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Hollywood Flutist Louise DiTullio

Victoria Jicha | April 2011


   Legend is the word that best describes Louise DiTullio. Although we are of a similar age, I have been hearing about her since I was in high school. She literally grew up in Hollywood recording studios, and while I was a teenager in Oregon struggling through Andersen etudes, she was recording in California with Igor Stravinsky.
   The DiTullio family has been represented in orchestras in Southern California for many decades. Louise’s father, Joseph, and two uncles were string players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Another brother was a pianist who took up the oboe in the army. When he got out he played in the Dallas Symphony with Antol Dorati and eventually returned to California to do some subbing in the L.A. Philharmonic.”
   In this musical environment Louise and her sisters thrived, eventually forming a flute, cello, piano trio with their father. “I started piano when I was four, and I loved music. It was in the house, and I never heard music played badly. I used to play under the piano while my dad’s string quartet rehearsed. I wanted to be a cellist, but there were already three great cellists in the family.”
   It all began for Louise in kindergarten when she heard a recording that demonstrated the instruments. “The piccolo playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ was the stand-out for me. Then just before my 12th birthday, my dad came home one day with a Haynes flute and an old friend of his to teach me. He reasoned that, at my age, I was too old to begin a string instrument, and he didn’t want me to have to scrape reeds. A brass instrument was out completely of the question. That left the flute. I took to it like a duck takes to water.
   “One month later I was playing ‘Panis Angelicus’ with the school choir in a variety show. The friend of my father’s was sort of an old-fashioned flutist, and it soon became evident that I wasn’t going to learn very much from him, so my father started working with me on the side. One day he asked his friend if I should be learning to play with vibrato, and ‘It’ll just happen’ was the response. Not to be dissuaded, Daddy took me into his studio the next day, picked up his cello, and played a long tone for me. He said, ‘Listen to this. What do you have to do to make a flute sound like this?’ I listened, and a week later I played with vibrato for an amazed teacher.
   “Because the teacher was a friend of Dad’s it was difficult to change teachers, so I really taught myself with with help from my father for a year and a half. I worked out of Taffanel & Gaubert’s The Complete Method. Daddy had access to all of the great musicians in the studios, and whenever he heard something lacking in my playing, he would go to the flutist at the studio who he felt did that particular thing the best, pick their brains, and then come home and work with me. Daddy helped me to set my embouchure and was the one who got me using a mirror to see what I was doing.
   “My father was an excellent cello teacher, and he basically had more influence on me than any of my flute teachers, although Sheridan Stokes, with whom I studied for two years, gave me what I needed to play the flute well. He was a wonderful flute teacher.
   “Sheridan had a great teacher by the name of Haakon Bergh, who came to California from New York to be the principal flutist of the RKO Orchestra. Bergh had a very inquisitive mind and was extremely interested in how the air stream works. Sheridan studied with Bergh and passed that information on to me – I was 13 and Sheridan was 18 at the time. When Sheridan left for the Army, I started studying directly with Bergh.
   “He would conduct experiments in his garage where he would direct the air at different places on the headjoint and using various air speeds. As the result of these experiments with air useage and what he was teaching, Sheridan and I, a couple of teenagers, became really good flute players after working with him. Flute playing style was moving away from that fast nanny goat vibrato style, things were changing over to a more modern approach, and we were learning to play in tune.
   “My dad used to tease me saying, ‘All you have to do is hang that flute out the window and wiggle your fingers.’ Thanks to Haaken and what he taught, Sheridan and I brought an entirely different sound standard to the studios. We did pretty much all of the studio work, side by side, for darn near 20 years.”
   Not only was she doing a lot of studio work at that time; she also was making history as part of the orchestra that made The Original Jacket Collection of recordings, Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky.
   “I graduated from high school in 1958, and I don’t think it was much more than a year or two after that, that I found myself playing for Igor Stravinsky. Robert Kraft had as much to do with those recordings as Stravinsky did. Those recordings are a part of history and still live on. They have been remastered into a CD collection that is still available. Some of Stravinsky’s works were also recorded in New York, and I believe some were recorded in Toronto. I basically played first flute for everything done in Hollywood except Petrouchka and Rite of Spring. I remember playing principal on Symphony in 3 Movements and Noah’s Ark, which was new then."
   Hitting the highpoint of your career in your early 20s is quite a feat. She explains: “The contractor for those recordings liked to bring in new talent, and if you were new to town and could play, he would hire you. He was aware of me as I was growing up. It was a great time for me. There wasn’t a lot of competition then. You could get into the community orchestras as well.”
   In fact, she had so much experience that soon she was auditioning for the L.A. Philharmonic. “I was hired as assistant principal by Georg Solti, who came to the orchestra for three weeks that fall. He was supposed to return in the spring, but the orchestra hired Zubin Mehta as the assistant conductor without Solti’s consent, and Solti never came back.
   “George Drexler was the principal flute then, but it was Roger Stevens who had prepared me for the audition. I had enormous respect for George Drexler, but I wasn’t his student. Sid Zeitlin had been the assistant principal before me, but he had gone into the army, and during that period of time Drexler had a heart attack and was gone for quite a while. Roger Stevens had in his contract that if anything happened to the principal, he would move into the principal flute position as the substitute until the position was filled. When Zeitlin got out of the army, he won the principal flute job with the Seattle Symphony, so he did not return to California, and the L.A. Philharmonic had a real vacancy. I got the job.
   “This was before the days of orchestral excerpt audition lists. I remember playing the Paganini 24th Caprice for the audition. Solti loved it. It did get his attention. Then he asked to hear something more traditional. As luck would have it, I had just performed the Mozart G-Major concerto the week before, and my sister who was accompanying me had the music with her, so I played Mozart.
   “My uncle, Kurt Reher, was the principal cellist at the time and happened to be on the audition committee. Later he reported to my Dad that Solti commented that he expected to find a fine flutist in Los Angeles, but he hadn’t expected to find a genius. I don’t claim to be a genius, but I really did play a good audition.
   “What I remember most about Solti is that he would stand on the podium during rehearsals and give the orchestra a lengthy string of directions from his notes before he had ever even heard a note. I remember turning to Roger Stevens and saying, ‘Why doesn’t he just let us play and see if we need those instructions?’

