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A Conversation with Denis Bouriakov

April Clayton | July 2017

    Denis Bouriakov was born in Crimea in 1981. At the age of ten, he was given a place at the Moscow Central Special Music School, where he studied with Professor Y.N. Dolzhikov. With the support of the “New Names” International Charity Foundation and the Vladimir Spivakov Foundation, he toured in the next few years as a prodigy soloist to over 20 countries in Europe, Asia, South America, and the U.S., and performed for Pope John Paul II, Prince Michael of Kent, and the presidents of Russia, Romania, and Indonesia.
    He went on to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying with William Bennett. His graduation in 2001 was accompanied by the Principal’s Award, the diploma for Outstanding Recital, and a Teaching Fellowship Award for the following year. In 2006, the Academy awarded him the title Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. While in London, Bouriakov freelanced as principal flute with the Philharmonia of London, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leeds Opera North, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
    He has won prizes in many of the most important international competitions, including the Munich ARD, Jean-Pierre Rampal, the Prague Spring, the Carl Nielsen, and the Kobe competitions. In recent years Bouriakov has established himself as one of the most active and sought after soloists in the flute world. His first full-time orchestral position was as principal flute with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland (2005-2008), where he also taught at the Tampere Conservatory of Music. In 2008 he was appointed principal flute with the Barcelona Symphony and later that year he won the principal flute position in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He has been principal flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2015, and will start a full-time teaching position at UCLA in September 2017.
    Bouriakov has performed as a soloist with many orchestras worldwide, including the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, the Ensemble of Tokyo, the Hiroshima Philharmonic, the Odense Symphony, the Munich Chamber Orchestra, the Ensemble of Paris, and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra. He has annual solo recital tours to Japan, and performs frequently in recitals and concerts all over the world. In collaboration with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Bouriakov has recorded his latest album with Romantic-era violin and flute concertos, including the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. His 2017 engagements include recitals, concertos, and coaching and masterclasses in Europe, Asia, Canada and the U.S.

How did you get started in music?

    My parents were not musicians, but my dad wanted my brother and me to be able to appreciate classical music because nobody in his family cared for it. He became friends with a guy who listened to Beethoven all day long. He got curious about it and started educating himself. My father wanted us to be able to listen to classical music and enjoy it. That is often how it starts. I feel that way with our son, too. So many people never listen to classical music, and I want him to have that world open for him although I would prefer that he does not become a professional musician.
    I began playing the piano at a music-focused school in Crimea. My brother also started studies in the music school, in a program that would be the U.S. equivalent of kindergarten to fifth grade. They gave us instrument lessons and also theory, rhythm (as a separate class), and choir. In the second grade, I had to sing in choir at school and hated it. I complained to my dad who talked to the school principal. We were told that an option to avoid the choir class was to learn a wind instrument instead. I wanted to play the oboe, but the school did not have one, so I took the flute, which was my second choice. Now I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be forced to deal with reeds for the rest of my life. In the third grade, piano became my second subject while flute became first because I was making much more rapid progress on the flute. My teacher in Crimea told my father, “I think your boy has talent,” and helped us to find the best flute teacher in town. That teacher told my family that if I wanted to be serious about the flute, Crimea was a dead end; we would have to move to Moscow.

Playing with Alexander Bedenko in Bolshoi Theatre in 1993.

