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In Balance with Bach
An interview with Frank Wakelkamp - cellist on the Leusink Bach Cantatas recordings

By Peter Bloemendaal (May 2003)

He immediately drew my attention, a thin young man, wearing glasses, the cello loosely between the legs, playful little eyes, that look around expectantly and slightly surprised, an expressive mouth, indicating a keen sense of humour. From my position with the tenors of Holland Boys Choir, I had a clear view of him, when several years ago he participated for the first time in our Saint Matthew performance as the cello player of chorus 2. His boyish grin can change into a disarming burst of laughter and even when he is serious, the amused lights in his eyes and the curled up corners of his mouth will not fail him. Then he starts playing, and he changes into a live picture of inspiration and dedication. At intervals he fixes his eyes on the conductor, then on his instrument, and again, with a glance or smile of understanding, on his fellow-musicians. Striking is his perky, jaunty posture. Like a rider on his horse, see him sitting there, in perfect balance with the instrument. With long, slender arms and supple fingers he controls the bow and dominates his strings. Now he is revving up, now he is slowing down, sometimes caressing, a few moments later fervently inciting, almost chastising his instrument. On top of that his continually moving head, keeping up with the music, controlling and preserving the balance.

Frank Wakelkamp, I have come to know him as a modest, enthusiastic baroque cellist. He has often been praised for his major role in the church cantatas recordings. He played in all of them, integrally, both the recitatives and the arias, the choral as well as the orchestral parts. It was his devoted efforts and expressiveness that gained him general appraisal.

Who is this interesting young musician? Time for a closer introduction. His curriculum vitae to start with.

Frank Wakelkamp was born in 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. From the age of ten until he was eighteen, he attended the local Municipal School of music for violoncello and ensemble classes. Besides, he was a chorister in the Scola Cantorum of Saint John's Cathedral, 's-Hertogenbosch, first as a treble and later as a fresh bass. "It was," Frank says, "an ideal combination of the instrumental and vocal element in music." He learned that breathing, phrasing and awareness of the melodic lines, so essential to a singer, are just as important for playing the cello, and any other instrument for that matter. After finishing highschool he visited the Utrecht Conservatory, where he graduated in 1992 as Teacher Musician and Performing Musician Baroque Cello.

Anyone interested in more details about Frank, can visit his pretty extensive, interesting website , available in Dutch, English, German and partly in Spanish and French. There you will find a dozen interesting, readable essays, "Streken", translated by himself as "Strokes". In a footnote he explains that this word in English does not cover the various meanings of the original title in Dutch. Quite nice and original, these strokes / tricks Frank plays on his readers. They deal with teaching and making music on the cello and are even digestible for musical laymen. Essays, breathing his broad-mindedness as a teacher, always keeping his pupils in mind. They are customer friendly, somewhat philosophical and yet quite practical. He proves to be a creative teacher, who likes to use metaphors in order to illustrate problems and instruct his students. As a student of his, you are now a jar of peanut butter, now a fly-wheel, then a mammoth tanker or a troupe of circus artistes.

The site also contains information about the ensembles Frank Wakelkamp is involved with, demos and an order list. This way they can easily be booked for various programmes under the motto "Concert opportunities after budget". Recently added was "His name is Klein" about Wakelkamp's new multimedia project. Furthermore there is his on-line special about the recordings of the Leusink cantatas (only in Dutch).

Our conversation took place on Thursday afternoon July 6th 2000, before he was having CD recordings in Saint Nicholas Church in Elburg, The Netherlands. Here all the recordings of the Leusink series were recorded. This time, however, Frank had not come to record a church cantata by Bach but a secular one by Vivaldi for a new mega Brilliant Edition of music by the red priest. I was to meet Frank at the station. Who can imagine my amazement when I turned my car onto the station square. There Mr Wakelkamp was riding round in circles on his immediately after arriving out-folded little collapsible bike. Big smile on his face, backpack in front of his chest, cello on his back, like a warrior, ready for battle. And a tough day it was going to be for him, because after the interview and the recordings he would have to train it to Frysia where on a small lake near Workum the Orfeo Aqua was going to take place in the wee hours of the night. I stacked all his gear in my car and we drove to Elburg, where we sat down on the sunny terrace behind my house, having a relaxed chat, enjoying a glass of water (Frank) and a tin of Heineken. I did not have to stay awake till the next morning.

