Select Page

First flute of the Mariinsky theatre in St. Petersburg

I was very lucky to be in the orchestra during the renaissance of the theatre as we know it now. The orchestra was, just like the theatre, falling apart and it wasn’t until 1988 when Valery Gergiev took the theatre under his wing. I joined to the orchestra around 1993.

In loving memory of my Father…

In 1988 Valery Abisalovich (Gergiev) and my father Vyachislav Ivanovich Lupachev, who was the principal oboe of the orchestra at that time, started to form a new model Mariinsky theatre which has grown to what we have now: 3 stages, fame around the world and the “Mariinsky” brand.

In the 1990s they founded the “Gosconcert”, which was responsible in organizing overseas tours for the orchestras and theatres. The “Kirov Theatre Orchestra”, as it was known then, started its own national and international touring life. There were no computers, no internet and no mobile phones. They had one telephone for international calls and later they got a fax machine. In order to talk to the impresario about the tours one had to wait in a little queue for the phone. People in the office had to learn English from basically talking on this phone. You can imagine what kind of burden this was on everyone and what had to be done to get the first set of tours organized and paid for, not to mention visas issues, customs for instruments and transportation of the decorations!

There was no one who was doing this type of thing professionally in Russia so Valery and my father started to work around the clock, sometimes up to 20 hours a day, in order to make a system for touring the theatre, along with the fact that they still had to play concerts, and make future home concert plans!

When I joined the orchestra in 1993, it was still the old, however, better, version of the Kirov Theatre. They had already started doing their first tours with serious symphonic repertoire, which was something new for the orchestral musicians. During that time the music of Mahler, Wagner and Strauss was performed very seldom and was basically unknown by the orchestral players. The orchestral pit was raised for orchestral performances, and there were “promenade concerts” which sometimes lasted 24 hours. Slowly but surely the orchestra was learning new repertoire.

The orchestra was unique and it had an instantly recognizable sound, mainly due to the great Russian string school. Unfortunately, the winds and brass lacked in this department, however there was great enthusiasm, which made it all possible. The orchestra members knew that they were all in it together under the baton of a still very young, Valery Gergiev. They would discuss new repertoire together, what and how things could be played better, they had the “fever” of wanting to do it better. It was the beginning of the upwards movement of the Mariinsky theatre. After a while the orchestra which was called “Mariinsky Orchestra of the Kirov Opera” became known around the world as the “Mariinsky Theatre”.

“He was demanding orchestra to play Beethoven exactly as I was taught at the Paris Conservatoire i.e. the same style of performance.”

In the mid-1990s new and younger members joined the orchestra, just like me, who came from studying abroad, who knew who the “Viennese Classics” were and understood the mentality of European playing, and in time the level of the woodwind and brass playing became that of a good world-class orchestra. I believe that I was a part of what started in 1988 with Gergiev and became the climax of the development of the musicians in the orchestra.

I still remember the wonderful concerts in Salzburg where we played Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Vienna and when we performed Mahler’s 6th Symphony, which was very brave of us at that time and was a huge success. It was brave because the Vienna Philharmonic is the best in this repertoire however, we were on a par with them in that performance, even the critics agreed. I also remember a performance of Bruckner 7th symphony in Linz. These concerts will stay with me forever.

Memories of the first tours with the orchestra

I remember my first tour with the Orchestra to Japan in 1998 where in 18 days we performed: Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, Brahms’s 4th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliette, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliette, Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliette, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Stravinsky’s Fairy Kiss, Scheherazade, Rite of Spring and many more. Today this kind of repertoire doesn’t look as daunting as it did then but it was a real challenge for the orchestra in 1998. On that tour Valery made a huge impression on me, a young player who had just finished his studies. He was demanding the orchestra to play Beethoven exactly as I was taught at the Paris Conservatoire, the same style of performance. I remember when we played Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, and it was a huge success so we played the finale from the Firebird as the encore, it is a 12 minute piece!, and then the audience gave us a standing ovation for 20 minutes. At the end only Valery came on stage for bowing as the orchestra had already left.

Further development of the orchestra meant more concerts, performances and tours, which meant a bigger orchestra was needed. In 1988 there were only 6 flute players, by 2004 there were 12 and now there are 20, and even that is sometimes not enough!

The new home and stage of the Mariinsky

For the theatre, one of the main stages of the developments was the building of a new theatre with more stages for productions and concerts. I think it is an amazing building and a great achievement because in recent Russian history there have been no new buildings of this sort at all. Many people saw it being built and were amazed at what was being done. Perhaps the outside of the theatre is not to everyone’s taste as everyone is entitled to an opinion however, the inside is, without a doubt, the best opera and ballet theatre.