What were your experiences at the Moscow Special Music School?
    At the end of April 1991, when I was 9 years old, I went to Moscow to audition for the famous Special Music School there. The flute teacher at this school, Dolzhikov, was known as a superstar flutist and teacher. At that point I had been playing for just about one year. I played for Dolzhikov, but he did not seem too impressed. He asked what else I could do musically, so I played piano for him, including one of my own compositions on the piano – a piece about a spider and a fly. Years later, Dolzhikov told me that when he heard me play the flute he thought, “Oh that’s terrible, but I think he has musical talent because he can play the piano and compose.” Of course, I was a new student at the time, so it was difficult to know how I would progress, but at least I did have fast fingers. When Dolzhikov held auditions, he accepted all of the students he was interested in teaching. Then if the students did not progress, he gave them to other teachers, so essentially, the other teachers were given the students he chose to leave behind.
    Studying with him was tough. It was a different kind of time and teaching philosophy everywhere in the world, but especially in Russia. Once when I came for a lesson I was told, “this flute playing is horrible. It is the worst thing I have ever heard. You have absolutely zero talent. I am going to buy you a train ticket back to Crimea with my own money.” At the time, I was ten years old. I was so devastated by what my teacher had said that I stayed home for three days and practiced all day long – seven hours of actual practice each day. My father was with me at least half the time trying to figure out how to improve my embouchure and breathing. Other times my teacher would be incredibly enthusiastic and complimentary and tell the professors down the hall from his office, “I’ve never heard anything like this. This is amazing!” He would call the oboe professor in and say, “Have you ever heard the flute sound like this?” Sometimes I would leave my lessons feeling so happy and full of energy, but other times I felt as if I should quit.
    In general, stronger-spirited people survived in Dolzhikov’s flute class. Some who were more sensitive to the criticism and teaching approach would quit flute, and some voluntarily changed teachers. Despite his shock therapy, Dolzhikov was a very good teacher and emphasized some important flute techniques. For instance, he talked about playing with harmonics being in tune with the flute tone, which William Bennett talks about as well (and in a lot more detail than Dolzhikov), and he told students that they needed to open the throat. He had some ideas which he could not connect completely for his students. For instance, Aurèle Nicolet said it was important to move the jaw forward, so Dolzhikov said the same thing but could not always say when and why. He had some gaps in his knowledge, but he was very creative and invented many things himself.
    In the Soviet Union at that time, there had been little tradition of flute playing. Dolzhikov was ahead because he had studied with Rampal for a year. There was a special travel program that the Soviet Union had with several music professors that enabled Dolzhikov to study in Paris for just under a year. He mostly learned from hearing the flutists there, as he did not speak much French or English. I think listening to such good flute playing by itself pushed him to find ways to improve his playing. In fact, I can sort of relate to this. When I went to study with Wibb (William Bennett), hearing him play in lessons was sometimes more informative than words, even though he explained things in amazingly great detail. Listening to him, it did not feel like the flute. It sounded like another instrument to me. By the time I had studied with him for a year, I sounded like an imitation of William Bennett (except that I still could not control the speed of my vibrato, and it was too fast).
    Dolzhikov obtained many recordings of flutists during his year of study in Paris that were not available in the Soviet Union and would copy breathing and other ideas from them. He would not talk in lessons about musical concepts – for instance, ideas like leading a musical line to the top of the phrase. He would sometimes sing phrases to demonstrate very musically, but he would not talk about musical principles. “The main thing for a flutist is the school,” he said. “If your heart is in the right place, the music will come by itself.” By the school, he meant all of the technical basis of playing the flute. Even at the age of twelve, I understood this was not true, and I and his other students would take lessons from other teachers in the music school who were not flute teachers. One of my most important music mentors in Russia was the piano accompaniment professor Aristotel Konstantinidi, who played in our flute class. He would talk about phrasing, the importance of harmony and its role in phrasing (for instance, strong chords that resolve into weaker chords), and other more abstract musical concepts. Some of them were hard to understand, but it was a good preparation for my future. I still remember a two-hour long lesson on the first movement of Bach E Minor Sonata. This was in some ways very similar to a five-hour lesson I later had with Wibb on the Bach Partita.
    It helped that I had started kindergarten one year early. When my family moved to Moscow, this proved helpful to my transition. I repeated third grade so that I could really focus on the flute. I basically already knew all of the other subjects for that year, and almost did not have to go to school. I had a tiger dad who helped me excel. While we were in Moscow, my dad did a lot of different things to make a living. His main job prior to our move to Moscow was working on the big fishing boats, but he worked as an electrician, plumber and in whatever way he could in Moscow. It was a very difficult time economically in Russia. I graduated from the Moscow Special Central Music School in 2000 when I was eighteen.
What was it like studying with William Bennett?
    Shortly after my high school graduation, I moved to London. I had become interested in pursuing my studies in London the year before when I attended the Bennett summer school. My pianist mentor in Moscow encouraged me to go. One of his students, who was British and temporarily lived in Moscow, had gone to the Royal Academy in London and picked up leaflets for all of the summer courses while he was there. I applied for William Bennett’s summer school and was given a grant from the George Soros Foundation to attend. At the time of the class, I was seventeen, and it was the first time I traveled alone. It was a little scary because I did not speak much English. I could understand more than I could speak, but the British accent was very hard for me to understand.
    When I arrived for the class, Bennett kept talking and talking, and I had no idea what he was saying. He was trying to explain some point about flute playing and sound. When he put his flute together and started to play, I almost jumped. I wondered, “Is he playing with a microphone? The tone is so round and seems to be coming from everywhere at once!” It was such a different sound from how I thought of the flute. By this time in my musical career, I had started losing interest in the flute. During ninth and tenth grades, I had started to focus more on other subjects. I would bring the same flute piece into lessons for three months, and every week seemed boring for both me and my teacher. In London I was required to bring in a new piece every week. For my second lesson with Wibb, I brought the same piece again, and he seemed surprised. “Didn’t we do this last time? Don’t you have another piece to play for me?” I realized that I was expected to work hard and to learn a new study and a new piece every week. After that summer, I told Bennett I wanted to study with him when I finished school in Moscow. I applied to the Royal Academy of Music, which was a difficult process, but in the end, it worked out.
    I lived in London and was affiliated with the Royal Academy of Music for five years. Figuring out how to pursue these studies took some effort. The original offer was that they would give me £2,000 as a scholarship, and tuition was about £10,500. I thought they were going to give me that money on top of tuition but learned that is not how it works. When I made this discovery, I wrote to Wibb and said I did not have the finances to come. Bennett talked to the Academy principal, and they came up with a special affiliated course, which would not give me a diploma but allowed me to take flute lessons and choose music history and other courses to attend. This meant that my scholarship paid for the course and gave me £2,000 for living in addition. I took that affiliated course for one year and then again for an additional year, which the school called “year in,” and was essentially same thing. So many students had decided to do affiliated courses that the Royal Academy decided to give it a name. You cannot survive in London with that sort of money, so I ended up playing in the London underground a lot to pay the rest of my living expenses as my parents were not able to help much. After two years of affiliated courses, I asked the school how I should continue my studies. I was almost 21 and asked if I should apply to become a full undergraduate student. Due to my age and experience, and also competitions I had been doing, everyone felt that was not a good fit. They allowed me to go directly into a post-graduate diploma program. So officially, I have no degree.