* In the beginning of 1999, you worked as a male secretary, as you yourself put it so nicely. Didn't you want to dedicate yourself to the performing arts on a full-time basis?

< That would be ideal of course. But I only had few pupils at the time and even with my Trio Eroica and other sub-activities I did not make enough money to earn a living.

* Why didn't you look for a secure position in a regular orchestra?

< I have never wanted to bind myself to a large regular orchestra and least of all a symphony orchestra. You run a real risk of getting stuck, becoming rusty. In an orchestra of ancient music that danger is considerably less, because in those orchestras players regularly come and go. The mere thought of playing in a large ensemble gives me a feeling of drowning. Flexibility and creativity are lacking there. For the benefit of cooperation you have to compromise a lot. So, should I ever consider to play in a larger band than a trio or a quartet, it would have to be a chamber orchestra, but I prefer smaller ensembles. The smaller, the better, the more diverse the means of expression. Then you have space for a personal contribution. What's more, it is necessary.

* How did you get involved in the Cantatas project?

< Pieter Jan Leusink in person contacted me. Probably he had good memories of my contribution to recent SMP performances and in particular the cello solo in the "Geduld" aria.

* So when they asked you, you were in fact only part-time working as a musician. Did you think such a gigantic project could be realized at such short notice? Weren't you afraid the quality would be under average and the premature critics would be proved right?

< Initially there were certainly a lot of question marks. One has to seriously ask oneself: "Can I, can we make this dream come true?" Moreover because we are dealing with thes awesome Bach cantatas! Which were to be completed in the Bach year 2000! At the same time I was aware of the enormous challenge and the unique possibility to accomplish something that only comes on your path once in a lifetime. In just a few months the conviction grew that we could do it. We made a choice in full consciousness, Pieter Jan Leusink, John Wilson Meyer (concertmaster), Rien Voskuilen and Vaughan Schlepp (organ), and myself: We are going for it! No, I was not afraid of the risk to fail or to be ridiculed in the so-called professional press or the musical establishment. I only do things I believe in and that I like. I have in common with Leusink that, once I have made up my mind to go for something I am not going to quit but do it with full dedication and to my best abilities.

*Besides the baroque cello you also play the violoncello piccolo in the cantatas. How different are these instruments compared to each other and to the present-day cello?

< In the first place the technique of playing the baroque cello is not essentially different from that of the classical cello. Of course there are the gut strings, which give the instrument a milder sound, making it necessary for the player to put more energy into it in order to produce fiercer tones or brighter colouring. The baroque cello I play is a special one. It was built by Jaap Bolink in 1982 as a violoncello piccolo, with the mensuration, say the size of the Amati cello built by Henk Lambooy. The violoncello piccolo was invented by Bach himself and he has been the foremost to use it in compositions. It is a small cello with an extra e'-string above the normal strings. Because of the overtones that are generated by the resonance of the e'-string, its sound resembles the viola da gamba. Jaap Bolink wanted to build a five-stringed instrument without the discomfort of a smaller size. A smaller size cello has the disadvantage that you have to place your fingers differently so that a cellist who is unfamiliar with the instrument can easily get disorientated as to finger position. Since there are no fewer than nine notches in the bridge and in the keel ridge (Is this the correct English word? - PB)) in stead of the usual four for the cello or five for the violoncello piccolo, I can change the instrument from a cello into a violoncello piccolo or vice versa within just a couple of minutes. Yet, a lot of practice is still required to really master the cello piccolo. In my solo repertoire I play it in Bach's Cello suite nr. 6. On my website I dedicated a section to the cello piccolo. The viola da gamba is quite a different instrument with six strings, frets and a lower string tension. Therefore it requires specific technique and training. I am not ready for it yet. [This year 2003 Frank Wakelkamp played the gamba soli in SMP performances throughout the country! - PB]

* Why does Bach give the violoncello piccolo an obbligato part with soprano and tenor arias in the cantatas (BWV nrs. 6, 41, 49, 68, 85, 115, 175, 180, 183, 199)?

