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
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
and Saturday, March 24, in Red Bank’s Count Basie Theater.
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
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
joined with the NJSO and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Baker continues to be active, teaching at Juilliard and Curtis.
Asked about the greatest problems in playing flute, Feller says,
hesitation, "Getting heard in a symphony orchestra. The trombones
and French horns can blow us away. Really, it’s the conductor’s
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.
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
About half a century in advance Theobald Boehm had developed the
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
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.
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
Feller is simultaneously principal flutist at the Stamford Symphony
and the Solisti New York Orchestra. "There are significant
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
It ranges from the baroque to music written for Feller. By turns,
it is perky, assertive, mournful, robust, and lyrical. (Further
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
— Elaine Strauss
800-ALLEGRO. World premier of Lee’s "Flauta Carioca," on a
program with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s
Piano Concerto. Zdenek Macal, conductor, with Bart Feller, flute,
and Bruno Leonardo Gelber, piano. $12 to $44. Friday, March 23,
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.