Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 21, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

For the Flutes A Hearing: Bart Feller

Bart Feller, principal flutist of the New Jersey

Symphony

Orchestra (NJSO) has his favorites among the three instruments in

today’s flute family — the now standard flute designed by Theobald

Boehm in the 1830s, the related alto flute, and the tiny piccolo.

Feller favors the standard flute and its bigger relative, the alto

flute, and shies away from the often shrill piccolo. He gets to solo

using both of his favorite instruments in a commissioned piece when

the NJSO performs Friday, March 23, in Princeton’s Richardson

Auditorium,

and Saturday, March 24, in Red Bank’s Count Basie Theater.

Performances

are also scheduled for Englewood, Morristown, and Newark.

Feller is in the spotlight with the world premiere of Thomas Oboe

Lee’s "Flauta Carioca" for flute and orchestra, a piece

commissioned

for him. Currently a faculty member at Boston College, Lee was born

in Beijing, China, in 1945. He lived in Sao Paolo, Brazil, for six

years before coming to the United States at age 21.

Lee’s "Flauta Carioca" is unusual both musically and in its

genesis. To bring the piece into existence 92 individuals and

organizations

joined with the NJSO and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The

co-commissioners

contributed $200 each and attended workshops where Feller and Lee

reported on the progress of the piece. The NJSO dubbed the innovative

project "A Sound Investment" and limited the number of

contributors

to 100.

In a telephone conversation from Connecticut, where he was performing

with the Stamford Symphony, Feller talks about the development of

the piece. He makes himself very approachable. "Of course we love

rich people who give money for commissions and otherwise don’t get

involved in a piece. But this piece was meant to be a community-based

commission and involved nontraditional commissioners. It included

young people." The commissioners included 74 interested

individuals,

among them Feller’s parents; two private flute studios; the Greater

Newark Youth Orchestra; various public school entities including a

second grade class in Demarest, Trenton High School, the Somerville

Middle School Jazz Band, Maplewood’s Columbia High School Advanced

Placement Music Theory Class; and corporations IBM, Becton Dickinson

and Johnson & Johnson.

"There were public workshops," Feller says,

"’informances,’

so people could watch the piece being born, and meet the composer.

Lee would bring a sketch, I’d play it through, and we’d talk about

it. The commissioners were rather reserved, but they had an

opportunity

to make their comments known. Lee plays jazz flute and we were able

to play together at the workshops. At the last workshop, in October

there was instrumental backup — one each of the winds, and one

each of the strings. They covered all the parts in the orchestra.

At the end Tommy turned to the audience and said, ‘So what do you

think about it? It’s your money. You paid for it. It’s your piece.

I hope you like it. Tell me now’."

As it finally emerged "Flauta Carioca" consists of three

movements,

Feller says. The fast outer movements are in a high register and based

on Latin dance rhythms. The middle movement is a bassa nova, for alto

flute, an instrument larger than a normal flute with a range a fourth

lower. "It’s not an experimental piece." Feller says, "The

sounds are conventional. There’s nothing in it that would scare

anybody.

But it’s unusual and special because it’s so catchy and rhythmic."

Feller is acutely conscious of translating what appears

on the page into the sounds in the composer’s mind. "It’s hard

to use conventional notation to express Latin rhythms," he says

"because the emphasis is off the beat, and our notation is

intended

to get us on the beat. We’ve heard the rhythms all our life, but it

can feel foreign to look at it. It’s hard to write it down and give

classical players the right jazzy feel. There are ties and things

that go across bar line. The piece should sound light, as if you’re

tossing it off. If it sounds as if you’re counting you’ve missed

it."

Feller, 37, grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, the youngest of three

siblings. His father, a retired accountant, and his mother, who deals

in antique jewelry, still live there. Feller started with recorder

at six, and added piano at eight, and flute at age 10. Father Max,

a swing band player, whose instruments are flute, clarinet, and

saxophone,

used to join Bart in flute duets when Bart was a child. His older

sister Rena plays clarinet in the Memphis Symphony.

Feller studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute with Julius Baker,

principal flute of the New York Philharmonic; and John Krell, the

Philadelphia Symphony’s piccolo player. "Baker celebrated his

85th birthday recently," Feller says. "He can do things nobody

else can do. Nobody ever played flute better or more

effortlessly."

Baker continues to be active, teaching at Juilliard and Curtis.

Asked about the greatest problems in playing flute, Feller says,

without

hesitation, "Getting heard in a symphony orchestra. The trombones

and French horns can blow us away. Really, it’s the conductor’s

problem

to get the right balance. But we have to work out how to be heard

and still get a quality sound. You can’t really prepare ahead of time.