2016 rehearsal in London with William Bennett.


Most Unconventional Orchestra Audition

    While I was still living in London, I had a private audition for principal flute with an orchestra based in China. The conductor was in town for a concert, and was really too busy to fit my audition in around the orchestra’s scheduled activities. The orchestra finished a rehearsal at 6:45 p.m., and their concert was to begin at 7:30. The conductor met me in his dressing room between the rehearsal and concert and just said, “Play.” He was taking off his shirt and putting on his white dress shirt and bowtie to conduct the concert while I played. Since he gave me my choice about what to play, I started and got through the first page of Fantasie sur le Freischütz by Taffanel. It starts very dramatically and needs a big flute sound, and that is what the conductor was looking for. He did not tell me anything at that time, though; he just said, “Great! Great! We’ll be in touch!” A month later, I received a call from the orchestra personnel manager to offer me the job. I asked for details of the job and the trial period and was told, “there is no trial. We are offering you the job.” I almost took it, but then the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra principal flute position in Finland audition came up, and I won it. I really wanted to stay in Europe, so I decided to accept it.


What did you learn from doing competitions?
    I did a lot of competitions while I lived in Moscow. My flute class was very competitive, but not international in scope. When I was 15, I went “as a tourist” to the Kobe competition. During the first round I was required to play the Takemitsu Voice by memory. While I was preparing for the competition, I asked a lot of teachers at my school about this piece, but none of them could tell me anything about how to play it. It just looked like a piece of artwork to me, not like sheet music, and as it turned out, all of the teachers felt the same. The first thing I did at the competition was to listen to other people play. I ended up listening to the whole first round. I still had many questions, as I had never heard whistle tones and other extended techniques, and most of my questions were not answered by listening. I did win many competition prizes in Moscow but only started to participate in international competitions seriously when I was in London.
    My first big one was the Kobe competition in 2001. At this point my playing was almost a complete imitation of Wibb, or as close as I could get to it after a year of studying with him. The jury members told me, “you sound so much like William Bennett,” and it was the biggest compliment for me. I won the Fifth Prize, and a special prize for Ichiyanagi’s In a Living Memory, which was the obligatory work. Looking back, I believe I took preparing that piece much too seriously. I spent so much time practicing it – maybe half my entire practice time for the whole competition. My teacher in Moscow had said that when you compete in an international competition, if you play one wrong note, you will be kicked out. That information stuck in my head. I could not play it without any mistakes at all, but, to my relief, when I arrived at Kobe and listened to other people, I realized that nobody could. I worked so hard that when Wibb heard me play it in lessons, he said he believed that nobody would play it better. Wibb hates competitions, and never forces his students to do them. He would say that it is “always the player who plays the sharpest and the fastest who wins. It’s nothing to do with music.” He supported me doing competitions but never specifically encouraged it. In every competition, as with orchestra auditions, you learn something new. It is a bit like the Groundhog Day movie. Every time you correct one mistake and get a bit better. For me it was mainly learning how to handle nerves and still make music with all the stress and learn how to make the style a bit more objective.
Do you have any competition experiences that stand out to you?
    I had a disastrous experience in my first Kobe trip in 1997. I had not finished memorizing the Takemitsu until I was in Japan. I always trusted my memory a bit too much as a kid and would often not finish memorizing things until a couple of days before performances. I wish I could do that now. When I was in the middle of the performance in the first round, I got stuck in the middle of the second page. I was following the line of music visually in my head, but then I arrived at end of line, and it was suddenly blank. I did not know what was coming next. So, I went back two lines and repeated those two lines three or four times. I thought, “Oh no, this is the end for me in this competition.” Looking back, I believe that probably some of the jury members did not even notice it and probably even slept through it. Many judges did not take the contemporary works seriously. It is easier to tell how a person can play with Bach or Mozart or other standard repertoire pieces. One of the competitors who won first prize in one of these big competitions told me once, “they never really judge you based on the contemporary pieces too much. Don’t waste your time overpreparing them.” I am not sure if that is always the case, but there was some truth in that advice.
When did you start doing orchestral auditions?
    I had also been taking orchestra auditions during my London years, and at first had no idea how much practice you should put into an audition. From the time of my second year as student in London I would travel to take auditions. In terms of preparation, if there was an audition at the end of February, I would start to look for the required excerpts a couple of weeks in advance. It would take me a couple of days to find the excerpts. I would then practice them for a couple of days, and then felt I was ready to go do the audition. Taking auditions in Europe is easy; it generally only costs a couple of hundred dollars for the flights and hotels. I quickly found that I lost a lot of quality in my playing at the actual audition because I was way too nervous. Every time I did an audition, I practiced better and more to prepare for it. I had taken about ten auditions before I won the first position in Finland.
What were your positions like in Finland and Barcelona?
