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Exploring the Unknown, With Flutist Eric Lamb

Patricia George | September 2018

    Eric Lamb is an active soloist, chamber musician and recording artist. He is regularly invited to give flute masterclasses in Europe and South America and teaches chamber music and contemporary performance practice at the University of Auckland School of Music. 

Why did you select the flute?
    My father was a huge fan of the jazz flutist Bobby Humphrey. He bought a flute before I was old enough to play it and passed it around the family. At some point the flute (an open-holed, nickel silver Artley) came to me. I don’t remember not being able to play the flute, and all of the reports from my early childhood are that I could always make a decent sound. I taught myself how to read music by creating a color system for myself and marking up my grandmother’s hymn books. I would play the melodies, and my grandmother would sing along. This led to playing at family gatherings, and I was quite proud of myself. As I got older and began progressing in private lessons and at school, I never once considered not becoming a professional flutist. In my mind, I always was and nobody ever discouraged me or told me differently.

Where did you grow up? 
    I grew up in Detroit which has an excellent music education tradition. I was fortunate not only to have great music teaching in school but also to live in a city with a strong flute community. I began regular private flute lessons with Michelle May, a successful area flutist, violinist, and educator. I then went to Interlochen Arts Camp as a student of Julie Stone (professor at Eastern Michigan University), and it was there that I was introduced to Jeff Zook (Detroit Symphony). He was my teacher until I completed high school. I also spent a summer at Northwestern University studying with Walfrid Kujala.
    I played in the Detroit Civic Symphony (age 15-17) and had masterclasses with Ervin Monroe (Detroit Symphony). It was through this young professional orchestra training that I got my first orchestral experience and was able to play for Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, William Bennett and Carol Wincenc.

Who were your later teachers?
    My entrance into Michel Debost’s studio at Oberlin was quite serendipitous. I was visiting my dear friend Claire Chase who had already completed a year of study at Oberlin. I had spent a year studying with Anne Reynolds and had planned on taking a semester off. Claire arranged for me to play for Debost. After I played the first page of the Ibert flute concerto, he didn’t say much – just that he wanted me to start in his class as soon as possible. I enrolled the next week.
    I received a great music education at Oberlin, and after the rigorous training of Michel Debost and Kathleen Chastain, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go next. I decided to take some time off, prepare for an international competition, and move to Chicago where I studied privately with Mary Stopler and Walfrid Kujala. They both, independently of one another, suggested I meet Thaddeus Watson (a former student of Wally’s and a classmate of Mary’s). Unfortunately, neither of them had his contact information but knew he was in Germany. I asked a distant relative whom I knew was living somewhere in Germany playing in an orchestra. As luck would have it, she was a colleague of Thaddeus’ in the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. I booked a flight and flew over to reconnect with family and to have a week of lessons. My first lessons with Thaddeus were so great that I studied with him for more than five years. These lessons were intellectually stimulating because he brought his years of experience of making music on the highest levels. He has a keen interest in modern music and helped me navigate through almost anything. 
    I came to Thaddeus with most of my technical issues already sorted out. I had learned all of the major repertoire and major studies and exercises. I think that came as a real relief to him as he was and still is very busy performing in his orchestra in Frankfurt and all over Europe. Lessons were built on the practicalities of flute playing and the realities of making a living as a working musician. He gave me the space and time to practice, recommended me as an extra for jobs that he could not take on, and I otherwise busied myself playing lots of chamber music and learning German.
    Thaddeus saw in me the chance to create an orchestral principal flute player, a lofty and noble goal for any teacher. The quickest and most efficient way of generating enough work to sustain myself as a flutist was to win a job. Our plan was to take an audition, any audition, win that audition and then make that my spring board into a career in Europe. I played a lot of Mozart G major expositions and orchestral excerpts at the time, much to my dismay. I learned early on that the audition touring experience is a very unique one.
    During the early 2000s a lot of jobs came open. From big principal jobs in major orchestras to orchestra academy positions and rank and file spots in small German towns. Once I began getting invitations, I was taking auditions weekly. It was very expensive and a quick lesson in humility. I learned quickly that success in auditions did not necessarily relate directly to my growth as a flutist and not to be easily affected by failures. With each audition experience, Thaddeus helped me work through what I could take away from them, both the successes and the less successful moments. This constant self-reflection gave me the ability to  maintain a sense of what my priorities were as an instrumentalist (intonation, articulation, truth to text, rhythmic integrity, etc.) without getting bitter or developing a chip on my shoulder. Even after all these years I reflect on how I have kept those values and try to translate that ethic to students.
    During this time, I won a few major chamber music competitions in Germany with both my flute and piano duo and my flute, cello and piano trio. These wins got me on a regular concert tour schedule and I did not have to take on endless orchestral work. I was invited to participate in contemporary music courses with the major European ensembles including Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien in Austria and Germany. As my interest in chamber music and contemporary music began to take over, I stopped taking auditions in order to focus on what was to become part of my career path. Despite this shift in focus, I do not consider the audition training to have been a waste of time – quite the contrary. The focused work of preparing for orchestra auditions was exactly what I needed at the time to keep me organized in the midst of a new environment and to develop a clear and focused work ethic. 