You don’t confront the physical reality of being heard until you’re

playing in an orchestra and hearing all that volume behind you."

Then Feller moves on to problem number two with playing flute.

"The

flute," he says "is not the most comfortable instrument. You

have to have your left arm raised and bent for hours each day. It’s

a wear and tear issue."

Invited to list the ways flute players can come to harm

physically, Feller specifies tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and

neck and shoulder injuries; then he worries about overstating the

flute’s dangers. "I don’t want people to think that you shouldn’t

pick up a flute because it’s not safe," he says. "Injuries

can be avoided if you’re conscientious and aware. You have to work

on getting the maximum result with the minimum physical tension. The

flute’s not heavy. But anything feels heavy in your arm when you hold

it for six hours." Feller’s optimum daily routine includes two

to three hours of practice.

Feller denies that a large lung capacity is essential for playing

the flute. "Some great flutists whose lung capacity was measured

were found to have a normal capacity. But they know how to use it

well. It’s a matter of being smart with your air. It takes constant

attention. On one hand, you have to conserve air, but you don’t want

it to sound as if you’re holding back. How to breathe as you play

the flute is controversial. The old fashioned idea was to use lots

of diaphragm. The newer way is to lighten up and breathe in a less

muscular way so that you’re thinking more about your lungs and less

about your diaphragm."

The French Impressionist repertoire is a major source of joy for

Feller.

About half a century in advance Theobald Boehm had developed the

system

of keys and fingering behind present-day flute playing. "The flute

made the sound that Debussy and Ravel most had in mind," Feller

says. "It was the reigning instrument at the beginning of the

20th century in Paris. Before Boehm the flute was not in tune. In

the early 20th century it finally could play in tune. Technological

advances freed composers to use the flute creatively."

Feller points out a second pleasure in his flute playing. "I love

where the flute sits in the orchestra," he says. It’s dead in

the middle and all the other instruments wrap around it. When I visit

friends in the orchestra during a break, and sit in their section,

I realize how central the flute is."

Feller’s flute is sterling silver. He calls silver the preferred metal

among orchestral players. "Some soloists prefer gold or

platinum,"

he says, "But I think that silver has the best balance of cutting

through in the orchestra and being soloistic enough".

To get centered before a performance Feller takes naps if he has the

time and watches what he eats. "You don’t want to eat anything

too spicy. I avoid things that don’t have a good mouth feel. I would

never eat an apple before playing, or raw spinach. If a food has an

unusual feel, I don’t want it. I like pasta. It has a time release

quality and is a great comfort food before playing."

As principal flutist for the NJSO Feller has distinct, but limited

responsibilities. "I have great colleagues," he says.

"They

adjust before I say anything. My authority is limited. What we do

has to be what the conductor wants. I lead the section, but it’s not

a matter of telling people things they haven’t already figured out

themselves."

Feller is simultaneously principal flutist at the Stamford Symphony

and the Solisti New York Orchestra. "There are significant

differences

among the different orchestras," he says. "An audience member

might not be as aware of them as I am. With different players there

are different relationships among flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.

But every time you play, you want to make it sound as if you’ve been

playing together forever. It’s a challenge I like."

In his first solo CD, "Elysian Fields," Feller has created

an opportunity to sound as if he’s been playing together forever with

piano, harpsichord, and cello. The album title comes from a fantasy

piece by Robert Maggio that draws on Gluck’s "Dance of the Blessed

Spirits.". The recording displays the versatility of the flute,

soaring with silvery sounds, or getting cozy with warm, mellow

sonorities.

It ranges from the baroque to music written for Feller. By turns,

it is perky, assertive, mournful, robust, and lyrical. (Further

information

is available on Feller’s website, .bartfeller.com.)

Feller blows no piccolo on the recording. "I do as little piccolo

as possible," he says about the third member of the flute family.

"To be really good on piccolo takes a lot of time. If you can

play the flute you can kind of play the piccolo. But if you don’t

play piccolo often, it’s hard to get a sweet, warm sound. I would

have to work really hard to get to that place. Our second flute at

the NJSO, Kathleen Nester, plays piccolo the way I like to hear it.

She makes it sound as easy and effortless as others make the flute

sound."

— Elaine Strauss

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium,

800-ALLEGRO. World premier of Lee’s "Flauta Carioca," on a

program with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s

"Coronation"

Piano Concerto. Zdenek Macal, conductor, with Bart Feller, flute,

and Bruno Leonardo Gelber, piano. $12 to $44. Friday, March 23,

8 p.m.


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