John Wion is a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, who prefers to stay out of the limelight. He is less comfortable with center stage than in the opera pit of the New York City Opera, where he served as principal flutist from 1965 to 2002. In 2007 he received the National Flute Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Wion was born in Brazil, although he grew up in Australia and now lives in New York City with his wife Vicky (above).
“I had triple citizenship because my American father was working in Brazil when I was born, but I was naturalized as an Australian when he became an Australian citizen.” His father played cornet in the town band, and his Australian mother played the piano, but never in public because of severe performance anxiety.
“Neither of them played music when I was growing up. I came to the flute via the Australian primary school fife and drum band program. My two older brothers had both played fife in the band, and I wanted to be like them.
“The real turning point for me came when a professional flute player visited the school. He arrived with a real flute, not a tin fife, and told us that his flute was for sale. I ran home after school and said to mother, ‘Quick, quick, get on the phone.’ It is funny now, but I truly assumed that every other kid in the band was doing exactly the same thing.
“Of course she just told me to wait until my father got home from work. In fact, my father went to a music store and asked them about flutes and teachers. As a result of that, he took me out of school one day to go to the Conservatoire, where I played my little fife. The flute teacher there was sufficiently enthusiastic and arranged for one of the teachers to take me on as a student. The teacher also arranged for me to get a flute, and that’s how I started taking lessons.
“Clearly I must have had talent, but being a professional flutist was not one of my goals at that point. I was much more interested in playing sports than flute. The flute was something I did because my mother took me for the lessons, and I was the one who got to go to the opera with her.”
In fact, Wion’s connection to the opera world started long before his association with the New York City Opera. “I don’t see fate in any of this, but while I was at the University in Australia, my second-study or minor instrument was percussion, and my very first job was playing snare drum for the stage band of La Boheme. Of course, I didn’t know anything about opera at the time; it was all sort of a lark. I got to be on stage, dressed up, waiting until somebody gave the downbeat. Then I played while walking on one side of the stage and off the other. It wasn’t until the last performance that I actually went out front and listened to the rest of the opera. Of course, La Boheme is such a tearjerker, that I was hooked immediately.”
“Growing up with an Australian mother and an American father, I always had this little connection to America. If Australians had any ambition in those days, they went to London to study. One of my fellow students at the University acquired the Decca recording of Julius Baker playing the Bach Sonatas. I had never heard anything like it. We were totally isolated in Australia then, and there were no flute recordings or visiting flutists. My flute teacher, Leslie Barklamb, played without vibrato in the old-fashioned German/English style, so when I heard the Baker record, I was just blown away. This was in the 1950s, and I got a tape recorder and tried to sound like him, to no avail. I had to study with Baker, so I started writing letters to American foundations, looking for travel grants. Of course, they all came back, one after the other. There was no money for that kind of thing. I was heartbroken, and basically gave up.
“During my final year at school, I was hired to play a four-month season with the New York City Ballet while they were touring Australia. In the course of the tour, I was befriended by one of the male dancers, Roy Tobias, who had a wooden flute and wanted to know how to play it. We struck up a friendship, and at the end of the season, he said that if I could just get to New York City, I could stay with him until I got settled. This was 1958; there were no jets. The trip would take about 40 hours of flying, and it was very expensive. I had no money, but I sold everything I owned, left school, got on a plane, and went to New York.
“I didn’t think of it as gutsy at the time, but I must have been a bit cocky to undertake the trip. I have two sons, and when they were 21, I would look at them and say to myself, “I can’t believe that I just got on a plane and flew to New York when I was their age. I don’t think I even knew where New York was at the time.”
When he arrived, the first thing Wion had to do was acquire a metal flute. “I had a wooden Rudall Carte. I wasn’t sure where to start looking, and Roy suggested the phone book. That is where I found Al Weatherly, who would become a good friend. His ad in the Yellow Pages read Flutes are my Business and gave a 6th Avenue address. I went down there, presented myself, and he pulled out all of these flutes and started playing them. In those days you only had two choices, Powell or Haynes. My mouth just fell open. It was the best flute playing I had ever heard, and I thought, ‘He’s just the repairman.’” Wion bought a used Haynes from Weatherly. A few years later Weatherly fixed up Wion’s wooden Rudall Carte. “I just couldn’t afford to keep it. I sent it back to Australia, and my mother sold it for the cost of the overhaul.”
The next thing to do was to contact Julius Baker. “I asked Roy how to get in touch with Baker, and again he suggested the phone book. I thought, ‘Julius Baker would be in the phone book?’ You have to understand that Baker was like a God to me. Of course, he was in the phone book. In those days there were no answering machines; important people had answering services, so when I called, the operator took my name and number and said that Baker would call me back. I thought, ‘Right. Julius Baker is going to call me back.’ Well, he did – about an hour later.”
