Flutist SAMUEL BARON
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In the course of doing over 1600 interviews, it happens occasionally that one of my guests will put me in touch with another. Such is the case with flutist Samuel Baron.
I had contacted composer Yehudi Wyner, and when he visited Chicago, we recorded a conversation. During that talk, he mentioned his friend Samuel Baron, and I immediately asked for more information. Baron later related to me that Wyner had been impressed with my thoroughness and style, and had urged his colleague to send me some recordings and accept my invitation for an interview.
We made an appointment, and in February of 1995 I telephoned the flutist at his home for the conversation. He seemed surprised and pleased that I would be preparing a program for his upcoming 70th birthday.
Here is that chat . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are a flute soloist, and an ensemble player, and a teacher, and a conductor. How do you organize your life around so many varied activities?
Samuel Baron: [Chuckles] Well, I'll have to describe the evolution. I majored in flute at Juilliard. I entered the School with a fellowship in graduate studies, and studied with Georges Barrère. I was about 17 when I started this. I wasn't really a very good flute player. My early studies were in violin, and I picked up the flute at about age 12 or 13, in high school, and was sort of self-taught.
BD: Because you thought you'd be better at flute?
SB: Well, there was a funny thing. The school that I went to had so many violinists and no flutists. I had worked my way up to leader of the second violin section, but I just sensed that others were much better. I felt limited. My teachers were giving me pieces that I couldn't play easily, and when I picked up the flute it was so easy, it seemed to me. Anyway, so there I am going to Juilliard as a flutist, and the world opened up to me with music study. I became interested in lots of things, chamber music, primarily, but I reapplied to study conducting. All in all I stayed at Juilliard seven or eight years, and I was having a wonderful time there. I gradually slid into free-lance work as a flutist, playing in orchestras with the New York City Opera, New York City Symphony, and I was in that orchestra that Leonard Bernstein conducted in '47 and '48 at the beginning of his steady work in New York. I found work as a flutist, but as a conductor I wasn't that busy. I did new music concerts, conducted a very good brass ensemble, which was formed at Juilliard, and actually I made a record, or two of Gabrieli brass music, which have been around a long time.
BD: What's the name of the ensemble?
SB: It was called the New York Brass Ensemble. It eventually evolved into the New York Brass Quintet and was led by Robert Nagel after I sorta dropped out.
BD: Why would a flute player get involved with brass instruments?
SB: Just friends, interesting projects, and so forth. The big thing that happened was I formed the New York Woodwind Quintet with four other colleagues who were about my age. Three of them, I think, were returning veterans after the war. New York was really, really humming with a lot of talent, and a lot of ideas. People not only wanted to establish their careers, but there was a sense of adventure, trying new things. The woodwind quintet was really an adventure in those days. We had very, very slow progress. First of all, we couldn't keep our personnel because we had so little work. We were just endlessly rehearsing, and then playing a free broadcast, or a free concert. And it was very hard for us to get our hands on good repertoire. So the personnel changed as guys that played with us got steady jobs.
BD: But you remained constant in it.
SB: Yes, I did. Two of us saw it through that period. The other fellow was Bernard Garfield, who left in 1956 or '57 to become first bassoon in the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he still is. It's really interesting that in the early days, when we finally did get work, like tours and so forth, we had a really lovely bunch of people that joined us. Ray Still played with us for two tours before he went on to a big career in symphony work, and Ralph Gomberg was another oboist that worked with us. He made one of our first recordings before he went to Boston.
BD: So you have quite an illustrious history of personnel.
The New York Woodwind Quintet in 1985
SB: Yeah, it was really terrific because the talent was there. It was period of a change, a generational changeover, you know, after the war. And these guys were good, ambitious, and a pleasure to work with.
* * * * *
BD: Tell me the basic differences between playing solo, playing in an ensemble, and playing in an orchestra.
