Piccolo Playing in a Light of Great Joy: A Conversation with Ilonka Kolthof

JD: Tell us about your background. How did you come to music as a career?

IK: When I was seven years old, I attended a concert by two sisters playing the flute and the violin. I immediately fell in love with the most shiny instrument and I asked for flute lessons right away. After my first trial lesson I was hooked, but unfortunately my fingers where too small to hold the instrument properly. After playing the recorder for one year I could finally start playing the flute. Not long after that, my mother signed me up for the local wind band. It was there that I discovered the magic of music and I realized that I wanted to become a professional musician.

JD: Do you remember the first time you heard the piccolo? Was it love at first sound?

IK: To be honest, my relationship with the piccolo didn’t take off so well. After years of playing on several poor piccolos, I became quite insecure when performing. At the age of 20 I was asked to play Mahler’s 1st Symphony – known for its famous piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece – and I almost didn’t sleep that particular week because I couldn’t rely on my piccolo enough. At age 22 I finally could afford a professional piccolo, thanks to a generous sponsorship. This instrument completely changed my perspective on the piccolo and it even changed my life, since in the end I became a piccolo soloist.

JD: What is the Dutch Piccolo Project, and how did it come to be?

IK: With the Dutch Piccolo Project I try to promote the piccolo as an autonomous solo instrument and also to create more repertoire. I started this project as part of my piccolo Master’s studies at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Belgium) where I studied with Peter Verhoyen, solo piccoloist of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by his collaborations with Belgium composers I started commissioning Dutch composers to write new pieces for the piccolo too, which finally resulted in the Dutch Piccolo Project.

JD: Do you have a favorite piece of piccolo repertoire? What do you love about it?

IK: My absolute favorite piece is Halo, a unique composition for piccolo and piano by Dutch composer Bart Spaan which I commissioned as part of my Dutch Piccolo Project.A halo is that hazy circle of white or colored light around the sun, moon, or other luminous body, caused by light refracting through ice crystals in the atmosphere. In Halo, the piccolo colors the reverberation of the on-going piano arpeggios with a variety of mostly soft, sometimes inaudible noises. The whispering piccolo creates a diffused glow of light – a halo – around the reverb in the piano. In this nebula of sounds, eventually – albeit briefly – the sun breaks through when the piccolo enters its comfort zone, its radiant highest register.

JD: Tell us about Halo. How did you choose the repertoire for your album?

IK: For this album I commissioned six compositions written for piccolo and piano, highlighting the piccolo in a wide variety of different guises. It whispers, sings, cries and even screams at times. One moment it revels in virtuoso acrobatics, the next it moans in hushed undertones. The whole gamut of its expressive potential is explored. The compositions on this recording also demonstrate the variety and remarkable standard of contemporary music in The Netherlands. I therefore carefully selected composers who not only show affinity with the piccolo, but also speak with a unique voice, each showcasing the diversity of musical creativity in my home country.

JD: What is your favorite part about collaborating with composers and commissioning music?

IK: I think my favorite part is the moment that you inspire a composer to write music for the instrument you so dearly love. Sometimes collaborations turn out very unexpectedly, for example when the final result is completely different than from what you’ve thought the composer had in mind. Or that moment that you think you just played something really ugly in presence of the composer and he or she totally loves it! Working with composers can completely change the way you look at your own instrument, which makes it a great learning process, too.

JD: In a perfect future, how do you see the role of professional solo piccolo players?

IK: I think that as a solo piccolo player you have a great responsibility towards the instrument, because you can literally change the way people look at the piccolo through your playing style and your choice of repertoire. Also, by actively searching for or even commissioning new repertoire, you can be a part of the development of the piccolo as a solo instrument. So in a perfect future, solo piccolo players should try to be productive and thoughtful about the music they play, of course always in a light of great joy – because piccolo playing is, above all, FUN!

JD: Do you have any advice for young flutists who might be feeling a pull toward specializing in piccolo?

IK: As an emerging piccolo player, one of the most important things (in my opinion) is to own a good instrument. It doesn’t need to be ‘top of the bill’, but when intonation is off at the start, your piccolo journey could end up very frustrating. Search for an instrument with a warm and flexible sound so that it is much more easy to blend with other instruments. Secondly, take piccolo lessons. Although you may not think so at first glance, the piccolo is a very different instrument than the flute. Some basic piccolo skills, like for example the optimal use of air speed, can already make a big difference for your playing. And, last but not least, get some earplugs and make sure to bring them to all rehearsals. It will not only protect your ears from possible hearing damage, but by handing them out to your musician colleagues you’ll also make a lot of new friends! 

To find out more about Ilonka Kolthof, go to www.ilonkakolthof.com

  1. Donald Levene M.D.

    Excellent work!

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