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Just Another Day at the Office

Mark Sparks | February 2013

    Returning home from the concert hall, I carry the music for the next week. As I place the music on my stand, I realize my principal flute part is just one piece of a musical puzzle that is considered by most to be a masterpiece. This week I play two works on the program, Beethoven Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale,” and Debussy’s La Mer.
    I reflect that it is another week playing great repertoire in a great orchestra. I have grown used to it, but I do not take it for granted. As a young flutist, I remember wondering what life would be like if my dream of becoming a principal flutist ever came true.
     After all the auditions, competitions and trials, what happens to a flutist in a busy orchestra? Is it just more pressure week after week? Is it a boring musical desert, where all the works are simply repeated ad infinitum? Does life in its triviality and complexity overwhelm you to the point where the job is an inconvenience? Do the politics and personalities get so heavy that you can’t enjoy the music anymore? The answer is, for my part, a resounding no.
    As I touch the parts, I feel something magical. This is music which has influenced the feelings of millions of people all over the world, and it is the bread and butter of orchestral life. These works are lifetime friends, and I feel it is worth spending a lifetime trying to perfect this material. I enjoy the feel of the paper. With the older parts that the St. Louis Symphony often provides, I love the scent of the music, musky like an old dollar bill. Some of the parts are really old; they have been used by the symphony flutists here since the founding of the orchestra in 1880, when some of the “old warhorses” were brand new. Sometimes I see the handwriting of my predecessors, notes taken during rehearsals stretching back over a century, for performances conducted by some of the greatest conductors in the history of modern classical music. I dare not erase these mementos. I reflect, with a nudge of responsibility, it is not really all about the conductors. The performances this week are actually under the care of the individuals in the orchestra, because no matter the conductor’s interpretation, we must play the notes.
    Over the weekend, I practice all the passages, even some of the apparently simple ones, to make sure I can play all the notes correctly. I enjoy the preparation process. Sometimes I pull out a favorite recording, just to hear how a passage was recorded for history by a great player. For example, I like my old Cleveland Orchestra recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 conducted by George Szell. Maurice Sharp, legendary Cleveland Orchestra principal flute, perfectly captured the purity of the bird call in the second movement. His tone is clear as crystal, and I wonder over and over at the resonance and opulent color of clarinetist Robert Marcellus’ tone. The winds at that time had such a special blend. I recall the orchestration and sound of each passage, making a small note of anything I feel will be helpful in rehearsal. Sometimes I consult a score for this.
    Often I work hard for a particular nuance that I feel is crucial. For example, I am struck by how the absence of a crescendo for the first flute entrance in the third movement of the Pastorale is so meaningful.

Beethoven Sym. No 6, Mvt 3, m. 8–16

    It makes the phrase sound so easy-going and cheerful, yet it is so hard to do really well, with good intonation and rhythm. I try to concentrate on raising the air column by moving the lower lip slightly forward as I ascend, keeping a small embouchure aperture and good air pressure. Also it is important to not rush the eighths and use just a little vibrato here and there. This week is about getting back to basics. After playing at the extremes for the last week during performances of Mahler’s monumental 3rd Symphony, I want to focus on relaxation, quality of sound and proper intonation. I decide to make every note for the rest of my practice session as beautiful as possible, no exceptions allowed.
    It is the morning of the first rehearsal. Our conductor for the week is the venerable Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, a Spanish musician who brings great commitment and vision to all works he takes under his baton. He can sometimes be a bit dictatorial and grouchy. Entering my studio in the hours before the rehearsal, I feel a tiny twinge of trepidation. There is a fear of playing a wrong note or of remembering a passage incorrectly or playing inappropriately. My survival instinct sends me a little reminder not to be lazy about anything this week.
    I warm up carefully with some slow scales, maybe some long tones, testing the dynamics and then look over the music carefully. Sometimes it is important to put the flute down and go through things mentally. I realize that my colleagues rely on what I do, as I rely on them. A passage carelessly played or unprepared in rehearsals brings the whole group down.
    I head over to the Powell Symphony Hall. It was renovated for the St. Louis Symphony in the seventies and has a special place in my heart because I played in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and attended concerts there as a teen. Every time I enter the building I am flooded with memories from the sight, smell, and atmosphere of the old building. I like to arrive early; there is a mysterious energy on the empty stage. The hall is supposedly haunted, so maybe that is what I feel. Sometimes I play in the hall alone, contemplating the history of the place, and just enjoying the warm sound. As I go through a few passages, I recall my teacher and predecessor in this job, Jacob Berg, an artist of great integrity. I remember his thoughtful and gentle approach to the music, and his consummate knowledge of the score, and his absolute respect for the sound. (You can hear Jacob Berg on all of the recordings by the St. Louis Symphony from 1969-1999).
    Finally the orchestra is gathered and the Maestro appears. After a short introduction, we launch into La Mer. At the first rehearsal, the orchestra is like a giant sponge. We learn the conductor’s nuances and read his style. After playing through a large section he goes back, working efficiently, sometimes pushing hard for a certain effect. On this visit he is very gentile in his style. His beautifully accented English and great charm hold sway over the orchestra, and right away, a feeling of artistic kinship arises. Wonderful things can happen in this environment. Thousands of decisions are made instantaneously, millions of compromises, accommodations, and negotiations over pitch, sound and rhythm occur without discussion. It is the miracle of true music-making.
    In the rather awkward and heavily-scored moment at rehearsal 33 in the second movement, the flutes take the theme in unison but usually are covered by the rest of the orchestra.