SB: Now that is something that I've thought about my whole life, and I think I come down most squarely in the chamber music camp. Here's the way it is: When you play in an orchestra, you have a very demanding job, especially if you're a first chair player. You're playing a stupendous repertoire. You're playing, really, the heart of classical music, and you must be, from the technical point of view, absolutely impeccable because you're called on to do this and to do that. You don't pick the tempo, you just have to be endlessly responsive. My heroes, flute playing-wise, in those days, were the first-chair guys that I could hear in recordings and on the radio, William Kincaid and Georges Laurent, principally. Laurent was the first flute of the Boston Symphony before Doriot Dwyer, so this really goes back a long way. [Chuckles] Young flute players would meet on the day after a Boston Symphony broadcast, and we would say, [with great, youthful enthusiasm and excitement]: "Did you hear the way Laurent played that thing in the Schubert Fifth Symphony?", or "Did you hear that beautiful C-sharp he had in Afternoon of a Faun?"
BD: You were really picking apart the details.
SB: Well, sure! And the fact was that flute soloists were not to be heard. When Rampal started that branch of the business, that made a tremendous change in generations of young players, because you could start hearing the best when you were in junior high school. You could get recordings, and see them on TV. So orchestra playing is a big challenge. However, there are certain aspects of being a musician that it does not really involve. You don't have to study the whole score, you don't have to arrive at an interpretation; you just have to do it. You have to play exceptionally well.
BD: But are you more than just a technician?
SB: You can be, certainly. There have been great heroes in that field. I would say that things are changing, and in the top orchestras now, the job has become more taxing. Longer seasons, more production of concerts, conductors coming and going. It's become more cut-and-dried. But at the time that I'm talking about, the real heroes were the first-chair guys that had personality and could contribute. I still feel that in an ideal orchestra, the solo playing from within the orchestra is a tremendous element, and the smart conductors nurture it and encourage it. The dumb conductors just want to put in a box. As a matter of fact, they sometimes resent too much personality in a solo in a first chair player. I remember reading something that Stokowski wrote, many years ago. It was a book. I forget the name of it, but he said when you're conducting an orchestra, even if it's an orchestra you don't know, you will soon see that there are certain players in that orchestra that are outstandingly good. They are the artistic conscience of the part of the orchestra where they sit, and they are the leaders from within. He said that as soon as you identify these people, you must enlist their cooperation in your work. Never criticize them or contradict them, because you will ruin more than you will gain. I thought that's so interesting. Here's a really great wizard of orchestral work, and the first thing he advises you is to spot the creativity that is in the orchestra!
BD: Sure, and work with it to build on it.
SB: Work with it! No conductor today subscribes to that, or practically nobody. [Both chuckle] They're all tyrants. They're all saying, "There are people in there that know how to play, but they will be [shouts in an autocratic tone of voice] under my thumb!"
BD: So when you're playing in the woodwind quintet, is it much more of a democracy?
SB: Absolutely. Now let me go one step further. To be a soloist is really to be up there on a mountain peak because you have to be the whole show and you have to give everything. You give not only your skill and your interpretive sense, but you give your soul. And that is what people come to hear.
BD: Is there ever a chance that you give too much?
SB: Well, there again, we can see by looking out at the concert world that the cult of the personality develops. Soloists and their managers can make a lot of money doing their act, and possibly the music will suffer, the service to the music. But I'm not knocking soloists. The soloists are the best artists that we have, and so the soloist's career is a mountain peak. It's very tempting. You work, you strive to get there. Let's take chamber music players. The chamber music player lies between these two poles of the orchestra player and the soloist. The chamber music player is deeply involved in the study of the whole work, in the interpretation. Rehearsals of chamber music are more fun than anything. Everybody speaks up. You try one way, you try another way. You have to play the top voice, you have to play the middle voice, you have to play the bottom voice. With your instrument you have to be more versatile. The soloist is always a top line person, but the chamber music player must be an every line person. You know what I'm trying to say?
BD: You are the only player of that instrument.