“Currently the orchestra of the Mariinsky theatre plays around 1000 performances per year”

I remember how Valery Abisalovich was trying to get backing for the building of the new stage. It was an evening concert called “Stars of the white nights” and the Prime Minister V.V. Putin was invited to come along. They brought out a cake in the shape of the new stage. This was before the project manager Dominique Perrault started and we were only going to get rid of one of the old buildings and not the whole block as we ended up doing. Putin looked at the cake, did his calculations of how much it will cost and left very quickly. I think he only stayed for about 20 minutes. Perhaps he had other things he had to do and that is why he left so quickly. What happened after was the greatest building in the history of St. Petersburg.

Gergiev was remembering just the other day that a lot of people told him that he was crazy back then. Why would the theatre need a new building? The old one was never filled for performances, now we have one thousand performances around the world per year and at least 600 of them are in the new building and most of them, even when Valery is not conducting, are sold out. Of course this meant that the orchestra had to grow and now consists of about 400 people.

A lot of young musicians came to the orchestra and brought their individual ways of playing, which really suited the orchestra. However, it is difficult for these young kids to come in and play ballets or operas without sufficient rehearsal. This can only be done by musicians who have been in the orchestra 20, 30 or even 40 years. I am always very happy to see the younger generation being very interested in the history of the performance of the orchestra and the ballets and operas which have been in the Mariinsky theatre for many years now.

Currently the orchestra of the Mariinsky theatre plays around 1000 performances per year, which is about 3 or 4 times more than 10 years ago, however, sometimes this can lead to the concerts becoming more sterile and “fabricated” rather than unique and special.

St. Petersburg Conservatioire

I studied at the conservatoire in St. Petersburg and Paris. And I am only now starting to understand what I have actually been taught. I have always though that the Paris conservatoire was the highest level of musical training however, many people forget that all creative professions are connected together, such as in science, culture and sport. A connected base exists in all of them called philosophy. This philosophy helps you understand the world in which you are in. This is exactly what they teach in St. Petersburg and a long time ago I simply did not understand this. It took me nearly 20 years to understand that the questions which are answered for hundreds of years by philosophy and music are actually the same. I often pity musicians who think that being a musician is all about perfect technique and perfect intonation etc.. Our profession is about reaching out and communicating with the audience and we need to be able to do this by playing only two or three notes. This is what we have to look for. Of course mastery is very important that no one can do anything without a good technique however, it is not the limit but merely a vehicle. In old times in Russia it was very sought after to get a good high education, and why is that? It is because back then the teaching of the schools covered a wide variety of subjects thus giving the student a wonderful and wide palette of knowledge.

Some of the subjects which are taught in the St. Petersburg conservatoire are of an incredibly high standard. The aural subject was the only reason why I managed to pass the Paris conservatoire “Formation musical” (Solfege), where the harmony was taught in a much more factual way. Unfortunately, in St. Petersburg conservatoire exists a bad tradition on segregation musicians into three camps: Strings, Pianists and “other”. The “other” of course being the woodwind and brass. Somehow, it was believed that this part of musicians did not need to have difficult aural lessons, and this of course made a huge difference to their quality of orchestral playing.

In France there are two music conservatories. One in Paris and the other one in Lyon (the others are the equivalent of a 6th form college), and there is of course huge competition to get in. When I was auditioning I was told that there were 80 people for the selected few places and these days I hear it is even more. Back then Professor Marion could only teach 12 students and Professor Arto could only take on 6. In order to get in one had to already be very proficient on the instrument. What the teachers did was to simply add a “shine” to our playing and smooth out the edges. Orchestra was not essential curriculum. However, we did have repertoire sessions with famous musicians who would come in and work with us and then we would give a performances at the end of the week. As flute players we only had two orchestra classes per year. However, at that time I was already working at the Mariinsky theatre at that time so over time I have breaks at the conservatoire I would fly back and get a lot of experience playing ballets or operas.

I would like to reiterate the main difference in the style of teaching at the paris conservatoire was that it was very niche and specialist. This point of view meant that you were very good in the narrow filed of the specialisation of your choice. Twenty years later I understand that the education in Russia has given me a lot more but I cannot say if it is better of worse. I think it is a good thing to have this kind of combination in your education.