Six Years in the L.A. Philharmonic
   DiTullio did not stay with the Philharmonic very long. “Roger’s contract was the problem, and I was just the kid in the section. I was forced to double 2nd flute parts, and that’s pretty much all I did that first year. I finally went to management and said, ‘I have knit three sweaters in four months of your time. Are you paying me to knit or play the flute?’ That took a lot of guts for me; I’m really not a very assertive person. The management went to Roger to resolve the issue, and the bottom line is that they put me in the piccolo position. I had almost no piccolo training and didn’t even have a good instrument.
   “Looking back, it was kind of fun. I do remember asking Roger not to tell me where the hard parts were. Ignorance is bliss. He once planted the seeds about the 2-bar lick with the E flat clarinet in Don Juan, which apparently caused him angst when he was playing piccolo. I don’t think I would have had a problem with it if he hadn’t pointed it out. Once he mentioned it, however, I always had a problem there. After that I told him to let me find my own problems.”
   Within weeks of starting with the Philharmonic, DiTullio encountered Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. George Szell arrived to guest conduct the work, which he had just conducted in San Francisco. The performance there was such an unhappy experience that reports of it actually made the Los Angeles Times. Everyone in the L.A. orchestra was wondering how it would go. DiTullio remembers, “Szell arrived my third week on the job, and Tchaikvsky’s 4th was on the program. There weren’t any excerpt books in those days, so you just learned what was put in front of you. Meredith Wilson, composer of The Music Man and former New York Philharmonic piccoloist, had season tickets to L.A. Philharmonic concerts, and his seats were directly behind the critic for the L.A. Times. Meredith told me years later that after I played that solo he tapped the critic on the shoulder and whispered, ‘That deserves a mention in the paper.’ So my name was in the paper three weeks into the job.

The DiTullios in the Studios
   Like most of her family before her, DiTullio left the Philharmonic to work in the studios, and her list of television and movie soundtracks is over 1,100. ( Movies in which she can be heard include A River Runs Through It, Dances With Wolves, Rudy, Hook, the Indiana Jones films, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just to name a few.
    She comes from a musical dynasty that rivals the J.S. Bach family, spanning more than 75 years and two continents. Her mother’s family comes from Italy, where her grandfather, Fortunato DeRubertis, was the concertmaster of the LaScala opera. Her grandmother, Maria, was a pianist and teacher. Fortunato had two brothers, Oreste and Nazarene, who were also professional musicians.
   Fortunato came to America in 1909, settling in Kansas City, Missouri. Unfortunately he died in 1916, leaving a wife and 11 children; one of them was DiTullio’s mother Laura. The eldest of the 11 children, Vincent, helped support the family playing French horn, and moved the family to California in 1919. He eventually became a member of the MGM studio orchestra.
    Louise’s father, cellist Joseph DiTullio, started his first DiTullio Trio with his brothers, violinist Adolph and pianist Mario, when they were 10, 12, and 14 years old. Joseph, Adolph, and another brother, Justin, all played in the L.A. Philharmonic at one time or another, leaving to work in the recording studios, which in those days had full symphony orchestras under contract. Mario, the pianist, would eventually take up the oboe and play in the Dallas Symphony under Antol Dorati.
    “My mother’s oldest sister was married to a clarinetist in Chicago. They had a son, Vincent De Rosa, who became the preeminent French hornist in Los Angeles. Having grown up in Chicago, he was good friends with Ray Still, and remains so to this day. Vincent De Rosa became principal horn in the 20th Century Fox Orchestra. After the studio contract era he became the first-call free-lance French horn player for most of the major film composers, and his sound became the signature horn sound for the movies for decades. He also taught horn at U.S.C. for many years.
“Another one of my mother’s sisters had a son, Henry Sigismonti, who played principal French horn in the New Orleans Philharmonic and later became co-principal in the L.A. Philharmonic under Mehta. He also eventually went into the studios.”
I asked if working in the studios paid better then than the Philharmonic did, and DiTullio responded, “I’m sure it was more lucrative, but it was also because there was this incredible music being made in the studios. Talking movies developed at about the same time that many Europeans came to the United States to escape the Nazis and World War II. These orchestras were very popular with the symphony musicians from Europe. This was still true to a certain extend when I was coming up the ranks.”

