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Reflections at 95 A Conversation with Walfrid Kujala

Editor | February 2020

    On February 19, 2020, Walfrid Kujala will turn 95 years old. He has had three major careers spanning decades: Chicago Symphony piccolo, Northwestern University flute professor, and writer. In the summers he continues to teach masterclasses, especially those devoted to piccolo study.

    Through the years he has had a close relationship with The Instrumentalist and Flute Talk magazines. His first article, Jawboning and the Flute Embouchure, was split into three parts and published in the September, November, and December 1971 issues of The Instrumentalist. In other articles he wrote about Advice for Future College Flutists, The Benefits of Inflation, A Brief History of Flute Design, Cleaner Technique, The Five W’s of the Major Scale, Flute Fingerings, Flutists’ Common Mistakes, High Notes, and The Kincaid Legacy among others. He also wrote performance guides for Andersen Scherzino, Bizet L’Arlesienne Suite, and Syrinx, and his article on Embellishment, Italian Style: Ornamenting the Largo movement of Vivaldi’s C Major Piccolo Concerto is the most requested article by flutist scholars. (See, Feb. 2017 when it was reprinted).
    Kujala is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he studied with Joseph Mariano with additional studies with William Kincaid, principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra and flute professor at The Curtis Institute. Many of the major orchestras in the United States are proud to have a former Kujala student in their flute and piccolo sections.

You have had successful careers as an orchestral player, university professor, and writer of articles and flute method books. How did each of these come about?
    In 1939 my dad, August Kujala, became principal bassoonist and librarian of the Huntington, West Virginia Symphony, which at that time was a semi-professional orchestra funded in part by the Federal Music Project. (We had moved to Huntington from Clarksburg, West Virginia.) Dad was part of the core orchestra of the HSO consisting of twenty-five professional musicians augmented by forty volunteer part-timers from the tri-state area (Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia). Though they made their living in other fields, a surprisingly large number of those volunteers were extremely competent, dedicated players. Luckily, a few high school students like me were invited to fill some of the positions, and I got to play second flute and piccolo, a position that I held for four years until I graduated from high school.
    The principal flutist was Parker Taylor. He was gracious enough to take me on as a pupil, and for the first time in almost three years I had the opportunity to study formally with an artist flute teacher – and also have the honor of sitting next to him in the orchestra (a remarkable privilege I would again experience eight years later in the Rochester Philharmonic with Joseph Mariano).
    Taylor was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, having studied with Leonardo De Lorenzo (who was just retiring) and his successor, Joseph Mariano. Taylor’s style of playing was a remarkable blend of the technical discipline derived from De Lorenzo and the wonderful tonal expressiveness and musicality learned from Mariano.
    Playing in the Huntington Sym-phony for four years proved to be an especially valuable experience for me. We had a new conductor, Raymond Schoewe, who was top-notch. He had resigned from the Cincinnati Sym-phony first violin section to take the Huntington Symphony conducting post. He had also previously played in the Boston Symphony after having graduated from the New England Conservatory. Schoewe’s concert programming was wide-ranging, and as I look back on it now, I am utterly amazed at the enormity of the symphonic repertoire that we covered. It laid a solid foundation for my future career as a professional orchestral player in the Rochester Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Grant Park Symphony.
    As far as my teaching career was concerned, I had taught some private lessons during my student days in high school and at the Eastman School of Music, but it was not until my 1949-54 Rochester Philharmonic stint (after having served in the army for three years during World War II) that I had the marvelous opportunity of honing my teaching skills in the Eastman Preparatory Department. Most of my students there were middle school and high school age, but I also taught a few Eastman freshmen and sophomores flute majors when Mariano’s teaching schedule became too much for him to handle.
    I took a special interest in helping students improve their embouchure control, using a more scientific approach than was typically taught in the teaching literature of that time. This eventually became the basis for my very first book, published in 1970, The Flutist’s Progress. That is when I began to take my new writing career more seriously. Many of my articles in The Instrumentalist, Flute Talk, and Flutist Quarterly have continued this quest, and I am continuing to research other topics for possible publication.
    I wrote all four of my books primarily with my Northwestern students and summer masterclass students in the back of my mind. The Orchestral Techniques – An Audition Guide book represents my philosophy that a thorough working knowledge of the orchestral repertoire for flute and piccolo is just as important as the solo repertoire for those instruments. The scale and arpeggio material in the Flutist’s Vade Mecum kept growing steadily over the years, so The Articulate Flutist actually represents the overflow of much of that material.