SB: Of course, right. I remember hearing the recordings that Jascha Heifetz made, towards the end of his career. He did a lot of chamber music. They were terrific recordings, but I had a definite sense that he was never himself unless he was really in the solo role. He was the greatest soloist ever. He was a very profound musician and he knew the score, but in chamber music, he played two ways: he played black and white. When he had to solo he played with all of his stuff. When he had a secondary voice, he just didn't use it! He just played neutrally. There are many people who could have played that second voice better than he did.
BD: So he didn't know how to be second banana.
SB: He didn't, no. It wasn't his life work to be in that. I think there are other chamber musicians that will agree with that assessment, as much as we admire Heifetz.
* * * * *
BD: You were also a conductor. Did you take your own advice when you were conducting?
SB: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I think I did. My conducting work was mostly in smaller orchestras, chamber orchestras and contemporary ensembles. I tried to conduct rehearsals sort of à la chamber music. I tried to speak to everybody in a personal way, not saying, "Second flute, you're sharp," or something like that. I can't say that as a conductor I've ever been that busy and active and productive as I was as a flute player and a chamber music player. But I've been very proud of what I've done.
BD: Would you have been able to handle it if you had been thrown in front of the Philharmonic?
SB: I often think of that, but I don't know. Orchestras, they have their own collective personality, and their own pride, and I've read many stories and heard many people say, "Oh, this orchestra, they're conductor killers!" [Laughs]
BD: But you would obviously have their respect, being such a fine musician.
SB: [Continues laughing.] Well, I guess I'll never know that, but it's something to think about. The most sustained work I've done as a conductor in recent years has been as the conductor of the Bach Aria Group. The Bach Aria Festivals every summer, where I do complete cantatas, and I did a whole Brandenburg series.
BD: Tell me the secret of playing Bach.
SB: Mmm. Well, the secret of playing Bach is that Bach takes everything you have, and it is the best made music ever. It is extremely profound. Bach's phraseology, for example. Singers always complain that there's no place to breathe. So do oboe players, so do flute players. Why are Bach's phrases so complex? Because they are so rich! There's always connections between this and that, and you say, "Well, I can breathe here," and then you say, "No, if I breathe there, I'm sliding the resolution of this note to that note, so I'm not going to breathe there." Then suddenly you're in a sea of moving notes where there's no place to breathe." It's just the richest challenge there is.
[Photo at left - Samuel Baron, flute; Yehudi Wyner, harpsichord]
BD: Did Bach make a mistake in not providing for his performers?
SB: [Emphatically and without hesitation] No. No, he just sets very, very high goals, and we have to achieve them. The thing is that Bach has his own vocabulary. For example, you can't play Bach with a full symphony orchestra very well.
BD: It's too lugubrious.
SB: Yeah, right! And there are no easy venues, easy media, for putting on the bulk of Bach's music. If you say, "Well, the cantatas should be done in church," that's one thing, but if you want to do cantatas in concerts, then you need to put together an orchestra of the right size, you need to put together a chorus of the right size, you need to get soloists who are not operatic singers, but people who really know how to do that repertoire. Anyway, the secret of Bach, of playing Bach, performing Bach, is that it will take your best, and when it's all over, you will be looking forward to the next one, and maybe you can do it a little better. He's out there, and he's up there, and I think all musicians feel that way about Bach. I'll tell you another thing. All musicians feel they know Bach because of the music that he wrote for their instrument. Violinists certainly feel they know Bach, keyboard players feel they know Bach, flute players feel they know Bach, vocalists feel they know Bach. But he's more than all of that.
BD: He's more than the sum of his parts.
SB: Right, exactly.
BD: There seems to be sort of a strange connection between Bach and contemporary music, leaving a big hole in the middle.
SB: That's correct. All flute players recognize that.
BD: Why is that?
