New Generation, New Repertoire – An Interview with Flautist Sharon Bezaly

Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Virtuoso flautist Sharon Bezaly talks to Julian Maynard-Smith about 48 new fingerings for playing a scale based on quarter-tones, 24-carat gold flutes, BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Scheme and working with Sofia Gubaidulina, whose concerto The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair Bezaly performs on Friday 12 January as part of the BBC’s Gubaidulina weekend, A Journey of the Soul…

Imagine you had the chance to talk to a youthful Vladimir Horowitz or David Oistrakh before the entire world woke up to them, and found yourself gabbling to your friends about this extraordinary young talent you’d had the privilege of talking to – only to have blank looks or a muted ‘that’s interesting’. That’s how it feels talking about the astonishing young Israeli flautist Sharon Bezaly. You want to grab your friends by the shoulders and say ‘No, listen to me: when I say astonishing I mean creating-history-as-we-speak good. It’s spelt B-e-z-a-l-y. Remember this name’.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider the following. Sharon Bezaly started the flute aged eleven, and a mere three years later debuted as soloist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Her recordings have collected top ratings throughout Europe: Editor’s Choice from Gramophone, Diapason d’Or, Choc de la Musique from Le Monde de la Musique, and Stern des Monats from FonoForum – to name but four. The ecstatic reviews include quotes such as ‘God’s gift to the flute’ (The Times), ‘a flutist virtually without peer…’ (Classics Today) and ‘la più grande flautista della sua generazione’ (Musica). The comparisons with Horowitz and Oistrakh are not mine but Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Monde de la Musique went as far as describing her as ‘un Paganini de la flûte’.


It’s not just reviewers who have been entranced by Sharon Bezaly’s performances. She has had numerous concertos either written or being written for her by composers as diverse as Sofia Gubaidulina, Kalevi Aho and Sally Beamish.


I’m waiting in the bar-reception area of the hotel on London’s Baker Street where Sharon is staying for one of several visits to London arising from her selection in 2007 for BBC Radio 3’s New Generation scheme to promote young musicians. On this visit she is recording with members of London Baroque. Will this prodigious talent be a diva? Not at all. When Sharon arrives she is refreshingly natural, open and friendly, casually dressed in black jeans, her long dark hair loose and glowing with highlights. We try to find a quiet corner away from the noisy bar and settle for a table in the restaurant, the only quiet spot we can find. As we’re glancing at the menu I ask her about her 24-carat gold flute, handmade for her by the renowned Muramatsu team of Japan.


“I tried platinum. It has a huge sound: either very loud or quiet, and I couldn’t listen to myself”. And, she reasoned, if she couldn’t bear to listen to herself, neither could anyone else. The 24-carat gold flute offers “a big sound, but not losing warmth. It gives me a palette of colours. I can do anything. It has a very round and beautiful tone”. A silver flute is much easier to play, she says, but the golden flute is like a Stradivarius to a violinist: more difficult to play, but the result is so much better.


This is borne out by Sharon’s recordings, where even in the highest register her tone has a burnished warmth. Other distinctive features of her technique include her minimal vibrato (excessive vibrato in the lower register, she says, sounds “horrible”) and mastery of circular breathing.


“Muramatsu’s head builder, who always wants to stay anonymous, is a genius”, Sharon adds. “The third octave lacked roundness, and I asked him to do something about it. He took the mouthpiece and shaved off almost nothing. I didn’t know it takes nearly nothing to change so much. It took me a year to open it up. I have a very light touch, and the pads cover instantly.”


That lightness of touch has enabled Sharon to play the most technically demanding pieces, including Solo III, by the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho – a piece that required her to learn 48 new fingerings to play a scale based on quarter-tones.


“Solo III was fast”, Sharon says. “It was not possible to read it. It was painful for my wrist, because I was not used to moving my fingers this way”. But as with a ballet dancer on point, Sharon didn’t let any of the pain transmit itself to the performance, only the beauty. Upon hearing the recording Aho declared: ‘I felt that I had experienced the presence of a wonder. Sharon Bezaly is the most extraordinary flautist I have ever heard.’


The performance appeared on Solo Flute from A to Z [BIS-CD-1159] released in 2001. The recording received outstanding reviews and has now turned into a series – currently up to Volume 3. “We never guessed it would turn into such a success, but for the first one we really hit the jackpot, also in terms of repertoire – J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Berio, Aho, Arnold. I’ve had e-mails from composers who want to take part. Each will have at least one dedicated work.”