What took you to Italy? 
    After completing my graduate diploma, I was settled and happy in Frankfurt and decided to continue for another two years at the Musikhochschule in the Concert Soloists program with Thaddeus.  At the same time, I was getting input from other flutists and teachers. I was open with Thaddeus about wanting to forge a less conventional playing career, and he suggested I seek out guidance from players who were also doing this. He played regularly with Chiara Tonelli, principal flutist of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, so I applied and was excepted into her masterclass in Fiesole, a breathtakingly beautiful town on the outskirts of Florence. Chiara is incredibly active as a chamber musician, orchestral player and teacher. Our time together, although short, was very important for me. She is brilliant at finding musical solutions to technical problems. She became a generous mentor. When my performance schedule was too full to come down, she would take time from her touring schedule and I would fly to wherever the orchestra was and have a lesson in the concert hall or dressing room. 
    It was her unique approach to music making that really inspired me. She rarely played in lessons but was able to express herself in an incredibly clear way. It was also good for me to hear other traditions of flute playing. I was the only non-Italian in the class, and it was fabulous to hear how different they sounded compared to what I heard in Germany. 
    Chiara was the first teacher to tell me that she loved my playing. I remember playing the second movement of the Ibert in class and her saying that it was beautiful. She gave me the courage to stand behind my musical and artistic decisions, and I carry that with me to this day.

How did you come to work with your friend Claire Chase, the founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)? 
    Everything changed when ICE came into my life. As ICE began to take on more work and gain national and international attention, Claire needed a flutist she could trust. I had finally completed my education in Germany, and when she called, I jumped at the chance to face the challenges of living in New York. I had the great pleasure of spending five years with the group. I performed next to some of the finest musicians of my generation, playing masterpieces of the 20th and 21st century, working with the most important composers of our time, and nurturing future young composers, many of whom have reached fame through our work together. It was an unforgettable time in my life.
    I loved the technical challenge of what we were creating – the newness of every moment and the level of engagement and focus in my practice that it required to perform on such a high level. Every concert that we performed during those days was of the utmost importance to us, and it was incredibly exciting to be around my friends and colleagues, each with the same dedication to getting it right. The urgency and energy were palpable and that is why the ensemble was and is so successful.
    I particularly enjoyed when the ensemble grew in forces and tackled larger chamber orchestra standards, like Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie or Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. It was in that context that I found the balance between my experience as an orchestral player and the chamber music that I loved.
    The work was varied in terms of the types of contemporary music we played. It evolved into a mix of un-conducted chamber music, solo playing, recording, educational projects at both university and community levels, and chamber orchestra performances. Since the ensemble is self-governed, each core member is a part of aspects of curation and has a voice in the rehearsal process. I don’t think I was aware of how dynamic and unique that working environment had become until I left the group. Leaving was one of the most difficult things that I have done, but it was the right thing to do at the right time.

