m also fascinated by the physical aspects of all the pieces. You don’t play a solo program like that every day, and every single piece is a challenge: For example, even just playing another piece after “Austro.” And then with “Gesti,” the piece is composed so that you go to your absolute physical limits. It wants to provoke, to confuse; it takes you completely out of your comfort zone. 

With “Seascape,” you have to produce sound while breathing in and out, which means there are no breaks. It’s always flowing, the waves are in constant motion. It’s so tiring, physically. But that’s what fascinates me about the recorder: You become one with the instrument in such an extreme way, playing it is so physical. 

When you were studying, how free were you musically? 

It varies. What gets emphasized depends on your teacher, but I’m lucky to have teachers at both schools who are very open to both early and new music, and who give me a lot of freedom. But then there are the curricular requirements. For example, in my master’s exam, I can’t just play a program of my choice, I have to fulfill certain requirements. And that’s why the competition was so exciting. It was really the first time it was completely up to me what I played. That was beautiful for me.

Besides recorder, you also studied piano. Both are instruments where you don’t necessarily… 

…have a chance [Laughs]… 

…finish your degree and feel certain that you’ll be able to get a job. 

It’s true, I did make a “dumb” choice in that respect. [Laughs.] I mean, when I chose these two instruments, I probably wasn’t really thinking about it. But I was never very interested in playing in an orchestra. I do like interacting with other musicians, but mainly in smaller ensembles or as a soloist. I’d like to be a freelance musician, and I hope I’ll be able to make a living from that. 

What do you have planned next?

I’d really like to expand the competition program so I can offer concert presenters a full-length program, and I have some collaborations planned. 

Photo © Verena Brüning

Does the piano fill in a gap in the recorder repertoire for you, allowing you to explore a different epoch and different music? 

I started with the recorder and took up the piano shortly after. I was always doing both, and it seemed obvious that I could. Of course it’s something you have to deal with: People saying, “You have to decide” or “You have to specialize.” But for me it’s not “either/or,” it’s “and.” It’s true that the piano fills in an epoch that you don’t have access to on the recorder. There’s also a lot of exciting new music for the piano. I’d like to continue doing both as long as possible. They’re both such exciting instruments with such different sound worlds, and I wouldn’t want to give up either of them. 

So when you play piano, you emphasize new music? 

I’m lucky to have a teacher who’s very open to new music. But I like the other repertoire too. It’s a question of time: Sometimes you have time for one thing, then for another. I’m thinking about doing another master’s in contemporary music. On the other hand, when you do two degrees at once, you spend all your time studying. It’s hard to keep track of external projects. At some point you have to go out into the real music world. [Laughs.

Do you perceive conservatory as not being the real music world? 

Yeah, it’s a bubble, you’re a little cut off. But that’s important too, so that you have time to work on your technique and let your musical development happen in a protected space. 

Meaning you have the space to do the kinds of projects you want? 

I think you have to be assertive and take that space for yourself. I’ve had times when I was completely absorbed in my two university programs, because I wanted that. But then it’s not as obvious what else you can do, what the other options are. The great thing about studying is that if you want the space, you can take it easily. You have to fulfill certain expectations, but I’ve had and have professors who are very supportive. 

What does the term contemporary mean to you? 

Music that was written yesterday. [Laughs.] It’s a hard, much-debated question. But terms like early and new music are just that—terms. I’m not as interested in the periods. They’re different languages, but it’s all music. ¶

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Judith Gerhardt is a freelance oboist and teacher based in Berlin.