Sharon’s latest recording is Bridge across the Pyrenees, on which she performs Rodrigo’s Concierto pastoral, François Borne’s Carmen Fantaisie, and Jacques Ibert’s Concerto, all performed with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Neschling.


“It was a real challenge to do these three pieces in one project. The Rodrigo is very difficult. It’s a long piece. The first movement is very demanding, the second very lyrical, and the third not easy either. I was quite hesitant at first because I didn’t want to compromise the quality. And in the end it was a really trying process, but I’m quite happy with it. And having the São Paulo Orchestra playing so well, with Maestro John Neschling, who has been such a support being the great musician he is – playing with musicians where you learn something and get inspired.”


So what did Sharon learn? “Not concrete things; the whole way of collaborating. Playing with a great conductor who can give you just a blink or a look that inspires you. The Carmen, he’s done the original opera so many times. Music is always about being open to new ideas; it’s all about being fresh in your thoughts, and not thinking, ‘That’s the way it should be’. As for period instruments, I’ve been learning so much through the sound and this special way of playing the instrument.”


The recent performances with period instruments, recorded for BBC Radio 3 as part of the New Generation initiative, were sonatas by J.S. Bach and Handel.


How did Sharon get involved in the New Generation initiative? “I was in Minnesota when Adam Gatehouse (a New Generation Artists producer) contacted me directly. The fantastic thing about it is that I can concentrate on one area. For example, I’m playing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in January, as part of the Gubaidulina weekend. I’m returning to play with them again in February, which wouldn’t have happened so soon without the New Generation scheme.”


The first concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is on 12 January, where Sharon will perform Gubaidulina’s The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair with Martyn Brabbins conducting. The evening marks the world premiere of the complete Triptych Nadeyka, which Gubaidulina wrote in memory of her daughter, who died in 2004. Each of the three works is receiving its UK premiere: the flute concerto composed for Sharon, a violin concerto composed for Gidon Kremer, and an orchestral work inspired by Pushkin.


Sharon’s second concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is on 2 February, under the baton of Edward Gardner, when she will play Griffes’s Poeme and Fauré’s Fantaisie.


The billing on 2 February includes performances from two other New Generation artists, violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Eduard Kunz. It is usual for New Generation artists to be put together, Sharon explains, but because she is such an established artist with an extensive back catalogue she has been free to enjoy other opportunities. One such has been playing with the members of London Baroque. Sharon has found exploring this repertoire a joy. “The combination of period instruments and the modern flute is very exciting, and this is the first time I had the opportunity to experience these pieces in this way.”


And other benefits of being a New Generation artist? “Just coming to England so often. There are lots of festivals in the summer – Cheltenham, City of London, after playing the Cork Festival last year”. Sharon also has a Wigmore Hall recital in March as part of the BBC scheme. “It’s really exciting, fitting in neatly with my rather full schedule of concerts worldwide.”


I ask Sharon how Gubaidulina came to write The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair for her. “One of the things that frustrated me was that there’s not enough repertoire for the flute, like there is for the violin for instance. We need more good repertoire and, through my recording for BIS, and with the initiative of BIS’s owner and managing director Robert von Bahr, I got in touch with a lot of composers. Kalevi Aho, of his own volition, asked if he could write a concerto for me. The Romantic period is one of my favourite periods, and he said, ‘I’m going to write for you something so beautiful, with beautiful melodies’. Sofia Gubaidulina heard Kalevi’s Solo III and immediately started writing.”


The title The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair is after a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday. Appropriately, the poem contains several references to a flautist.


Does knowing the composer’s intentions, in this case Gubaidulina’s dedication of the work to her daughter’s memory, colour Sharon’s approach to the music? “It’s important to know the background, but the fascinating thing is that music takes off where the words stop. When you play the music, it’s much more than the historical details. Working with Gubaidulina was one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had. She is such a warm person, with an incredibly glowing personality. You just have to look into her eyes. It’s a very dark piece, very challenging. It starts with three gran cassas, coming from the bottom of the earth. Listening to the music you’re on a journey of moods and colours; there’s a lot of tension and conflict. I’m playing the normal flute, alto flute and bass flute, to get a larger scope of tones and colours. Sally Beamish uses all four flutes for her flute concerto Callisto, and every flute depicts a different character.”