SB: Well, Bach is always contemporary. As a matter of fact, this summer in the Bach festival that we're doing in June at Stony Brook, we have three concerts. One is named "Bach in the 18th Century," the next is named "Bach in the 19th Century," and the other one is named "Bach in the 20th Century." I'm trying to put together programs that show how Bach has left cues for composers in every period. They try to be Bach-like in their different vocabularies. Stravinsky has a lot of music that's Bach-like. Hindemith certainly was a Bach-inspired person. Villa-Lobos with his Bachianas Brasileiras. And in the 19th century... Let me put it this way: every generation performs Bach in a favorite style. The Romantic Period had a lot of Bach performances that were very romantic. Take Mengelberg's recording of the St. Matthew Passion. Things like that, they're stupendous! But when we hear them today we say, "Well, that's not exactly right. Let's try to do it more true to Bach's spirit." In our day, we have the historically informed performance movement, and people insisting on instruments of the period. I don't knock it. I laugh a little at it, because I believe that there's always going to be these cycles of fashion relative to Bach's music.
BD: Do you think we'll ever get it right?
SB: [Laughs] We'll get it right for our time, for our artists, and for our audiences. They will crave it and will appreciate it a certain way.
BD: Since we've stumbled onto this, let me ask if you also play Baroque flute.
SB: [Without hesitation] No, I don't. I've tried it, and never enjoyed it. I have not felt the need. I will say that I have been very inspired by the work of certain artists on the Baroque flute, and all of us flute players have learned a lot from listening to Kuijken, and listening to Stastny, and other good guys. It really teaches you a lot to have the right instrument in your hand, but that's not the be all and end all. It can never be.
BD: So you and they should coexist peacefully.
SB: Absolutely. I've always felt that, just the same as the harpsichord and piano coexist peacefully. You can't say to pianists, "You are not allowed to play Bach." Then there would be no Glenn Gould. You can't say to anybody, "You're not allowed to do Bach, because you're doing it wrong."
BD: You're just doing it different.
SB: Different, right.
* * * * *
BD: Let us wade into the morass of contemporary music. How did you get involved in it? What is the huge interest in new music?
SB: Well, I have always been interested in new music. I'm now an older guy in the field. Young composers aren't writing for me, they're writing for people their own age. But I have found that it's the most vital and exciting part of being a musician. For example, you meet a composer your age and he's writing a work for your instrument, or for your ensemble. Before you even play one note, you have a lot in common with this person. You've seen the same world news on TV every night. You watch the same movies, the same TV shows. The same jokes pass around, you're in the same politics.
BD: So there's shared experience.
SB: Shared experience. Now that music that this composer is writing is expressing himself and his time. These are things that are very meaningful, and you will understand that very quickly. When you work with the composer, you may play the piece through the first time and not understand anything about it. But there he tells you, "Do this, do that, try this, try that. I must have written that wrong, let's do it again." Those experiences that I had with composers in my early days, right after being a student, or even when I was still a student, in my early professional days, they taught me a lot! They taught me that you have to get into the score, get behind it and underneath it, and understand what motivated its creation. You're speaking, you know, for the composer. You can talk to the composer. You can do a performance and then go out for coffee and discuss it. That relationship that the performer and the composer have, in contemporary music, is a model for the relationship that you should try to have with composers who are dead, and composers who live thousands of miles away, and composers that you will never meet.
BD: So you're trying to understand him, and then you're trying to make him understand you.
SB: Yup, that's right, and you're trying to get behind and beneath the music, and understand how it should be played, what it's trying to say. What is it saying, and what's the best way to bring it out.
BD: It's really a mutual growth process.
SB: Absolutely. It's peculiar that I developed this attitude in reverse, you might say. By working with composers, I developed a sense of how I must study Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. By the way, as still a student and right out of school, I had occasion to play in important performances with Hindemith, with Milhaud, and Stravinsky. One of the first recordings I ever played in was the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, which Stravinsky conducted with a pickup New York group. That was a tremendous experience. Just to watch this man conduct was to know how the rhythms go, to know how the phrasing goes, rhythmically speaking.
BD: I've often wondered, though, is the composer really the ideal interpreter of his own work?
