I travelled to the dynamic city of Montréal in the province of Québec, Canada to meet one of the greatest orchestral flutists in North America, Timothy Hutchins. He is also a renowned teacher whose students have won orchestral positions all over the world. So I also availed myself of a lesson!
We met at La Maison Symphonique, a new building in the Place des Arts, a plaza that houses multiple performance venues and was envisioned in the ‘50s to be a modern cultural centre for Montréal. The new hall was inaugurated in 2011 and is the official home of l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM), of which Timothy Hutchins has been the principal flutist for 40 years. Montréal was smack-dab in the middle of the annual Montréal Jazz Festival. It was in full swing and occupied the entire downtown around the centre, so I slowly made my way through the downtown core from the train station, through no less than six security checkpoints (where I had to unpack my flute bag each time)—mostly because I kept getting turned around and retracing my steps. It’s really not that hard to walk 10 minutes to the hall normally!
La Maison Symphonique is gloriously clad in glass with lovely views and plentiful wood benches. We sat in the splendid foyer and chatted about the history of orchestral music-making in Canada and the important role Montréal and Charles Dutoit had in developing the orchestral scene we now have in this country. [Remember dear fellow flutists and readers, Canada is only 150 years old…we’ve had to catch up!]
Tim is the happiest man and musician I’ve ever met and it’s contagious! All of his students report experiencing his joy—as well his support and love of music—and they are not exaggerating. [Note that comments in square brackets are mine.]
Dutoit and the building of an orchestra
“I did my audition in May and started officially in September. I did one crazy week in the summer. It was a great way to start: playing in a park, playing the Carmen solo with roller coasters and screaming people in the background. It was low stress! Alex Brott was conducting and you were immediately into that whole culture, and it really was a distinct culture. The first big concerts were big and it was Bartók, and Don Juan, Mendelssohn with Isaac Stern, and it was Dutoit. My tenure started two years later in 1980 and that’s when we started doing recordings; we did Daphnis and the good reviews started to come and every spring and fall for more than a decade, two or three CDs per session.”
Montréal in the ‘70s
“It was an interesting decade in Canada’s history, the ‘70s. Especially here [Montréal], this is where it was all cooking. Interesting stuff happening, for some folks it had been more cosmopolitan and that was changing a bit, and several people left. [There was a great deal of strife in the late ‘70s with the French language and separatist factions causing issues of concern in Montréal. Many non-French speaking people left the city.] What that did was open up lots of opportunities. Also, Charles Dutoit was booked to start that very same year.
“Prior to Dutoit, you had a wonderful orchestra with wonderful winds and a great conductor, Decker, Frubig and before, it was Zubin Mehta, and before him was Markevitch. Dutoit was just beginning his mature period, he was in his early 40s, and it was his time to make a mark. He had his genre that he was uniquely gifted for, the modern French and Russian works. What really helped him was the advent of CD technology, a good orchestra to work with, and he was French. By the spring of ’84, this orchestra was playing at the [Berlin] Philharmonie with The Rite of Spring to a full house and also in London houses. From then on, we made the name of this orchestra. When you go to Japan and make CDs of all the great works, you know you’ve made it.
“I had the opportunity to go to New York, just as Montréal was starting to take off. I was asked to join them and went on tour with them in ’83 as a trial. At the time, New York Phil was ’the’ place and Julius Baker was ’the’ guy and you say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll go down.’ I didn’t think I’d win the audition. I thought to myself that I’d l keep in shape and just go do it.
“The Montreal Symphony [now the OSM] in 1983 was a ‘we’ll see’ kind of orchestra still, and staying was a risky move. Dutoit could have been offered some other place and leave. He did get offers with other orchestras but he kept Montréal too and kept his promises [to feature Timothy and also do many recordings to bring the profile of the orchestra to the international stage.] He was very attached to this place and this group and the orchestra was doing great things.”