Coincidentally, Sally Beamish’s flute concerto (also written for Sharon), was inspired by poet Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s ‘Callisto and Arcas’ from the Metamorphoses. In Sally Beamish’s score, the different flutes represent Callisto’s various embodiments as hunter, then victim, then bear, and finally constellation.


The Japanese premiere of The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair was in June with the Osaka Symphony Orchestra, and Sharon tells what happened in a passage where she has to alternate from the standard flute (“which I worry about less”) to the alto flute, then back to the standard flute. “I had a low note to play, and nothing came out! I even wondered whether I’d left the cleaning stick inside. It all happened very quickly, and I wondered, ‘what am I going to do?’ The atmosphere was so beautiful, so I recomposed, playing the low notes a little higher. That’s the advantage of playing a piece no one knows! Looking back I really think I took the right decision. Stopping and changing to my spare flute would have harmed the performance more than replacing some notes.”


So are live performances more demanding than recordings, because you have only the one opportunity to get them right? “They are demanding in a different way. The main thing is not to ‘get it right’, but to bring the music across in a personal and exciting way. The contact with the public inspires you and helps to achieve that. In the recording studio you try to get the same result, without a public.”


The subject of improvisation brings to mind the cadenzas that Sharon commissioned from Kalevi Aho for her performances of Mozart’s flute concertos [BIS-SACD-1539]. Did they shock the purists? “Mozart himself did outrageous things, and it wasn’t popular with a lot of people. I could have composed my own, but I’m not going to compete with Mozart. They aren’t shocking to me because they grow out of the concertos, taking advantage of the possibilities of the modern flute of today. To me it’s just a continuation of Mozart’s language. The cadenzas really add a new dimension to the concertos; I think they’re just fabulous. Some of them start very innocently and then take a quick turn and become quite bizarre; some use a very high register. But to me they really make sense.


“For music to move me, I need some kind of a melody, a thread. I’ve had thirteen concertos written, or being written, for me, and they’re really, really stunning. Some pieces of music have been written at the same time, but sound so utterly different. And that is the fascinating thing about music – it’s an endless source of human expression. It’s also about pushing the boundaries. Playing the new repertoire gives me a better perspective when I return to the standard repertoire, and the other way round. January is a very good example; I have Gubaidulina with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Mozart with the National Orchestra of Belgium with Mikko Franck conducting. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do both.”


It sounds like a punishing schedule, though. “I don’t want to do seventy or eighty concerts a year. I don’t want it to become ‘a job’, where I’m so jaded that I can’t give it two hundred percent. Next year I’ll give around sixty concerts, plus the recording. I have had so many fantastic offers. Now, unfortunately, I have to learn to say ‘no’ or ‘maybe in a year or two’.”


When asked for a favourite amongst her recordings, Sharon pauses. “Nordic Spell [BIS-CD-1499] is special because it has three new concertos.” The composers are Kalevi Aho (Finnish), Haukur Tómasson (Icelandic) and Christian Lindberg (Swedish). “It’s so rare to have such good new pieces put together. I’m very proud of that. And they are so different from each other. Some will definitely become repertoire pieces. I’m quite pleased with the Mozart, because it’s such standard repertoire; they are the pieces. It’s always very scary, because people have such firm opinions. For me it was important for it to sound fresh and alive.


“It’s a privilege to play with great musicians, like Ronald Brautigam (the pianist on Bezaly and Brautigam – Masterworks for Flute and Piano, BIS-SACD-1429). He also plays on period instruments and is a great pianist. It has been such an experience. We’ve managed to capture the different atmospheres of the pieces.”


Sharon also enjoys working with the composers themselves. Gubaidulina was at the recording of The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair. “It was really good that she was there, because there was a passage where I wanted to change the tempo and she thought it was a good idea. Music is a living process, and to discuss it with the composers – and maybe influence them – is fantastic.”


“When working with Sally Beamish I showed her the different instruments, and what’s possible or not possible. For some parts we’ve thought, ‘maybe that won’t work so well’, and you feel gratified to be involved in the creative process. Christian Lindberg is also a performer, and since it was the first time he had written for flute he was very open to my ideas. I ended up literally running to his place (he lives nearby) every time he finished some bars, so that was really great fun!”

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