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Top Flight Orchestral Flutists 

Windplayer Magazine cover - Herb Alpert

by Anne Farnsworth  


Originally Published in WINDPLAYER MAGAZINE



             Have you ever sat in a concert hall listening to the musicians in a world-class orchestra and wondered how they reached their prestigious positions? Windplayer spoke to the principal flutists from five top American symphonies and learned that the leap from the practice room to the concert stage may be long but it can be done.

              "The jobs are out there," says Mark Sparks, Principal of the St. Louis Symphony, "especially on the city or regional level. The problem is, most regional symphonies can't afford to advertise nationally so it's difficult to find out about them.”

              Sparks advises young players to make as many people as possible aware of their desire to find orchestral work. "A position in the smallest regional or student orchestra is a good start to a performing career."

              His own professional start is a case in point.  A friend from the National Symphony, the elite student symphony Sparks joined fresh out of Oberlin, told him the Caracas Symphony was auditioning in New York. "I went and I got the job," he says with a chuckle.

               "Most of the large orchestras are obligated by AFM agreement to advertise nationally in the union newspaper," says Randall Bowman, Principal of the Cincinnati Symphony.

              While you're watching for that coveted slot to come up for grabs, you may find yourself cobbling a living together in several venues, as Bowman did.

              "When I graduated from college, there was so much work available - small orchestras, the opera, teaching at several colleges. I was commuting to New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. I enjoyed it, but when I reached my '30s I realized that this was going to be a hard life to maintain. The advantages of playing in an orchestra are the stability, staying in one place to raise a family."

              Robert Langevin, now principal of the New York Philharmonic, adds another point.

"Being a principal player, you get to play a lot more and don't need to do as much outside work."

             When he held a chair in the Montreal Symphony, the salary necessitated supplementing his income. But the Quebec native didn't freelance only for the extra funds: he just loves to play.

           "My goal was to play music and any kind of music was fine with me. I really didn't expect to get a [full-time] orchestra job, I just wanted to be able to play as well as I could, no matter the style."

             Paul Renzi, of the San Francisco Symphony, hasn't had to do much free-lance work. He's held the position of principal longer than any other orchestral musician in the United States, partly because he got such an early start.  His teacher John Wummer, then Principal of the New York Philharmonic and a family friend, recommended him to the SFS when they were holding auditions.  Aware that they would never hire an 18-year-old, Wummer told conductor Pierre Monteux, that his young student was 23.

Renzi was hired and stayed for 7 years before returning to New York to play in the NBC Orchestra under Toscaninni. Four years later, San Francisco beckoned again and he has been there ever since.

             The New York City native comes from a family of distinguished musicians. His father was principal oboist under Toscaninni, and his grandfather was the organist at the Vatican for 50 years. Going into the family business seemed to be the logical path for Renzi.

            "I started on piano at age 8 and moved to flute at 10,” he recalls. “'Johnny [Wummer] wants to teach you', my father said, and that was it.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up. Like most kids, I wanted to be a baseball player. But when I was 17, it seemed practical to play the flute [professionally] because I could get work."

            Sparks also began his musical training at the age of 8.  "I don't know why I picked the flute," he says.  "It just looked good! Tempting, like a piece of chocolate cake."

He studied with a Hungarian flutist named Josef Juhof at the Cleveland Institute 's preparatory division.

          "My mom would take us down there and I would study flute, piano, music theory, and Dalcroze, which is like eurhythmics or ballet. I was able to get some good musical training at an early age because of that program."

           According to Sparks, the flute is a relatively easy instrument for a child to pick up.

"The instrument delivers a lot of gratification early on. The notes are produced easily, as long as they're not the fundamental in the first octave," he explains. "You can blow soft or hard and the notes come out. The fingerings are easy. It's only later when students try to cross that bridge from advanced band level to conservatory level that it gets tough."

            But you don't have to be born into a family of master musicians or even start at a young age to create a career for yourself. Bowman may be an exception but, amazingly, he didn't pick up the flute until his last year of high school.

            "I came to music very late. I wanted to be a painter and I was playing the harmonica in a rock band. One day Julius Baker, the dean of American flute playing, came to our town to give a recital. I was mesmerized and decided that's what I wanted to do. I had to work very hard to catch up and began auditioning for music schools while in college."