SB: Yes and no. Yes and no. The composer may not be the most polished baton-wielder, but he stands there, and there's the music going on, and it's an amazing projection of the ideas. In his late years Stravinsky was recorded a lot. Columbia Records tried to get everything down that he did, and he was getting frailer and frailer. I was in some of these sessions, and I've talked to musicians who were. He had an assistant conductor come and prep the orchestra. This was usually Robert Craft. He is about my age, and we were very good friends, and I always appreciated how difficult his job was. But he got out there and he did all the right tempos, he did all the right beating patterns, and he made all the right comments about balance, and so forth. He worked with the orchestra, and finally the orchestra was ready, and then the old man came out. He went through the thing and the sound was totally different, the performance was totally transformed. That was the nature of the assignment. Craft could never be Stravinsky. No matter how precise he was and how clear he was in explaining what was coming up, still the quality of the music or the quality of the person was there only when the maestro was there.
* * * * *
BD: Coming back to just flute music and new flute music, what advice do you have for composers who would be writing for the flute, either for you or for younger players?
SB: Well, the best thing is to have sessions. Meet with them. Hear them play it. Lay the music on them. I was just yesterday at a session of the National Flute Association, which has a convention every year, and they always commission a new work for the young artist competition. About 70 composers submitted works, not all for solo flute. Some were chamber works, and a bunch of us flute players were sitting around and thinking, "Wow, I'd like to invite this guy to write a piece for solo flute." We didn't even have their names, we were just listening to the scores, but it was very exciting! The techniques of solo flute playing have expanded a lot in recent years.
BD: Multiphonics, and all of that?
SB: Right, right. Robert Dick, who is a composer-flutist, has given it the name "The Other Flute." He wrote a book with that title which explains how you do key clicks, multiphonics, bending the notes, a cluster of things.
BD: Are all of these new techniques going to become standard practice for flute players?
SB: Yes and no. I think composers who start out by saying, "I'll read the book and I'll put all these techniques into the work," are starting on the wrong path. You have to think of the piece of music you want to write, and you have to think of the flute, what the flute means to you. People hear the flute differently. A composer can actually make you hear the sound of your instrument differently from the way you normally do.
BD: So then these techniques are really just available, not mandatory.
SB: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. They're available, not mandatory. One of the important solo flute works of recent years, and again I'm speaking as an old-timer now, going back to 1958 or '59, is Sequenza by Luciano Berio.
BD: What makes it so significant?
SB: The piece is written in a new notation, which he called "spatial notation." There are no bar lines and there are no note values (sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes). Every note in the piece is written as an eighth note, but the player is instructed to bunch them together or separate them according to the way they are spaced on the page. So if a lot of notes are bunched together, you would play [sings a rapidly ascending and descending phrase as if double-tonguing on the flute]: "da-ga-da-ga-da-ga-da-ga-da-ga-do," quickly, and sometimes you get a single note [sings an accented long tone, followed by sporadic, disjunct staccato notes]: "DUUUUUUUUUUUUHM, di do, ti-do." When that piece came out we were all scratching our heads, wondering why he did it and what it was supposed to sound like. The first flute player to record this was Severino Gazzelloni. He was a very close friend of Berio's, and his performance was very authoritative. But gradually flute players got into the piece. We love to play it. There would be a lot of individual readings, and then the question was raised, did Berio compose this piece, or did he just write a scenario? "Here, do what you want with this." The amazing thing is that the composition is very strong. Berio comes through. The line of his composition comes through, even though flute players are invited to become creative partners. [Chuckles] I consider that really a nice turning point in our repertoire. When I program three pieces for solo flute of the 20th century, I usually do Syrinx of Debussy, which is 1913, Density 21.5 by Varèse, which is about 1936, and then Berio's Sequenza. That shows three stages in the evolution of the role of the flute and the flute player and what is asked of us.
BD: So it really is an ongoing process!
SB: Absolutely! Oh, absolutely. As I said, I'm one of the old guys now. The young composers are not writing for me, but I've contributed to the field, certainly.
BD: Do you encourage all flute players, even if they want to specialize in Bach, to really explore new music too?
SB: Yeah, they have to. Absolutely. Educationally, pedagogically, you must do it. You absolutely must do it.
BD: Let me ask the philosophical question: What is the purpose of music?