< The higher notes of the cello piccolo naturally fit the vocal range of the soprano and the tenor. The "airier" sound of these voices symbolizes the sublime in mortal men, the soul and its longing for a paradise in heaven. Bach also employed the cello piccolo to represent the Divine Light in some arias and elsewhere to illustrate the pastoral theme, Christ being the Good Shepherd, who tends his flock.

* What is your role in such an aria or in a recitative?

< Usually the cello is part of the basso continuo, the instruments playing the bass line, the foundation under the other instruments and of course the vocal soloists and the choir. Sometimes a movement of a cantata contains a cello solo as is the case in the soprano chorale "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ" from BWV 6 "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden." Of course, this is a wonderful opportunity for me.

* In what respect is the role of the cello different in an aria, a recitative or a chorale?

< In a recitative the accent is on the narrative. The recital is supported by the basso continuo, usually consisting of just the cello and the organ. This offers me the pleasure to play with expression to underline the text and the sentiments mirrored in the music. In a cantata aria the accent lies on the beautiful melody that goes with an often dramatic text, in which Bach voices his emotions and reflections regarding his personal faith and the creed of the contemporary Lutheran church. This enables the singer to exhibit his or her vocal talents more fully. The basso continuo is then often extended with a bassoon and a double bass. As a cello player you can not express yourself as individually as only playing with the organ, because the sounds must blend together well. Yet, I must say that during the recordings, we as basso continuo were very well attuned to each other. In the choral movements there is moreover the additional bass line of the choir basses. Spontaneity and individual expressiveness are even more sacrificed to the pursuit of a homogeneous sound.

* You mentioned solos on the cello piccolo. You also played quite some cello solos on the "ordinary" baroque cello, in arias from BWV 78,, 99 and 163 for example.

As a cellist, how do you listen to recordings, especially the ones you are taking part in? Any specific details or criteria? What determines your judgement?

< First of all you listen critically to your own part. Sometimes I find that certain emotions or accents I was sure to have expressed in the music did not come over so evidently on the recordings as in my mind. This may be caused by your strong personal involvement in making the music. When you are listening to the recordings you are still subjective but there is far more detachment than while playing.. Sometimes I think they selected the wrong take. But then the take with my best effort was probably put aside due to someone else's mistake.

* In my opinion this is also due to the fact that you will always be a subtle player. No over-acting on your part. Therefore it will never sound overdone, even when you are convinced you really went for it.

< Remarkable you noticed that. It has to do with the alternation of tension and relaxation. Tone and sound colours range from light to dark. On the cello you can apply them lighter or more heavily, with all the gradations in between. You set your bow, build up tension. How much? You relax. When? To what extend?

The essential factor is the pulse, the heart beat, the breath. All of them words to denote that music must flow. This is more important than making sure that every single note is perfectly in tune. That's the way I listen to the overall musical picture. It must be more than just the sum of all the right notes. That what transcends the musical notation is the most important element in making music.

* You once said that holy texts are "sugary" and boring. You feel there is nothing to it musically. On your website you state that your favourite texts are the ones concerning hell and damnation, which give you a chance to make your instrument growl and grumble. If this is not the case, you said, one can only hope for a magnificent melody. Doesn't that sound like blasphemy, since these holy texts meant a lot to Bach and, no matter what, practically all his cantatas abound in wonderful melodies. Haven't you just mentioned how you enjoyed your solo in cantata 6?

< Absolutely! But that text is not sugary at all, the melody moving and magnificent; and in the chorale "Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ" Bach gives the violoncello piccolo a unique opportunity to create the right atmosphere, to illustrate the anguish at the thought to be left alone in the dark, the desire for Christ to stay, the supplication to make him stay. What I really mean is that it is all relative. When you have to underline lovely melodies on end, you get bored, even with Bach. Then you are yearning for some vicious growls and snarls. To illustrate this, just listen to the bass recitative "Es hat die Dunkelheit" of the same cantata. After the words Grossen" and "umgestossen" you will hear a gnashing concluding chord by the cello expressing the indignation about the iniquities of mankind. Playing that really gives me a kick.