Playing with ICE in New York

How did you select music for your CDs? 
    After leaving ICE, I was looking for a way to take my experiences and move forward. Two recording opportunities fell into my lap at once – one in London for the contemporary music label NMC and one in New York. These were my first recordings as a soloist out on my own. I realized that focusing more on recording as a soloist and chamber musician would allow me to explore repertoire that I had not been performing in new and unique ways. My next recording project was an exploration of Bach’s two-part inventions in my published arrangements for flute and cello. Like many flutists, I tried playing through BWV 772-801 on the piano as a student, but exploring them in this way was quite different. I followed that up with a recording of Mozart’s Duo’s K. 423, 424 and other excerpts from The Magic Flute in my arrangements for flute and cello. Arranging and reimagining repertoire is incredibly satisfying.
    I have always had an affinity for the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, particularly the solo sonata and concertos. Since these works have been already recorded beautifully by many of the greatest flutists, I decided to explore other composers of Bach’s time and look at the musical cultural context and how these composers and their compositions influenced the flute and its development as a solo instrument. I landed quite naturally on Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773).
    Quantz, the teacher of Frederick the Great, made significant improvements to flute playing in the 18th century and wrote more than 200 concertos for the king to perform. The sheer amount of his creative output that is just waiting to be performed and recorded is amazing. I made it a goal to put some real energy into researching and getting the music out to the flute community. Soon after completing the Bach and Mozart projects, I began collecting, editing and recording a small volume of his Eight Caprices and other important works of the 18th century including works by Blavet, Braun, and Blochwitz, all flutists and composers of the time. I have also created a volume of Johann George Tromlitz’s (1725-1805) solo partitas and most recently have recorded four concertos (three of which are premiere recordings) of Quantz with the Kölner Akademie Orchester.
    The art of recording has become a way to challenge myself to learn new things and I invest a lot of time and energy into it. I have discovered just how incredibly involved the process is and have taken on every aspect of it. I start by editing the sheet music to produce new, readable materials. I also learned how to produce recordings, write booklet texts, and find financial support for projects. I have a brilliant team of people who have helped me considerably and with each project it gets easier. There is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a project from the start to the end. 
    I have no real interest in making yet another recording of the Mozart flute concertos because there are already so many great recordings of the standard repertoire. What interests me is exploring the unknown and documenting it to the highest artistic standards, with the hopes that the music will have new life. My goal is to create a body of work that represents my journey as an artist. Each recording is a snapshot of where I am in my creative career. I try to find combinations of works that fit together in an intelligent conversation with each other and also to record works that should be explored more by the flute community. I have no shortage of ideas for this.

Calvin Peter Photography

What are your favorite etudes?
    I love sightreading and enjoy spending afternoons devouring etudes that I find in the library, online or from friends. I am an Andersen etude kind of guy. I play them up and down, all of them, quite regularly. I demonstrate quite a lot these days in my teaching, so I like to have them under my fingers. I expect my students to play the Andersen etudes, and I encourage them to find as much music inside of them as they possibly can. Joachim Andersen (1847-1909) lived during a very rich musical time (he was a contemporary of Brahms), and I believe that his etudes are a window into this time, not just annoying finger exercises.