What was your audition for the Chicago Symphony like?
    Wow! How drastically things have changed since my audition for the Chicago Symphony 66 years ago. Nowadays we take it for granted that virtually all current vacancies in American and Canadian professional symphony orchestras are listed in the International Musician, which is the monthly journal of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). However, that did not become standard policy until about 1965. Before then all of us aspiring musicians had to keep our detective skills highly polished to find out about possible vacancies.
    Conductors of the so-called Big Five orchestras, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Orch-estras, were very much in demand as guest conductors for lower tier orchestras. They would often look upon these orchestras like farm teams where they could spot talented up-and-coming players for future recruitment. They also relied on well-known contractors like Joe Fabbroni, who was Fritz Reiner’s agent in New York, for recommendations.
    Conductors of many lower tier orchestras would visit conservatories like Juilliard, Curtis, New England, Cleveland Institute, Peabody, and Eastman to hold auditions. For instance, in the spring of 1943, Hans Kindler, conductor of the National Symphony, visited Eastman to hold auditions for the NSO. I auditioned just for the experience and was pleasantly surprised to receive in the mail a contract for second flute, which I had to turn down because of my impending military draft. This whole scenario should give one a clearer appreciation of the dilemma facing aspiring symphony players in the thirties, forties and fifties.
    In 1954, my direct knowledge of a vacancy in the Chicago Symphony came about by sheer chance because the CSO’s new music director Fritz Reiner had offered Mariano the principal flute position. Mariano, much to everyone’s surprise, turned it down. Mariano told me that it was highly probable that there would be two more vacancies in the flute section and that I should apply.
    Here was the frustrating thing. The auditions for all eleven of the CSO’s vacancies (almost all of them due to firings!) were to be held in New York in January during Reiner’s mid-season break. (His home was in Westport, Connecticut, within commuting distance of New York.) The CSO’s regular personnel manager had very little to do with audition arrangements. Instead, all of the auditions were set up by Joe Fabbroni, Reiner’s New York agent. I was advised to call him, and he turned me down flatly.
    I then asked Erich Leinsdorf, the Rochester Philharmonic’s music director (and my boss), to call Fabbroni to recommend me. (Leinsdorf had known Fabbroni quite well during Leinsdorf’s previous years as music director of the Metropolitan Opera.) Leinsdorf asked me to listen in while he phoned Fabbroni, and I was totally surprised to hear his effusive compliments to Fabbroni about my beautiful playing.
    That did it! Fabbroni called me back to set an audition time for the afternoon of January 11, 1954 at the New York City Center Theatre on 55th Street. Reiner was surprisingly friendly, and the audition went well. I began with my solo piece, the Bach B Minor Suite, after which Reiner proceeded to pull out some first flute parts from his briefcase for me to play. They were all standard works. No surprises. (He was famous for pulling out unexpected, tricky excerpts in auditions, and of course, there were no pre-announced audition repertoire lists in those antediluvian days.)
    After I finished my audition, much to my surprise, Reiner immediately began talking about contract terms. He offered me a choice of either assistant principal flute or principal piccolo. Having already garnered much piccolo experience in the Rochester Phil, I felt it was the opportune time to widen my horizons, so I opted for the assistant principal flute position. Reiner subsequently engaged Ben Gaskins as principal piccolo. Ben had already built a distinguished career as the former piccoloist of the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. For the next three years the CSO flute section consisted of Ernest Liegl, principal flute, Ralph Johnson, second flute, Ben Gaskins, principal piccolo, and me as assistant principal flute.