             Auditioning can be a chilling prospect. But careers are made or broken on the strength of a musician's attitude toward the stressful process.

           "Auditions are a mysterious rite of passage in our business," says Sparks. "It's just this weird thing that we all have to do. And it ends up being a very subjective process that involves a lot of factors, different points of view from a lot of different people. One would like to think that the judging committees would choose the most balanced player, or one who excels in some area."

             Auditioning was a little simpler when Renzi got his start with the SFO.  He went to the conductor's hotel room and auditioned for him alone.

              Sparks actually enjoys auditioning. "I have a real respect for the process, but I'm not sure everyone else takes the same pleasure in it as I do. I like the competitive aspects, competing with myself and the idea that you are tested and scrutinized in some very fundamental ways.  I've been fortunate enough to win some auditions but I've also lost some.  I've always tried to find out what it was that caused me to lose. But that's as hard as trying to figure out why you've won. It's subjective. It may not be the best way to choose a musician, but it's the only way we've got."

           Losing out on an audition shouldn't discourage a young musician from trying again.

"It can be disheartening," says Bowman of some of his early efforts. "You can start to feel like you're always a bridesmaid, never a bride."

            Langevin's try for the Montreal Symphony was his 10th audition. "You lose a lot more than you win," he says. "Auditioning for an orchestra is probably the most nerve-wracking situation you can be in. You have a long list of pieces that the committee can choose from so everything has to be ready.

          "One of the most difficult things is to go from one style to another without being able to choose the order. If you're playing a recital, you can pick pieces that allow you to warm up a bit."

            Anne Deiner Zentner, principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, may be the exception that proves the rule. While still in graduate school at Julliard, her one and only audition landed her the top spot that she still holds today.

          "It's the only thing I ever won in my life," she says. "I had terrible stage fright; the audition process was terrifying. I got to the finals and after I played, the conductor, Zubin Mehta, said, 'Thank you, that will be all.'

           "I was convinced I'd done a very poor job. Since it was my first audition, I wasn't aware of the protocol, so I got on a plane and went home. They had to fly me back out to finish the audition and I got the job. I spent the first five years at the Philharmonic convinced they'd made a terrible mistake."

           Though a few elite musicians may have found the path to the top as smooth as Zentner's, most of the stories we heard proved that tenacity in the face of failure, and the belief in yourself and your abilities are essential.

           But most importantly, you need to have a burning desire to play the flute. No matter when you begin your training, you will have to put in long hours with your instrument.

And with the best musicians that love affair never ends. Bowman recalls a funny story about Julius Baker. Long after Bowman had become a professional flutist in his own right, his former teacher would stay at his house when in Boston.

         "One night we were up late into the night playing duets. The next morning he wandered out of the guest bedroom in his underwear, took his flute out of the case and started playing, before he even put his pants on," Bowman recalls with a chuckle. "Then he stopped and sighed, 'I love the flute.' He was born with tremendous talent but worked harder than anyone because he loved it so much."









Bowman:  "I love chamber music. It gives you a chance to explore repertoire that you wouldn’t ordinarily play in a typical orchestral program.  And playing chamber music is like a vacation because you’re not battling the full force of an orchestra. Flute's not the loudest instrument so it’s nice in a smaller setting to use some color and nuance in your playing."

Langevin: "Chamber music lets you give some input about how things are played. You can’t say to a conductor, ‘I don’t like your tempo, can you do it slower?’ With chamber music you discuss things as equals.  Unfortunately, we flute players don’t have the repertoire for chamber music like a violin player, for example. If we played chamber music full-time we would be playing the same pieces over and over again."

Renzi:  "I love to play chamber music. But I don’t like the fact that you have to rehearse so much."

Sparks: "I’ve always enjoyed orchestral playing - the complexity, problem solving, interaction with the other players, the depth of the repertoire. The flute has a depth problem.  There’s not a lot of chamber music [for flute] that has real depth and flute masterpieces are few and far between."

Deiner Zentner: "I prefer orchestral music. It encompasses so many different aspects of playing. You can be a cog in something so much greater than yourself."

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