* You're into T'ai Chi. Does it influence your music making?

< When I was eighteen, I went through a crisis, causing enormous stress. My body reacted with a neuritis in my left arm. This kindled my interest in the balance between moving and relaxing. Four years later, I learnt about T'ai Chi, a Chinese martial art. In this sport balance is the key word, involving slow movements, building up tension and then letting go. Leading the energy into the right paths and making use of the other person's energy. I learned a lot from it and from my experiences with T'ai Chi I wrote my final thesis "Undulating Movements" for the Utrecht Conservatory.

* So balance is all-important in your music?

< Yes, both in my music and in my private life, for Frank the man and Frank the cellist. A musician who is out of balance can not produce good music. Lack of balcoincides with spiritual and physical stress. A relaxed posture is essential to playing the cello. This even holds good for the tiny pinky. The little finger of your right hand, provided it is relaxed, is the helmsman steering the bow onto the right course. [read "the Mammoth tanker" on Frank's website - PB] To remain physically in balance it is important for a cellist to move the head as a counter weight. In a down stroke the head has to countermove to the left and with an up stroke to the right. Rapid movements of the arm are attended with rapid movements of the head. In fact these are all highly natural movements.

* Some people have a craze for Bach on the computer.

< A musician must always show that he outranks and outplays a computer. Bach' s music requires phrasing and shading. Most of all the cantatas. They are determined by the texts in the first place. Bach translates them into sounds, creating a fitting musical atmosphere and matching emotions, in Bach language "Affekte". His creative powers and imagination are present throughout the cantatas. Melodic lines, rhythms, harmonies and dissonants are not by chance. They are never isolated phenomena but always illustrations to the texts and the accompanying emotions.

In playing the recitatives, the first thing we, players of the BC, always do is determine the length of the phrases. Timing takes place from the text, together with the singer. For he or she is the one that places the consonants. Once we have done this the instruments can vary their dynamics following the "Affekte" Bach has put in the music. Thus the organist can vary the sonority of the organ by changing registration and by playing more or fewer notes in the right hand. And of course the wonderful timbre of the cello adds a lot of colour, accentuating the atmosphere.

* How do you create this atmosphere on the cello? When are you making your strings sing, swing or growl?

< Dissonance always points at unpleasant feelings: fear, sadness, anger, doubt, despair, fear of death and dying. [He walks to the piano and plays a harmonious triad, then changes it into a dissonant. Sitting down behind his cello he repeats the chord several times, varying in force and timbre] Hear how I can not only vary the strength of the strokes but also their shape; I can hold the note longer or shorter and I can influence the dissolution of the sound, making it more gradual or more abrupt. These opportunities of expression make the cello so attractive to me.

* Back to the cantatas project. On your site you said that Pieter Jan Leusink gave you a lot of freedom. He did not impose his will on you, the musicians. If he had, it would have been demotivating and causing delay, in your opinion. Don't you think that a conductor must have a clear vision and leave his stamp on a performance in order to realize a superior product?

< The danger with conductors having an explicit view, an avowed purpose and a big ego is that there is one way traffic. The musicians' personal input and creativity is kept in check or completely bridled and uniformity promoted in order to create the building the conductor has in mind. This can injure the vitality of the music. In its extreme form it will lead to insecurity, resistance and fear in the musicians.

Leusink's strength is that he knows his own limitations. He knows his goal. How he reaches it he largely lets it depend on the players. He puts his trust in them and counts on the quality of their input. Moreover he does not think much of talking about music theory. I agree with him that to much talking is an admission of weakness. And besides, adhering to a shopping list of rules demands a lot of time, time in which you can not make music. It does not make me happy and it spoils my pleasure, so it does not improve my playing one bit.

* The first recordings went off faster than expected. You said you were shocked when the tutti movements had to be recorded. What caused this shock and how did you solve this deadlock?