Advice for students going abroad to study

I would say that most importantly do not look at the status of the conservatoire but look for a teacher who will really work with you. Because you might find a great place to study but the teacher will not be compatible with you. For example it was a complete waste of time to study Professor Adorjan at a middle level, he was simply not interested, he really liked to polish off good players, perhaps to look at a piece from a different point of view or look for an even better aspect of technique.

Sometime a teacher can work for some students but not for others. Davide Formisano for example is great with some students and for others he cannot work as well, it is all simply individual. So I will say it again, do not look at the name but look for what they can really teach you. So you really have to know the professor before you go to study with him.

So for example when you go to an international competition do not be thinking that you are there to get the first prize. You are there so that others can see you. Do not be shy and go and talk to the professors on the jury panel. Sometimes maybe you will get an odd personality however; most of them are really lovely and easily approachable.

“When I first came back from Paris, it was very difficult for me to play Tchaikovsky for the first two years because his phrasing structure is just so different.”

Also remember why you are doing all of this. It is because you are interested in getting a job in an orchestra in a different country. You have to be prepared to the highest standard. On the other hand, if you find that orchestras do not want you because you are not a native then come back to Russia, as we have many orchestras who would love you and actually have a very decent salary.

An important aspect of studying

Ok, let’s take the Mariinsky theatre for example; there are many concerts which happen with no rehearsal whatsoever. Apart from being able to play the instrument really well you also have to be a very good sight-reader and understand different musical styles: If you are playing Mozart it has to sound like Mozart, if you are playing Prokofiev it has to sound like Prokofiev and if you are playing Wagner then the sound world, vibrato and phrasing would be completely different.

When I first came back from Paris, it was very difficult for me to play Tchaikovsky for the first two years because his phrasing structure is just so different. So I had to come out of the comfort zone of my European learnings and really try to understand what Tchaikovsky is really all about. These days I find it easy to play both. Also it is very important if you do go and study abroad to immerse yourself in the rich culture of the European city which you are part of. Do not simply sit in the classroom with your flute day and night. In all of big European cities there are concerts happening all of the time with the best orchestras, opera theatres, best musicians, singers, string players etc.. You have to listen to these concerts and really understand what they are doing. You have to listen to how the musician builds this or that phrase and how and why did they do it like that.

I find that I cannot listen to classical music just for pleasure anymore. Unless it is some unbelievable performance, I am always analyzing. If the performer did something “not right”, you can still treat it as a useful exercise and think how and why was it not to your satisfaction.

Difficulties of Teaching

“What a lot of flute players do not realise is that playing is very natural and we have to not simply blow into the instrument but exhale into it”

Yes, teaching is a very difficult “sport”. Even more difficult is teaching the little kids – this requires a special talent. In St. Petersburg we have a teacher like this Vladimir Ushakov. One of his pupils, Egor Egorkin, is now solo piccolo of the Berlin Philharmonic. I have now been teaching for a few years I have come to the conclusion that you are not able to tell the pupil “everything about everything” in one lesson. One has to break it down and give the information in small chunks and really pay attention to the core aspects of playing especially if the student is not very developed yet. It is very easy to talk about music to a mature and developed student however, if the students is lacking in technique then it is useless talking about it. Technique, like the fingers are easy to correct because that is something you can see. However, articulation, breathing, vibrato and sound are all inside of the body and therefore are much harder to show.

Also, for example we all know how to breathe. From our very first breath we know how to do it. Some teachers start to teach how to breath properly and quite often it becomes something unnatural and the pupils start to do it wrong. If you want to show how an embouchure should be formed one can simply look at a video recording of Emmanuel Pahud and see how everything is very free and relaxed. Another example is Grigory Mordashov. His embouchure is what we call a “side-embouchure” (Denis Bouriakov also has this). They play like this because it is the optimal way for their embouchures and how they were formed. It is definitely not wrong. Grigory used to take lessons from me and ask if he could do something to make it straighter. I simply answered “if it ain’t broken, why fix it?” Then he went for three years to Germany and tried to change it there and after he came back he told me that I was right and that it really didn’t matter how he held the flute. A “correct” position of the flute is a myth which has ruined many good flute players.

What a lot of flute players do not realize is that playing is very natural and we have to not simply blow into the instrument but exhale into it. When we talk we do not tense any part of our lips or throat or body, so it is the same on the flute. To sound louder we simply need to open our mouth more and let the resonance do the rest.