Baker invited Wion to his apartment, and it never occurred to Wion to take his flute. “He was only about 10 minutes away from where I was staying. I arrived and there he was – this big-chested guy with big hands. He looked at me and asked, ‘Where’s your flute?” I had to run back to Roy’s apartment to get it. When I got back to Baker’s apartment I had my first lesson. It was beyond exciting. I was just in awe.
“His sound in person was not the same as on that Bach record, of course. In those days he didn’t do much live playing. He was freelancing, mostly doing jingles in recording studios. The only place to hear him live was at Bach Aria concerts. He had a golden sound that just floated out of him.
“When I arrived in New York, I didn’t really have an embouchure. I produced C above the staff and notes above that C by closing off my throat – just squeezing them out. Baker began with the Berbiguier C-Major etude, the one with the jump from C in the staff to high E. I played it, and he said, ‘No, John. Like this.’ I went home and stood in front of a mirror trying to play the passage like him, hour after hour, trying to stand like him, to look like him, to sound like him. Then I would go back for the next lesson
“The process would repeat. I played, and he would say again, ‘No John, like this,’ and then he would play it. I just couldn’t get better. Baker taught only by demonstration, which wasn’t working for me, so on Weatherly’s advice, I went to Claude Monteux. After playing for five minutes, Monteux explained what I was doing and how I had to change it. In a sense, it was the first flute lesson I ever really had – someone telling me how to play the flute, as opposed to someone encouraging me and talking about the music.”
Other teachers would include William Kincaid and Marcel Moyse. “Kincaid gave me solidity. He took me through a routine. My work with him was towards the end of his career. He had it all down pat. I used to buy new copies of music, such as the Griffes Poem or the Bach Sonatas, so that I would have only his markings in them. He also took me through Anderson’s Op. 33, up the octave, and the Maquarre Daily Studies. He made me learn the first C major-A minor sequnce from memory, and then transpose the rest by ear. Moyse, by contrast, was a great teacher of music and did not actually discuss flute playing with me.”
As a result of these experiences, Wion feels that he teaches much more by way of explanation than by example. “It was never my goal to have students who sound just like me. Too often I observe that teachers, who have clearly solved playing problems themselves, believe that their way is the only way to play the flute. I never quite understood that attitude. I’ve always believed that it is best to point out to students what I’m hearing. If they are seeking advice, I can suggest the kinds of things they should try.”
The New York City Opera
Wion had some opera experience before coming to New York, and as a freelancer he gained more. “My first Carmen was done without rehearsal. There were no excerpt books in those days, so I went to the library, took out a recording, and listened to it over and over. On the day of the performance, I went to the hall an hour early with the intention of looking at the part. When I arrived there was nobody there, and the music wasn’t there either. During the next hour, musicians began to arrive, but still no music. We were told to enter the pit at about 8:00 p.m., and five minutes later the conductor walked in through one door, while the music was passed in through another. He gave the downbeat and we were off. I was saved, literally, by the second flutist, Oreste DiSevo, a very experienced elderly, Italian gentleman, who knew everything about opera, inside out and backwards.
“There are traditional cuts made in Carmen, but not all of them were marked correctly in the part. We would play along and come to one of the cut places, and he would say ‘No Cut!’ and then we would go on a bit further, and he would say, ‘Cut, cut!’ He turned my pages and pointed to the appropriate starting place.
“In 1965, two flute positions opened up in the New York City Opera – principal and second. I have no idea how many people auditioned, because auditions were not advertised in those days – they were either by invitation or word-of-mouth. I played flute and piccolo in the first round and was called back for the finals the next day. I was working with a woodwind quintet at the time, and that next day was completely full with out-of-town concerts, so I told the contractor that I couldn’t do it, to which he replied, “Well, it’s up to you.”
“In the end, I got a substitute for the quintet job, took the audition, and won the first position. I was astonished. When I started, we worked six days a week with two services a day. The weekend consisted of Friday (a rehearsal – often a dress – and a performance), Saturday (2 performances), and Sunday (2 performances). Getting through the first season was tough, because we performed 16 operas, and I had only done two or three of them before. My introduction to the N.Y.C.O. was a Mozart season in Palo Alto, California. We had a Los Angeles season as well for about 20 years. Once we went to Taiwan and once to Mexico, but mostly the rumors that we heard about going to various places came to nothing. Touring an opera company is very expensive.” Wion’s 37 years in that opera pit culminated in his nine-volume series of opera excerpt books (Falls House Press/Theodore Presser) to help flutists prepare for auditions and performances.
Symphony vs. Opera Orchestra
“After joining the N.Y.C.O. I played occasional freelance orchestra jobs that performed concert versions of opera; it always intrigued me how badly they did them. Playing in an opera orchestra requires skills that the typical symphonic player doesn’t have the opportunity to learn.