The Move North
    Louise and her husband, trumpeter Burnette Dillon, now live outside of Eugene, Oregon on the McKenzie River. Her husband had been on the faculty of the University of Oregon in his early years, and he had a lot of friends there. “We started going up to Oregon once or twice a year. The first trip was in the summer, and Burnette asked me if I would like to fish. I had never been fishing but was willing to try. The river was so gorgeous. Forget fishing. I was just as happy enjoying the ride, floating down the river.
    “So we returned to the same area several years in a row, and one year the river guide, who by now had become a friend, was not free so we went with another guide, who had a second business selling real estate in the McKenzie Valley.
    “By the end of the trip we had decided to get a place. First we rented, then we bought a small place, and then we bought four acres with 218 feet of river frontage.There was a little cinder block house on the property that was an absolute wreck, and an elderly man lived there. The day before we arrived to look at the property, his family had made the provision that whoever bought the property would let the gentleman stay on in the cinder block house.
    “We had no intention of moving to Oregon permanently at that time, so the deal was perfect. Someone would be on the property to keep an eye on things. A couple of years later before President Clinton left office, he federalized the waterways with ecology in mind, and nobody knew exactly what that was going to mean. The law was supposed to change the riparian zone for riverfront property the following January. Rules regarding the set-back of structures on land from the water’s edge could possibly change from what was then 50 feet to a possible 150 – 200 feet. We had approximately 5½ months to act before the law took effect, so we designed and built a beautiful house in those 5½ months.
    “These circumstances forced us to make retirement and career decisions several years too early. We loved our home in Glendale and our careers were still going strong. We had no intention of retiring, yet our home was now in Oregon.
    “My husband was the busiest classical trumpet player (outside the L.A. Philharmonic) in the Los Angeles area. He was principal trumpet in the Pacific and Pasadena Symphonies, as well as the (now defunct) Opera Pacific and Los Angeles Opera and all the ballets that came to town. He also did a lot of studio work. He had been the principal trumpet for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for several years. He is a little younger than me, so if it has been difficult for me it has been worse for him. He dropped everything but Opera Pacific because he loves opera, and it has a short schedule.
    “At first my husband drove back and forth from Oregon for work, as did I. We stayed with family when we were in Los Angeles. One day we were both on the I-5 highway going in different directions; he was going south to L.A., and I was headed north for home. We were talking to each other on our cell phones when we passed each other on the highway. 
    “Burnette finally bit the bullet and stopped playing in L.A. altogether. I haven’t stopped working, but have been letting it fade away. I kept the Pacific Symphony for another 3 seasons and still play in the Pasadena Symphony. I have continued to work for a few composers, including John Williams and Danny Elfman. I have calls on the books for movies with them in the spring and am playing this year’s Academy Awards.

The Hollywood Flute
    “Nancy Andrew is responsible for my having made the CD The Hollywood Flute. She became the flute teacher at the University of Oregon at about the time we first moved to Oregon. She had a Flute Day and invited me to do a masterclass for it. She also suggested that it would be fun to do a presentation focusing on the movies I had done. We pulled together clips of film scores with some of my favorite prominent flute solos and some for which I had interesting stories to tell about the recording sessions. She had me do a similar presentation when she was program chair for the Albuquerque convention in 2008.”
    The recording includes solos from Hook, Dances with Wolves, Charlotte’s Web, Sleeping with the Enemy, Rudy, and three other original works not associated with film. One of those is Laurence Rosenthal’s unaccompanied piece The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
    “He came to me one day in the 1970s with a piece he had written for his 16-year-old daughter as a Christmas present. He said he thought I might like to have it. When I was putting the program together for The Hollywood Flute recording I called him and asked if I could do the first recording and he agreed.
    “When I called him again a year later to get his address so I could mail him a copy of the finished CD, he had completely forgotten about it. After hearing it he called and said he was thrilled with it. I didn’t think to ask but still wonder if I am the only flutist he honored with this composition or if there are others who are playing it. I encourage flutists to acquire the music ( I have had wonderful feedback about the piece.”
    The Hollywood Flute was a way to leave something for my children, family, friends and a few fans out there who actually know who I am. It was inspiration for me to keep practicing and playing. I look back on the experience and laugh. I have made other CDs in my life, but other people took care of all the business stuff. All I had to do was show up and play. This was a whole different deal. While I had producers and lots of help, much of the work still fell on me. Burnette was really supportive, but he did get aggravated with the amount of time and attention I spent on it. Be careful of what you ask for. ‘I think I’ll make a CD’ takes a whole lot more time, energy, and money than you might think. However, I am very proud of it and happy that I did it. I’m told it came very close to a Grammy nomination. Close but no cigar – it’s a good thing I hate cigars!