< Well, with the recitatives there are only a singer, an organist and a cellist involved. Vaughan and I hit it off from the start and Leusink gave us much freedom. When the strings joined in, more guidance by the conductor was required, but we also had to deal with a concert master and his own ideas. Making compromises was needed to get things together. There were different starting points. Leusink made it clear to us that he wanted to work as a football coach who is certain his squad consists of first class players, who do not need elaborate instructions about tactics and technicalities. Long preliminary talks were skipped. He just said: "You are all baroque experts. Now show me. You can do it! Make me hear and see Bach." Such an approach is pretty unconventional in the world of historically authentic music. Neither had it happened before that such a gigantic project had to be pulled off at such short notice. In the beginning, hard words could sometimes be heard between the BC and the strings, but time and again it was proved that a stiff conflict in the open solves more than letting tensions grow and variances simmer. After the gunpowder smoke had lifted, the air was clear again. And yes, Leusink's approach worked. With all noses in the same direction, new enthusiasm was growing. Not only the working speed and the unity increased greatly, also the quality of the ensemble playing improved dramatically. And according to the many favourable reviews, the result is worth listening to.

* How do you look back on those fifteen months recording together? Did you make friends?

< It was a wonderful time. I learned a lot. The frequency and intensity of playing make you stronger and more self-assured. I have learnt to know some people deeper, especially those with whom I played most in the BC, Vaughan Schlepp and Rien Voskuilen. And also with Jean van Vugt, the producer-editor, I have developed stronger ties.

You asked me a nice anecdote. Right, here is one illustrating the good atmosphere among the players of the BC. There was this movement where Rien had an organ solo and I was to accompany him of course. Three takes went wrong because Rien made a mistake. The fourth time he played his part to perfection, but, well, guess what, I messed up, on which Rien exclaimed: "Damn it, Frank, you screwed up my entire solo." Everybody laughed and look, the next take was immaculate.

* What will your future be? Back to secretarial work?

< Definitely not. Recently we had our house altered. The car port was built into a studio. It turned out an excellent acoustic room. This is in line with my plans to do more teaching. Lately I have grown in knowledge, experience and self-confidence, as a person and as a musician. I have always loved teaching, both to children and adults. What I have gained, I wish to share with other people. Even with little four-year-olds. Psychological research has learned that a child's musical development rums parallel to its mastering of the mother tongue. Actively this begins with primitive drumming when the motor activity is still in its primary phase. Children are remarkably receptive and perceptive. They react very directly when you teach them something.

< At the moment (July 2000) I am involved in ten performances of a modern staging of Von Gluck's opera "Orfeo et Euridice". As part of the festival Summer 2000, these spectacular performances are given on a wrecked ship in a small lake. They begin at daybreak at four in the morning and are attracting large crowds.

< Plans for the future? Plenty. Starting a choir of my own. Giving more concerts with my ensembles. I have played with the Trio Eroica since 1993 with Gili Rinot (clarinet) and J. Marc Reichov (forte piano). Last year I joined the Trio Uccellini, specialized in baroque music, featuring Vincent van den Ende (recorder) and Gerard Blok (harpsichord).

< Then I want to produce a multi media CD of the cello sonatas by the relatively unknown Dutch baroque composer Jacob Herman Klein, one of Bach's contemporaries. I recently discovered this interesting music and got the manuscript from the Staats und Universitäts Bibliothek of Dresden, Germany. I am not only going to record the sonatas with Rien Voskuilen on harpsichord and Jean van Vugt as producer, but I also want to publish the manuscripts facsimile with a musicological elucidation, the composer's biography and additional relevant information. [project successfully completed in October 2000 - PB]

Frank Wakelkamp is a man who strives after balance in his private life as well as in his music, an inspired cello player, a musician with ambitious ideas. Hoping and trusting that the scale of fortune will tip in his favour, we will follow his future with great interest. Frank Wakelkamp, whose musical career seems to only have just begun.

Elburg, the Netherlands, July 2000

Translation: Peter Bloemendaal (May 2003)
Contributed by Peter Bloemendaal (May 2003)

Pieter Jan Leusink: Short Biography | Holland Boys Choir | Netherlands Bach Collegium
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Individual Recordings:
Leusink - Vol.1&2 | Leusink - Vol.3&4 | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 245 - P.J. Leusink
Interview with Pieter Jan Leusink | Interview with Frank Wakelkamp
Table of Recordings by BWV Number


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