SB: [Thinks for a moment, then chuckles] Well, music is an essence, an essence in the universe which has particular meaning to the human species. Okay? Is that a big enough answer? The fact is that there are many musics in the world. Different cultures have their different musics. We think of our music as being central and having a wonderful history, a wonderful library, repertoire, and wonderful evolution, which it is. But in many ways we're not the most developed. Rhythmically we're not as developed as African tribal chant. Intervallically we're not as developed as certain Indian musics, which have 23 notes in the octave. We have a music history with our 12 tones and our 4/4 time, but what I'm saying is this: music exists everywhere, just like language. There are many languages on the earth, but language itself is a human quality, a human construct, and we seem to find it necessary, since it exists everywhere. In general, we seem to feel that music expresses what words cannot express, and it fills a hole in our soul. So music exists, and those of us who are musicians are constantly working with it. I've always felt that the performer is a link between the composer and the listeners, but the composer is a link between God, or the essence of music itself, and the rest of the world.
BD: I see. The composer brings it so far, and then the performer has to bring it the next part of the way.
SB: That's right. And I also believe that a gifted performer, a profound performer, can link up to the highest level of music, even though he has not created the composition. The composition is a kind of distillation of music, but it's not the whole thing. The music itself is greater than any single composition. In general, speaking practically, not to get too far off into philosophizing, the world of music is made up of people who have their specialties. They have their roles, and the performer's role is to link, absolutely, to link the created music to listeners, and that link works best when the listeners feel the importance and the relevance of the meaning. Why do people go to concerts? That's an important question, because now everybody says people are going to concerts less and less.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of both musical composition and musical performance?
SB: [Thinks for a moment] I don't know how to answer that. I'm optimistic, yes, that music will survive, but many of the aspects of our current musical life will change, or fall by the wayside. I can't imagine what it'll be, but look at it this way: the Baroque Period was a wonderful period of, you might say, common language. It lasted over a century, produced great music, and culminated in great giants such as Bach and Handel, Vivaldi, and Couperin, and so forth. There were many aspects of music that were standardized: the figured bass, music being built off the bass line; the harpsichord as the all-purpose instrument; the trio sonata as the form of chamber music, and so forth. There was music great and small: cantatas, and the St. Matthew Passion. Great works. Who could have predicted in 1750 that within 50 years the harpsichord would be obsolete; that music would not be owned, so to speak, by the kings, the nobility, and the church; that there would be musicians trying to make their living by [speaks as if this would be highly implausible] selling tickets to concerts, you know, becoming private entrepreneurs...
BD: Are you saying it's impossible to predict?
SB: It's impossible to predict. Music will exist. Maybe people will just rely on their recordings, or videos, or how it's transmitted, but music will continue to exist, and it will continue to express things that people find important. That's why they will share in it, and listen to it.
* * * * *
BD: Speaking of recordings, do you play the same for a microphone as you do for an audience?
SB: I try, yes, certainly. Certainly. You have to have an audience in your mind. Many musicians will say that recording is a very tough experience because it's so cold and it's so unforgiving. The audience nurtures you. When you're playing well, and you feel that they're focused on the music and on your work, you get a lot back, you're riding a nice wave. When you play for the microphone, it's not there, but I think you can record well only pieces that you have played a lot for audiences. It's one of my firm beliefs. In the old days, artists recorded only their strong pieces. When LP came in, and tape recording, then the programming of recordings would be like, "Let's do the complete set. Let's do every Vivaldi concerto. Let's do all the Mozart piano concertos."
BD: But then at least they've performed some of them in the same style.
SB: Right, exactly. And you can tell the difference. If you listen to a complete set of the Mozart concertos, which nobody does anymore, by the way, [chuckles] you can tell the ones where the performance has been developed in a live performance, and those that just got together in the studio to run it down.
BD: Thank you so much for all of the music that you have given in so many different ways to so many different people.
SB: Thanks so much for calling; it's been a
talk to you.
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© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 20, 1995 in Chicago, and portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995 and 2000. This transcription was made in December, 2006, and posted on this website at that time.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
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