Conductors trained in the old school
“Some conductors who are long passed, like Furtwängler. That’s the good stuff. You hear things that you just don’t hear enough. Like the Brahms, very intricate. But like with [Franz-Paul] Decker here in Montréal, we had a person who was so good musically. Such an artist, really. He wasn’t perfect—he was a character—but you talk with anyone who has ever worked with him and they speak of him in the absolute highest regard. He was from Cologne and started off in the operas after the war. The old school was very demanding at that time. You had to have the goods and he had the goods. Not only the technical and cerebral goods…I would remember being in awe of some of the things he’d conduct. He’d play without a score—Pelléas and Mélisande, for example—but you just had such trust that he knew where he was. It wasn’t about the trick but about the artistry of knowing all the aspects, and it was in the moment with him. It wasn’t, like, three weeks of rehearsal on minutiae and expecting the exact same performance every night. It was like a great cook in a kitchen…Tuesday night it’s going to be like this, and Wednesday night it turns out completely different, but just as wonderful.”
Before Charles Dutoit recast the MSO as an orchestra specializing in modern French and Russian music, Mr. Decker and his predecessor, Zubin Mehta, had steeped the Montréal orchestra in the Austro-German Romantic repertoire. Mr. Decker was known for the way he elicited rich string sounds in the sprawling orchestral works of Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss.
(Thanh Ha, The Globe and Mail, 2018)
“Another guy like that is Mariss Jansons. He would do interesting things. He would not go over the big moments of a work on the morning of a performance; he would not touch them. Which I think is fantastic. It’s smart. You don’t need the big moments in the rehearsal, you need them in the show. It doesn’t matter if the details are slightly off, it matters if the people onstage were really involved and it mattered that it was artistically exciting. There’s always this great mystery of what’s going to happen.
“I read this famous guy…if you have a utopian society, where everything is perfect, the humans will start to go nuts because it’s all predictable. Everyone gets bored. You can have everything you want but you’re bored. Certain conductors give that unpredictability that’s exciting. As a musician playing where you have such fantastic stuff, it’s great. That’s what’s great with some genres like jazz, you know, it’s always creative. It sometimes doesn’t work, because that’s life!”
Q: How do you stay fresh and interested? You are always so happy and joyful—how do you stay that way over the years?
“I think it’s genetic. I get it from my parents, and particularly, my father. He wasn’t a professional musician but he played a lot. I was very lucky—my father was passionate about music. . . How do you keep your joy? Well, it’s just—I try not to lose sight of the fact that, yeah, from the inside, it could be the umpteenth time you’ve played something, but actually, it’s a good piece. It’s a great piece! A lot of it has to do with how you play it—most of it, actually. I remember listening to an interview with this harpsichordist and he was talking about that. He was asking the question ‘Is it the piece or the performance which validates the piece?’ In other words, you can have a poor performance of a great work, and it sounds pretty awful. Or you can have a great performance of a not-so-great work and it sounds amazing—there’s that aspect too. I figure you’d better make a damn good effort to make it as good as you can. It’s sometimes hard with certain pieces that purport to be pieces of music…it happens with the classics too. You can play them in a certain way and it’s not going to be as good, like three-day-old pizza, not particularly go—I don’t really want that. I’m certainly not perfect but I try to keep that in mind.”
Let the artistry lead
“My wife was listening to a great London orchestra and she said everyone had such beautiful playing. It was not functional playing—it was chamber music. It was like what you’d expect from a great quartet. It’s a huge difference and it’s alive. It’s hard because some places don’t have that mindset so you can’t always hire that.
“One guy from one of the greatest orchestras in the world said to me, ‘I couldn’t play like that here—I’d stick out like a sore thumb.’ They play with all the passion—they are famous for not playing tame. It’s full-on, all the time.
“I remember hearing the Reineke with Berlin and Andras Blau—I thought, What a beautiful performance. What a beautiful piece! Well, they played with such passion, you couldn’t help but like it. The quality of what they were putting into it—oh, I love that piece! And some orchestras don’t put that into it.