    I think it was with a lot of luck that I won the position in Tampere in 2005. It was not until my next audition that I realized just how much work you really have to put in to do well at an audition. I liked the position and the teaching I was doing in Finland, and was satisfied with my life. However, Erin, my best friend at the time – and now my wife – finally became my girlfriend. That made me realize that if we ever wanted to get married and start a family, we did not have sufficient income to do it. I started to worry about it a little, and told her so one day. She told me not to worry, and “even if it takes you two years to get a better job I’ll wait.”  I must confess, I panicked a bit at this statement. What is two years for winning a flute job? That is nothing. That was at the end of 2007, so I decided that during 2008 I would take every audition there was for better job. In January of 2008 I auditioned for the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. This time, I practiced every day for four hours for a full month before the audition. It paid off. The practice you put in does not feel much different while you are playing at home, but it makes your skin thicker for the actual audition somehow, and you play much better. They asked for a lot of excerpts: twenty minutes for the first round and a half hour for the second. I felt nervous, but it was a good nervous, like a concert nervous. That kind makes you feel alert and play better. I could still control myself well with that kind of energy. When I practiced for the Met audition in December 2008, I again practiced a lot more to prepare.
    The Barcelona position was supposed to start in September 2008. I had won it in January. However, there was a lot to sort out to get my work permit, and they were not in a hurry and really disorganized. It was much more complicated to arrange to work in Spain than Finland where all you need to do is submit a one-page work visa application. Finally, my first day at work in Barcelona came on October 16. I started playing there and was already hard at work practicing for the Met audition at the same time. That was held at the beginning of December, just a few weeks later. Since I won the Met audition, I never officially finished my trial with the Barcelona orchestra.
What was it like playing in the Metro-politan Opera Orchestra?
    I started working at the Metropol-itan Opera in August 2009. I have many favorite memories and experiences from playing there. The Met trains you really well as an orchestra player. I felt like I had never played with an orchestra before because there was so much material to learn, and so little time. It is tricky to follow the singers while playing in unison from the pit – very far away from them. Sometimes, you can be playing, and then suddenly everyone stops in an imaginary rest fermata – and you keep playing. Everyone else knows how it goes, but it is not indicated in your part. You learn the style, and sort of expect things to happen in a certain way after a few years of playing operas. There are four different staged shows every week with a total of seven performances. There are two principals in each section, but it is still a lot of work as we played the stage bands as well.
    Everyone in the orchestra told me that they all felt the same as I did when they started their jobs there, It is like a hurricane for the first year, and it gets easier every season after that – a lot easier, because operas repeat. The hours are hard, and it is a lot of work. They probably work double hours compared to most symphony orchestras, but there were many wonderful shows.
    I learned a lot from things Levine said to us. He sometimes would stop the orchestra in the middle of a rehearsal and give us a ten-minute lecture. The orchestra musicians who had been there for thirty years probably were not paying much attention, but some of those were really informative for me. One good example is that pianissimo for singers is not about sound, it is about color. These kinds of things were important; it is the same for flutists.
    Playing Lucia with Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau was one of the highlights for me. We also took it on tour to Japan in 2011. The flutist has to come stand by the conductor. These two sopranos had very different voices and stage manners, and I learned a lot from seeing both of them sing this role.
    The schedule in New York did not leave much room for teaching privately, and there were no teaching jobs open. I taught at the Tampere Conservatory while I lived in Finland, but not in New York City. Commuting from New Jersey was already enough to do on top of the busy Met schedule. This is one of the things I am really excited about right now. Beginning in September 2017 I will start teaching at UCLA.
    There were pros and cons with the schedule at the Met. You start working in the second half of August, and then do not have much personal time until May. You have one week off during the season and can only take it during certain parts of season that can be worked out with the company. You only have five personal days. After about four or five years into the job, I realized that I should really use whatever time I had off for vacation and recovering, not for traveling around to play solo concerts and concertos, like I did during the first two or three seasons. I would travel a lot and perform with my flutist wife Erin during the summer. Now I have a more normal life and schedule. I can do professional projects besides playing in the orchestra throughout the year, and I no longer have to put them all in a big lump together during the summer. At some points during my time at the Met, there would be times when I would not see Erin and my son for up to two months. Obviously, that is not good for a marriage. We would both get tired of it, and she would get upset. Having a child makes it all harder for everyone too. We are all very happy to have the new work schedule.
    I continue to perform together with Erin in recitals and double concertos. We want to start a summer school together in the next couple of years. She is an amazing flute player and teacher, and we have learned a lot from each other. Even though we met in London in Wibb’s class, we came from very different traditions of flute playing and appreciated different things for a while. Now however, we feel sort of merged together a bit, and our sense of style is a lot closer to each other. Many people ask me if it is difficult being married to a flute player, but I think it is a wonderful thing. There is practically nothing we cannot talk about to each other, and it is fun to do the same thing together.