A lot of flute players also try to mimic other players. For example there is a generation of flute players who really want to sound like Sir James Galway. They do not know how he does it and start to really press the sound and this way they really shoot themselves in the foot as it only hinders their own development.

How to practice

I like the fact that my students are practicing. I like the fact that they are driven however, it isn’t always done in a healthy way. Some people develop quicker than others. First of all we need to have a lot of self-control. We need to understand what exactly we are practicing and what we want to achieve. We cannot simply play studies for studies sake but to use the time to control each note and then for good progress we will only need to practice 3 hours and not 8!

The student has to show initiative and get the professor to teacher them something new, technique or a piece of music, if you just wait to be told what and how to play you will not get very far. Someone who shows more initiative will have greater success.

The problem of teacher rivalry

I really do not understand why this is happening. For example in the Paris and Lyon conservatoires the professors have an exchange programme. They go to each other’s colleges and teach the students and these were really valuable lessons for me.

Sometimes I would show a particular technique to a student and they would get it instantly and other times they would not understand. I would then bring in my colleague from the Mariinsky orchestra Nikolai Mokhov and he usually is successful in describing the same technique but in a different way, which the student, who didn’t understand me, would understand. This shows that the more different teaching you have the better you can become. I would really encourage my students to go to www.principalchairs.com to look at the pre-recorded masterclasses by top flute players as it is a great way to be learning even when you are not practicing. Even if it is a small thing that the student learns, why would that be bad? The main thing for me is to play with conviction as two different violin players would never play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto the same way.

Robert Aitken: Interview, Nov ’18

Unlike most string players, and quite possibly most orchestral players, flutists often seem to focus on orchestral careers and not on being soloist or playing chamber music. Why that is is a topic for other venues but the fact that orchestral playing….

Tom Ottar Andreassen: Interview, Jan ’18

I had the good fortune whilst still at a special music school to meet composers and literally ‘grow up with them’, so that contemporary music was a natural part of my background. When I was 15…

Claudia Stein: Interview, Oct ’17

I had the good fortune whilst still at a special music school to meet composers and literally ‘grow up with them’, so that contemporary music was a natural part of my background. When I was 15, my classmate John Rausek wrote a piece dedicated to me. Later on I developed a close relationship to the composition…

Mario Caroli: Interview Sep ’17

Do you approach learning contemporary music with the same principles as for something earlier? Yes, of course! I never make differences between the 'repertoire' and the new pieces, and maybe this approach makes it new and refreshing. I play a lot of contemporary music...

Peter Lukas-Graf: Interview Jun ’17

What inspired you to play the flute? As a little schoolboy I played treble recorder like everybody. By looking for a real instrument my parents proposed a "real flute" a Böhm-flute.   Who were your musical inspirations? I listened to my mother who was a singer. Later...

Clare Southworth: Interview ‘Nov 16

Who were your main musical influences? I had two main influences outside my college life, which were William Bennett and Geoffrey Gilbert. I would meet up with them even year at the international summer school where I was a student at first, and then I taught on it...

Katherine Baker: Interview Jun ’16

How did your musical journey begin? I went to the Royal Academy of Music with the intention of studying with William Bennett who had inspired me to apply there. For my first year I had lessons with his wife Michie who took me back to the basics of Taffanel & Gaubert,...

Jim Walker: Interview May ’16

What do you think makes a great orchestral player? It is impossible to separate most of those critical characteristics from those of a great soloist, chamber musician or session musician. The fundamentals are universal and without them, no musician can function at a...

Claire Wickes: Interview Mar ’16 (Part 2)

First Flute of the English National Opera: Part - 2 Advice for Students and Young Players As your studying and professional playing overlapped, what did you find to be the main differences between playing with student orchestras and professional orchestras?...

Claire Wickes: Interview Feb ’16 (Part1)

First Flute of the English National Opera   What is your favourite opera that you have played so far and why? It’s very difficult to decide on a favourite; everything that I’ve played so far has had such different qualities and assets that to just pick one is...

Othonas Gkogkas: Interview Jan ’16

Principal Flute of the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra   Who were your teachers, and who influenced you whilst you were studying? My first teacher was Thomas Georgiou and then Michael Cox, Kate Hill and Patricia Morris. I think I was lucky because my teachers...

Gareth McLearnon: Interview Dec ’15

You have a great portfolio career. Which part do you enjoy the most? Funnily enough - it’s not actually one thing that I enjoy the most - but rather it's the diversity of my career which I really value, and the variety of my professional life and experiences that...