“But I remember with Dutoit and others, how they could bring out and awaken and not stifle that kind of artistry with an orchestra. Rather, they facilitated it. It was that they created a headspace of creativity. When you have that kind of thing in music, in classical music, then it will live. People are always into creativity; the genres of popular music, the creative ones, everyone is caught by it. Classical, though, is kind of tricky; all this perfectionism, it has to be this kind of sound…it can impugn the person’s creativity. The 14-year-old comes for a lesson and it’s all scales and arpeggios, and all this technical aspect, and the kid is all, Ugghhh. Everyone has creativity. I remember this one player—I didn’t particularly like their sound, but boy, I was never bored! He used what he had and it was so creative. I love that unpredictability.”
Q: Do you think orchestral playing suppresses that?
“Oh—totally! Especially this digital CD perfection. I recall the conductor [Sergiu] Celibidache would never record. I can imagine him thinking, What? A recording? Why? Music is live. Music is now. Tomorrow, I will feel different. Tomorrow, I may win the lottery and I’ll be in a different mood. I love that! I love that unpredictability.”
Q: How do you feel about your own playing?
“I’m not doing that much. I’m not really pushing it. I do some. In flute, it’s not like the piano and the violin. It’s the music; you can’t play Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev—as a flute player, there’s no Prokofiev concerto. You can transcribe things, of course, but it’s not the same. Not like violin with Tchaikovsky, etc. So how do you get to play Tchaikovsky and all these great composers? Go play in an orchestra! Or play some chamber music. The soloistic stuff is fun, but the repertoire is pretty limited in comparison to, say, the piano.”
Q: So for you, it’s the music—what interesting music do I get to play?
“Yeah, and it’s also the interplay with the musicians, too. I’d love to do more chamber music. I did The Jet Whistle with our principal cellist from here, and I’d like to do that again, because I like Brazil and I like Villa-Lobos, and the Bachianas Brasileiras with bassoon.”
Auditioning side notes
Q: Do you have a particular approach to teaching excerpts, aside from Keep blowing and don’t move so much? [A common comment at a recent masterclass Tim t recently in Toronto.]
“Yes. There are certain things that may be different in an audition—depending on where you’re going, you have to adjust. You have to know how they do it in that part of the world. If you don’t come from Vienna, chances are, you don’t know how they do it. It’s what I meant when I chose to come to Canada early. You have to get into their headspace, into their culture. They breathe here, they do this, they use this sound, they interact in this way.
“[In general,] there are certain aspects you have to address—the technical and the artistic. There is a focus on the technical these days, but artistically, it constrains the players. They lose a bit of confidence if they fail a bit on the technical side. You have to work on the artistic side. There are people who play so well, so perfectly, but it’s boring, or maybe not, but not particularly any different from anyone else and not particularly interesting. If you’re going in to play second flute, well, that’s going to be different to first. If you go into an audition for a second flute position and you play like a Mack truck with a huge sound and intense vibrato and soloistic style, well, that’s not going to work.”
Q: Any advice for people doing auditions, perhaps from being on the other side—on the panel?
“It’s complicated—there are so many aspects. You mustn’t care too much about the result. Don’t be too invested—do your best, play the music, work hard…find the weaknesses and dedicate a lot of time to addressing that. You can’t be technically beneath a certain level. A panel will know that something is ridiculous writing but for the most part, you have to be right on. Artistically, you have to have something that is special. Some people have or can get it, or they don’t. Some people have an eye for colour, or placement of things, and it’s the same for musical artistry. You have to take care of things, do mock auditions, tape yourself.
“When I auditioned, I had to get the job, and then, you have to keep the job. And you have keep keeping the job. Don’t put your efforts in areas where no one is going to hear you—you can hide in spots, but when you have a simple solo, that’s where you spend your energy. It’s about developing your own perceptions too, and developing your own abilities.”
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…
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…
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...
About the author
The Red Scribbler
Jaye is currently principal flutist with the Peterborough Symphony, the Summerhill Orchestra and piccoloist for Orchestra Toronto. An active freelancer and chamber musician in Toronto, she has also appeared as a soloist with numerous ensembles including the KSO and Hart House Chamber Orchestra. Jaye has also appeared with a number of ensembles including the Canadian Chinese Society for the Arts Orchestra, the Cirque Musica tour, and Evanescence.