How did you eventually become principal piccolo?
    It’s an extraordinarily sad story, but this is how it happened. The Chicago Symphony program for the weekend of March 28, 1957, with Reiner conducting, consisted of the Goldmark In Springtime Overture, the Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead, and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Rudolph Serkin as soloist. Only three flutes were needed for this program, so I had the week off. Friday morning, March 29th, Ben Gaskins phoned me, and in an almost sobbing tone of voice as if in dire pain, said, “Wally, I know you’ve got the week off, but would you mind doing me a great favor and sub for me at this afternoon’s concert? I’ve got a really bad toothache, and my dentist says he can treat it this afternoon.”
    I was glad to help out and drove to Orchestra Hall early enough to review and practice the third flute and piccolo parts to the Goldmark and Rachmaninoff. (I had listened to one of the earlier rehearsals that week, so I was already familiar with Reiner’s tempos and interpretation.) There were only two flutes required for the Brahms concerto, but I stayed to listen to Rudolph Serkin who was one of my favorite pianists.
    When I returned home, I anxiously called Ben’s house to see if he was feeling better, His wife answered the phone, crying and barely able to talk, and told me that Ben had committed suicide. What a terrible shock that was! For the remaining few weeks of the 1956-57 season it was my responsibility to cover all the piccolo parts, and then Reiner appointed me as Ben Gaskins’ official replacement.

Your performances of the Vivaldi Piccolo Concertos are legendary. How did you prepare the ornamentation of the Largo movement?
    I did a lot of reading in my preparation. Some of the sources I used include: Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music by Frederick Neumann (Princeton Univ. Press), A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music by Robert Donington (Scribers), On Playing the Flute by J.J. Quantz (Schirmer), Chapters 13 and 14. The opening slow movements of Tele-mann’s Twelve Methodical Sonatas for Flute and Continuo also have very instructive examples of extempore variations. The Minuet movement of J.S. Bach’s C Major Sonata also benefits from extempore variations as demonstrated so beautifully on the recorder by Michala Petri in her recently released recording of the J. S. Bach sonatas.

How did you select students while teaching at Northwestern?
    Northwestern has always had a strong pool of applicants in all instrument categories, and a music admissions department that does an excellent job in recruiting applicants. It was always challenging for me to rank applicants fairly in such a manner that we could look forward to seeing an accepted student complete the four-year undergraduate program with a high degree of success. All applicants had to have a high school grade-point average that met Northwestern University’s high academic standards, and on a few occasions, I would be disappointed if an applicant with a very high audition score was automatically rejected by the university admissions office due to a mediocre high school grade-point average.
    In auditions I listened for a good sense of musical phrasing, attractive tone quality, strong technique, and above all, a good sense of rhythm. Careless attention to rhythm is often a reliable predictor of poor musicianship and limited chances for future professional success.

How did you structure your four-year undergraduate curriculum?
    I always tried to strike a good balance between traditional repertoire and new music. Back in 1973 I constructed a basic curriculum design that was divided into four parts. List A was the standard list of 34 flute solos, List B had 38 solos (including piccolo) that a student was encouraged to explore, and List C contained 51 more solos (including piccolo) that could be considered for adding on to post-graduate recital programs. By 2013 I had added 3 and subtracted 2 solos from List A. For List B, I added 20 solos and subtracted 3, and for List C I added 18 and subtracted 6.
    There is not enough room here to post a detailed list of all these solos, but I would like to share my preferences for etudes (which constituted my list D): Andersen (mainly op. 33 and 15), Karg-Elert 30 Caprices, Genzmer Neuzeitlich Etuden (2 vol.), Casterede 12 Etudes, Bonsel 8 Concert Etudes, Bitsch 12 Etudes, and selected Marcel Moyse and Robert Dick
    By the way, I am a strong believer in the importance of recording students’ lessons so that they have the immediate opportunity of reviewing their performances and my comments. This tradition goes all the way back to the days of cassette tapes, around 1987, and through the CD era to 2012, when I retired from Northwestern. I would always hand over the recording to the student at the end of each lesson.