Brilliance on high

Haika Lübcke loves to listen. Both as a flautist and piccolist with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and, as a bird lover, in the great outdoors: birds are almost as precious to her as music. For her, these two worlds belong together – and not only in terms of sound.

Melanie Kollbrunner

Tap, tap. Who’s knocking at such an early hour? Hello, wagtail. Haika Lübcke stands up and fetches her binoculars. She is looking for the mistle thrush, which should actually be heard at this time of day. “Mistle thrushes sing particularly beautifully,” she says. Like this: she puts down her phone and plays a friendly sequence of notes on the piccolo. She has been the solo piccolist and second flautist in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich for twenty years. Right now, she is in her holiday flat in Amden on Lake Walensee, bridging the time of the Corona lockdown.

Softly glittering overtones

When Haika Lübcke answers questions about her career and her instrument, she is always succinct, never hasty. She is the one who prefers to listen – even in the orchestra, where she is often the last to play, at least as a piccolist. “You listen to the others and enjoy their music,” she says. “But daydreaming isn’t an option. Your mind must remain alert, and your hands need to stay warm.” In Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, for example: “The dread of every piccolist. Wait forty minutes – then, bang.” Haika Lübcke reaches for her instrument: “First, the familiar passage here, then twice these four seconds, which you have to manage without a warm-up.” She rapidly strings together note after note, conjuring the nimble solo out of nowhere. Just like that.

“Very high and very soft, therein lies the challenge” – especially in the Tonhalle Maag, which, acoustically, functions quite differently from the Tonhalle am See. The Maag is one-third smaller in terms of volume; the piccolo also sounds less soft there because of the shorter reverberation time, and it is more difficult for the sound to mix with those of the other instruments. “Playing carefully, breathing glitter into the overtones with apparent lightness, that has always suited me quite well,” she says. “Sprinkling a small, fine sparkle over the sound of the orchestra – that is my joy.”

A natural on the flute

Haika Lübcke was born in 1972 in Celle near Hanover, where she also grew up. Her grandparents’ Ibach grand piano, which she began playing at the age of five and on which she was also taught, was always a presence at home. “There was this nice lady who ran the recorder group in town. Because I played the recorder quite decently, she pressed a bass recorder into my hand.” At the age of eight, Haika continued in a similar vein on the trumpet, which she taught herself in order to play in a trombone choir.

And then she saw this delicate, shiny instrument and was overjoyed when she found her wish fulfilled under the Christmas tree: a flute. “I was able to play right from the start. Just like that. It simply came to me.” She still seems to wonder why – and from where. She never considered joining a youth symphony orchestra, because that was for other people and her parents weren’t musicians either. Until she made a name for herself at one competition after another, later accompanied by her husband on the piano. So she wondered whether she should perhaps study the flute after all. “And then, later, something real,” as she promised her parents. “Architecture” – but that never happened.

Once Erdmuthe Boehr, her professor at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hanover, had thrust a piccolo into her hand, there was no turning back. Boehr asked her to play the second movement from the Mozart Flute Concerto: “At first, I thought, ‘God, it’s crazy – and dreadful – to play that beautiful concerto with this thing.” But that too came easily to her, and she was thrilled. And her professor encouraged and challenged her: “Haika, it’s time for you to prove your mettle,” she said. “Go on.” So, Haika Lübcke attended international master classes and was accepted to study with Michael Martin Kofler at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. She learned to play freely – free of fears that someone out there with a gold flute might still be better, more sparkling, more brilliant. And she played her way to the top.

Breathless soloist

It took just one year for her to play her way to her first job offer: starting at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz and with the Munich Symphony Orchestra, her path was to lead her via the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich – as an extra player – to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.

But one thing at a time. The first invitation to audition came from Zurich – her first ever visit to the city. No one was chosen, but on the way to her hotel she bumped into Hans Martin Ulbrich, a cor anglais player in the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich at the time and an old friend of her parents. “How beautifully you played, Haika,” he said, taking her under his umbrella and showing her around Zurich in the pouring rain. Somewhere between Kaffee Schober and the Villa Tobler, she fell in love with the city and decided to keep trying out for the Zurich ensemble until it worked. That happened on her third attempt in 2000 – when, of all times, she had just spent the night with Ulbrich’s family and breathlessly discovered that she was allergic to cats. A teaching position for piccolo at the Lucerne School of Music as well as one at the Zurich University of the Arts were to follow. And three sons: all of them are enthusiastic music students. Does their mother wish for her children to pursue the same route? “No,” she says. “There are too few really good positions. And the path is stressful, also psychologically.”

The family lives in Wollishofen on the outskirts of Zurich. Ever since they moved here seven years ago, the blackbird has also been stopping by. In view of the fact that it whistles a rare melody, it must always be the same bird. Haika takes out her piccolo and plays it again. It is difficult to practise in Wollishofen, so she alternates between the Tonhalle Maag and a studio nearby. In Amden, however, she has the time and leisure to practise the little existing solo literature for flute and piccolo. And in general, music that she likes. For example, Messiaen’s orchestral works, which imitate birdcalls for her instruments.

And she listens with her children to those bird calls that cannot be heard down in the city. That is what she wishes for them: that they learn to listen, that they have the sensual experience of making music in the midst of an ensemble. Perhaps, ultimately, also the feeling of softly sprinkled, glittering overtones.

published: 09.05.2020