What types of pieces are you drawn to?
    Inside each corner of the repertoire, from the 17th to 21st centuries, are works that I love and those that I do not connect with. I find that I am naturally drawn to really complex and technically difficult music, Brian Ferneyhough’s Cassandra’s Dream Song, for example. I think I play this kind of music well. I can circular breathe quite fluently, and therefore enjoy playing music that requires me to do it. As I learn music that really explores extreme dynamics, complex rhythmic structures and new notations, I try to make everything feel good and sound easy. I never forget to prioritize the basics of articulation, sound quality and intonation while coping with the extremities of flute technique.
    Other than the really wild end of the flute repertoire, I spend a lot of time exploring performance practice of 18th century music on both my modern wooden flute and historical copies. There is an almost limitless amount of trio sonatas, quartets and quintets in various combinations of instruments as well as solo sonatas. 

Why do you focus on solo and chamber performing rather than orchestral playing?
    I think it is important for musicians to be honest about where their strengths and passions lay. I discovered early on that my temperament was better suited to chamber music, concertos, recordings and recitals.  I enjoy entering into meaningful conversations about music and solving problems in collaboration with a group of musicians whom I know and respect. I have trouble with sitting down and following one person’s artistic vision. I have been fortunate enough to have had amazing chamber music partners from early on in my career. I particularly enjoy working with string players and have had a lot of brilliant string chamber music partnerships. Together we dream up works that we have always wanted to perform and put on concerts.
    Many of my closest friends landed their dream jobs, in world class orchestras very early and are still finding this work deeply satisfying. Perhaps sometime I will play full time in an orchestra, but at the moment orchestral playing is only a small part of what I do professionally. From time to time I get a call to play in a major orchestra, and if I am free, I jump at the chance. There is no greater feeling for a flutist than to play a Mahler or Brahms symphony. 

How do you select a recital program?
    I find that recital programming is either very easy or very difficult. An idea either hits me like a ton of bricks, or I find myself pulling my hair out and avoiding it until the last minute. I think about my audience and how I can introduce new music to them in a thoughtful way. I was recently in Hamburg, Germany and paid a visit to the Johannes Brahms Museum. The walls are covered with concert posters and programs of the time. I was inspired by how varied and broad the programming was. Modern music was being championed and performed, and that inspired me to challenge the common notion that people don’t want to hear unfamiliar things in concerts. My experience has been quite the opposite. Usually the unknown or modern work on the program is what critics and concert goers respond to, write about, and remember. I have only had positive experiences when presenting well-played contemporary and unknown works, particularly when they are presented with more standard repertoire. I think that when people do not like this music, it is usually because the pieces are not played well. This is often the case in concerts of orchestral music.

    I spend a lot of time listening to music and looking for composers throughout the centuries who are underrepresented in concerts today. I recently performed the Louise Farrenc’s (1804-1874) Trio for flute, cello and piano. It is gorgeous, quite substantial, and a welcome breath of fresh air from the Weber or Mendelssohn trios.
    Once I know more or less what I am going to present, I think about the evening’s emotional arch and how I can carry energy through from beginning to end. I reflect on what time of day the concert is, how long the intermission should be (if there is one at all), and most importantly, the order of the concert. All of this attention to detail affects the outcome of the performance.
    I am not interested in playing recitals of the greatest flute hits. Some concerts include absolutely everything, and I personally find that they have an inherent emotional disconnect. Don’t get me wrong, I love coming back to the anchors of the rich flute repertoire, it keeps me grounded and practicing. I just don’t want to play it all at the same time – it is like wearing too much cologne or too many accessories. What interests me most is programing that reflects a bigger artistic picture. I aim to curate thoughtful concerts, the kind that I would enjoy going to myself.       

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Warmup Idea

    I rely on both Reichert Exercises Journaliers and Taffanel et Gaubert 17 Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mecanisme as the basis of my morning practice routine. As a student I was encouraged to commit both books to memory and this has served me well as it allows me to have an element of flexibility in my practice. In the Reichert, I play No. 2 and 4 in slow motion for intonation and freedom of sound. For me it is like a good morning stretch. In the Taffanel et Gaubert I am an advocate of the Michel Debost’s Scale Game. His approach to Exercise No. 4 forms the backbone of my technique. Over the years I have made my own variations which include microtones and circular breathing.