“There are three main differences between symphony and opera orchestra playing. In an opera orchestra you follow the singers most of the time. Instrumentalists can joke about singers and say they have terrible rhythm. In some cases it’s probably true, but the real truth is that singers’ phrasing is extremely expressive. Even a great, well-trained singer does not sing metronomically. They always sing with rubato. As an opera instrumentalist, you develop the skill of subdividing in order to stay with singers. For example, in Rigoletto there is a passage in which the soprano sings quarters while the flute plays arpeggiated sextuplets. If you play those sextuplets metronomically, you will inevitably arrive at the next beat before or after the soprano.
“The skill required is what Marcel Tabuteau started and William Kincaid continued – the concept of grouping notes from the second note of a group to the first note of the next group or the next beat. This idea is particularly useful in opera. Take our Rigoletto sextuplet, for example; as you hear the soprano move to the next beat, you make a slight accelerando through the last five notes of the sextuplet to that next beat. If she does not move to the next note, you make a slight ritard. That is a skill that is not easily taught, because you almost need a singer to practice it.
“The other big difference between opera and symphonic orchestra work is the recitatives, which are usually printed in a type of short hand. Ta – ta. They are like exclamation points, and how you play those two notes depends upon the musical circumstances. An experienced opera conductor with an experienced orchestra can make a great variety of exclamation points.
“Another major factor that musicians have to cope with is one of ego. Because opera musicians are accompanists most of the time, opera orchestras are not great outlets for those who think they are God’s gift to the music world.”
Teaching at Hartt
In 1977 Wion started teaching at Hartt College. The oboist in Wion’s woodwind quintet, Bert Lucarelli, taught at Hartt and was also Chair of the Wind Department. “He called in September to say that they had been having trouble tracking down their flute teacher, John Wummer, and then learned that he had died while visiting out on the West Coast. Would I come and teach? I really didn’t want to do it. I didn’t own a car, and Hartt was 2 ½ hours outside the city. I had been having some hand troubles and was already teaching at two schools. I would be in Los Angeles for a month with the N.Y.C.O. in November. Every argument I put forth, he countered, even saying that I could be away for the Los Angeles tour. Finally, I agreed to do it as an interim, thinking I could back out if it didn’t work.” Wion’s interim position at Hartt lasted 30 years.
“I took over Wummer’s class of nine students as an adjunct. Hartt had two assistant professors of flute – Carl Bergner and Stanley Aronoff – the two flutists in the Hartford Symphony. Stanley was the older of the two, and years later, the dean said that when Stanley retired I would have the position, which is just how it happened. I was appointed an Associate Professor in 1986 and professor six years later.”
Wion’s hand problems continued to escalate. The original injury was the result of a fall on the ice, but the left-hand disfunction persisted. After a decade of various medical treatments, none of which helped very much, he met Judith Youett, an English clarinetist and Alexander teacher. Of her he states, “She was the best flute teacher I ever had. At the first lesson we did some basic Alexander sitting and standing exercises, and then she said, ‘Why don’t we go to the flute.’
“When I went to pick up my flute, she said, ‘The moment I mentioned the word flute you tightened up.’ The lessons all started from there. I really felt it was like psychotherapy, because we gradually peeled away the layers. She never said I was doing something wrong, but rather observed what I was doing physically, such as, ‘When you play a high note, you raise your shoulders.’ I responded, ‘I do? I always tell students not to do that kind of thing.’ As I became aware of one thing, that realization led to a deeper layer of awareness.”
During his career Wion appeared as soloist in New York’s major concert halls and at prestigious U.S. summer festivals. He played recital tours with pianist Gilbert Kalish and guitarist Lisa Hurlong, and performed with the Tokyo, Emerson, and Manhattan String Quartets. With an aging mother living in Australia, he traveled there every year for a visit. On those occasions he performed as soloist with the major orchestras there and also played recitals.
A founding member of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony, Wion played the orchestra’s first three seasons. His performing career brought him into contact with all the major singers, from Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo to Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills to Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli. He performed under conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Georg Solti, and James Levine. In addition to opera and symphony, he performed with the Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and Bolshoi Ballet. He also produced various editions and publications, some of which have won the N.F.A.’s Newly Published Music Competition. In 1985 he also served as that organization’s president. He is married to Victoria Simon, a former soloist with the New York City Ballet, who now stages the ballets of George Balanchine for companies around the world.
Wion retired from the N.Y.C.O. in 2002 and from The Hartt School in 2007. His life is chronicled extensively in his memoirs, Wood, Silver and Gold, a flutist’s life. He maintains a website (http://johnwion.com) that is a treasure trove of thoughts on teaching, an index of orchestras around the world and their principal flutists through the years, published flute music errata, timings of various standard repertoire, and recordings.