How did you decide to apply for the L.A. Philharmonic position?

    Even though I was very happy with my job at the Met, there were several reasons I was interested in taking the Los Angeles job. The very obvious reason was the crazy schedule at the Met. Also, playing in a symphony orchestra on stage is very different from playing in the pit. In the pit, no matter how great the music is, you are still accompanying the action on stage. You pace yourself differently as well. You have to last four hours in an opera pit, so you cannot have the same mindset as you do for an orchestra concert.
    I like playing on stage. Every time we did Carnegie Hall symphonic concerts with the Met, I felt that I enjoyed being on the stage much more. In the pit, people bring magazines, water bottles, phone chargers, all kinds of things. You may think I am exaggerating, but I’m not. Of course there is also the weather. I just loved Los Angeles when I came to audition. I thought it was paradise. I also enjoy the culture of politeness that I find in L.A. My son had so many friends in New Jersey, and that worried us, but at kindergarten age it is still easy to move. Julien turned seven in May and just started piano lessons a couple months ago. We are all much happier now.     


Warm-up and Practice Routines
I always try to vary my warm-up and practice routines, because I think it is more effective than staying with the same routine for years. The things I do most frequently are:
•    Note bending for flexibility and finding the focus
•    Harmonics
•    Practicing Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies
•    Reading through books of studies
    With harmonics, I practice the whole range of them, up and down, based on the lowest few notes on the flute. Then I practice them in pairs of two notes with loud-soft dynamics, broken arpeggios and any melodies which come to mind in harmonics. It is a great way to remind your embouchure of the real speed of the notes. Lastly, I play a relatively high harmonic (such as the 5th harmonic of the low C, sounding E3) and play it going from a comfortable forte dynamic with a diminuendo completely to nothing, lifting the airstream at the end and making sure there are no other harmonics audible (meaning that the air speed is consistent). I focus on the moment when it gets to a very soft dynamic, to get finer control of the air and the lift of the note. You always have to lift the endings of the notes beautifully, whether it’s a ff or pp dynamic, dramatic or sad.
    I love reading and sightreading through books of studies, and my favorites are all of the Andersen books, Altes, Karg-Elert, Tsybin and Drouet. I want to make special mention of my latest favorite book, which is Robert Winn’s Articulation. It is organized very cleverly, working on various problems in all the registers. It is like a combination of Moyse’s melodic studies, Taffanel and Gaubert books, some virtuoso studies and Tone Development through Interpretation, all in one. So, the last few times I missed a day or a few of practice, I just read through the whole book and then always felt and sounded much better – especially on the next day. I would highly recommend it as a great way to practice, especially when you are slightly out of shape and do not know where to start to recover.