Debussy La Mer, Mvt 2, Fl. 1, 2, m. 33-34

    Maestro is eager for us to emerge in the texture and asks the rest of the orchestra to play softly, a rather rare occurrence at this spot in most performances. Second flutist Jennifer Nitchman and I joke: “It is fine if the flutes are always covered, because there are no flutists in the world who can make this passage sound beautiful.” It is difficult for sure. The D# has to be resonant and clear, and flutists must work to clarify the articulations, which tend to be blurred in this register. I practice it slurred, developing the most resonant tone possible, then try to match the articulated quality to that. I tongue the notes somewhat further back in my mouth, just behind the hard palate. We belt it out as best we can and the director seems satisfied.
    Jennifer Nitchman is my flute soul-mate. It is a great luxury to sit next to such an aware and skilled player. We do not discuss many things about playing. She seems to channel my playing and understands what I am going to do, and what she should do to fit in. I also understand what she is going to do. Good chemistry, I suppose.
    In the famous passage for the flute and oboe at rehearsal 54 in the final movement of La Mer, the conductor wants some very special things to happen. As we approach the passage I can tell it is going to be an ordeal. “This is the climax of the entire piece,” he says and glances towards the heavens. “What an inspiration this passage is! It is so imaginative! It must be… perfect.” He stretches the tempo to the breaking point, his beat giving a mere impression of the actual rhythm. What he wants is challenging for the breathing, and I feel as if my ribs will crack with the exertion. He rehearses the passage quite a few times, first, to make sure that we can repeatedly do it the way he wants, and next, just to make sure we really get the point. On any given day these moments can occur in rehearsal. Suddenly you are tested to your limits, and all the training pays off. This moment in the concerts will take both mental and physical preparation. Interestingly, by the third concert on Sunday, it has become fairly easy.

La Mer, 3rd mvt., 7 measures after #54
    After a coffee break and a quick game of pool in the lounge, we rehearse the Pastorale Symphony of Beethoven. What a simple and pure joy to hear this uplifting opening phrase played by the strings. Then there is the familiar thrill of traversing the exposed solo at the end of the first movement.

Pastorale Sym., mvt. 1, fl. 1, m. 498-502

    It is so deceptively simple yet so treacherous; ten different ways to mess that one up. I wonder how a brief moment could contain so much focused attention, but that is really the essence of performing a great work of art. The whole world in a single flash. Staying in that moment is so important yet so hard.
    At the end of the second movement we play straight through the Nightingale bird calls (shown below), carefully gauging all aspects of the ensemble with the clarinet and oboe parts. It is easy to go flat in pitch on the f-natural trills. Just before the passage I always push my headjoint in just a bit to get an advantage. My colleagues and I push each other’s skills as far as we dare, while still accommodating one another. It is great fun. I try to read the Maestro’s reactions to my playing, but get nothing from him. Maybe he is thinking things over. Then we are on into the rest of the piece. 

Beethoven, Pastorale, Movement 2, m. 129-135 in 2nd mvt., fl. 1, oboe 1, cl. 1

    After the rehearsal, he approaches me with a rhetorical question. “Is it necessary to make the solo so complicated? Why do you change the dynamic so much?” Then says, “Of course, you are the one who must play the solo and be comfortable and I do not want to get in the way.” I get the message, however, that he wanted to deliver privately, and not in the context of the rehearsal. That explains the poker-faced reaction on the podium. His message is “It is simple music so play it straightforwardly and stop messing around with it.” I like this approach. I had clearly over-thought the solo in this case. I responded that “it is not necessary to play it any particular way except the way you want it. I will play it more directly, and then we will see where we stand.”
    At the next rehearsal I receive a little smile with a wink and a nod for approval. In the end, it is not this which is so satisfying. It is the experience of all three performances and rehearsals. The feeling came as the orchestra settled deep into the pieces, playing our best and not afraid to test the limits. This challenged me and made me reach for something deeper. It is about living with the pieces. It is the way the conductor’s interpretation and the orchestra’s performance developed throughout the week into a grand, natural, and beautiful statement of the works. The sheer joy of playing this music will stay with me always.
    These sentiments are not unusual. They have been experienced by myriad musicians over the years. In the midst of all the gloom and doom about the decline of symphony orchestras, and the difficulties awaiting young flutists after college, I would simply remind you that you can live the dream. It is alive and well, and young musicians need to carry the torch forward.
    I suppose the essential question is whether “your goals can match any version of reality?” The answer is yes, but it is not always easy. It is what you make it to be. Certainly there is repetition, orchestra politics, and plenty of pressure. Relationships with colleagues can be strained for any number of reasons, and at times the chaos of life, illness, personal difficulties, money concerns, and fatigue, all can conspire to obscure the dream and make the job feel like a chore. These things fade, however, in comparison to the greatness of the art form. It is a rare and fragile privilege to make a living playing great music. Try to remember every day that the simple joy of playing the flute, crafting a phrase, and playing some of the best music ever created can be a solid foundation for a joyful and fulfilling artistic life.