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Souvenir de Prague

Michel Debost | September 2009

     I spent 10 days in May judging The 64th Prague Spring International Music Festival and realized that I had received a First Prize in that same competition 50 years ago. The 2009 competition was definitely international with Germans, Austrians, French, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Hun­garians, and oddly enough, practically no Ameri­cans, British, or Cana­dians.
There is only one winner, but all contestants grow and learn that their own culture is not the only one. Of course it’s more expensive to fly across the Atlantic, but there are deals, and the expense is not all that much more than flying crosscountry in the U.S.
     As proper for an international competition, there was no exchange inside the jury except after the vote, but when the votes were revealed, most of the jury members concurred: the eight or ten front runners were not the ones who had played the fastest and loudest.
     Power is not such a big deal. Everybody has a big tone nowadays and, sooner or later, the most difficult pieces will be mastered. But fewer people seem to know how to play softly, to say sweet things, to convey a sense of mystery or tenderness with their flute. The frequent topics today seems to be about the body’s role, the holistic approach, projection, and cutting through at all costs.
     Flute and headjoint makers will provide us with the loudest, buzziest instruments. Flutists love the buzz. The louder the better, they think, but listeners are expecting a greater variety of moods and are not impressed by frenetic loudness.
     Perhaps one cannot express a thought or a feeling without having experienced it first. Can you write about love and imitate lyrical emotion without having lived it? The end (music) is more important than the means (the flute), even if, in my view, one cannot do without the other. We do not have to experience the same moods or thoughts; we are all different, but we must express something.
     The program for the competition’s first round included the first two movements of the Prokofiev Sonata. The 50 flutists of that round had all mastered the difficult technical parts. What was often missing was the poetic content of this great work. The bucolic peace and good smell of the beginning, the spoken repeated notes of the second bar, the lyrical bird flight of the development, then the sarcastic tambourine at the start of the second part.
     There is a long crescendo from this point on for 30 bars in which we can let loose our beloved buzz until the fierce scream of the high Ds. Then, in two or three bars we are at the sweet, forlorn return of the original idea, indicated p, a sort of soft recall of days gone by.
     Only a few of the contestants took the trouble or had the musical intelligence to express the general poetic feeling. These few were the most successful; big tone is not the only option, only one of the possibilities. Of course it is necessary to be able to be heard among an orchestral tutti in a flute concerto, but often the composer, be it Mozart or Nielsen, Ibert or Frank Martin, has provided the soloist with light accompaniment or total solitude, moments of respite where power for power’s sake is redundant, even shocking.
     The contestants also had to play the four movements of the Bach Partita from memory. As far as I know, you do not need to fight any orchestra or even a piano in this profoundly problematic masterpiece. The issue is structure, dynamic construction, and balance of phrasing.
     A common problem seems to occur, even if the flutist has a good grasp of the mechanics of breathing: as soon as a breath has been taken, the next note is hit strongly, without consideration for matching the sound with what came before, or where the player wants to go after. In other words, we tend to worry about how we breathe and not enough about how we blow.
     In French we call that enfoncer les portes ouvertes (banging down open doors). Are you going to shout “I love you!” at the top of your lungs, when the object of your affection is inches away? We know what the score (and the composer) have in store for us and should think: Can I take my time and think about poetic uncertainty because the musical enviroment invites me to dream? Or shall I adhere to a steady tempo because the accompaniment is rhythmically obstinate? Should I find a way for my sound to be heard because my poor flute is in peril of being drowned in a maelstrom, or because the orchestra or the conductor are not willing to allow the survival of the flutist?
    It is a frequent and lengthy subject of mine, in my articles for Flute Talk and in my book. Play softly, but how? Project the tone in all dynamics, but how?
The space is too small here, but suffice for me to say: it is more difficult and strenuous to play softly than loudly. P and pp actually require more energy to compensate for the natural power of a loud tone, where the concern is mainly to let go. Deciding where to apply dynamics as they relate to interpretation is the fruit of thought and imagination.
    The constant leader of this competition was a young Russian man, Denis Bouriakov, who demonstrated his skill and musical imagination – not by faster or louder, but by color and dynamic shading. He was also hired recently by the Metropolitan Opera of New York. I don’t know how he played the audition for that job, but my guess would be that he did not try to blast everyone off, instead the panel was seduced by his refinement.
    In my view, the trend has to be reversed by players and teachers. Flute and headjoint makers make what they think will sell, and that is mostly the blasting buzz. There was a timid attempt for a while at refinement with the wooden flute or headjoint, with the assumption that they might soften things. You don’t see many of them around anymore. Most have gone back to the old sand blaster.