Recital Review

Singular Flute Recital: Renée Siebert Returns to N.C. & the School of the Arts

December 6, 2003 - Winston-Salem, NC:

The dreadful mix of transcribed trifles and baroque note-spinning that have haunted too many of the international touring flute virtuosos' programs have so turned us off that ordinarily only the heavy hand of scurvy press gangs could get us to review a flute recital. Two artists are exceptions to this rule: Michel Debost, principal flute of L'Orchestre de Paris (1967-90), who once appeared on Durham's Chamber Arts series, and Renée Siebert, who has been a member of the New York Philharmonic's flute section for over 25 years. Siebert's Vox recording of Mozart's First Flute Concerto and the Concerto for Flute and Harp, made early in her N.Y. tenure, is a treasure - it was among the first Lps I replaced with a CD reissue. As a result, I sped west to savor her December 6 recital in Watson Hall on the N.C. School of the Arts campus in Winston-Salem. The recital was a return to her alma mater, where she spent the 11th and 12th grades studying with Philip Dunigan before going on to work with Julius Baker at the Juilliard School of Music.

Two transcriptions opened the concert. Robert Schumann's Three Romances, Op. 94, were composed for either oboe or clarinet, but Siebert made a good case for the flute, ably helped by Gary Hammond's realization of the equally complex piano part. That said, the greater warmth and singing quality of the intended instruments would probably be closer to the composer's intentions.

Complex orchestration and a harp part were condensed into the piano score for Siebert's duo version of Howard Hanson's Serenade, composed for flute, harp and strings. The work was a wedding gift for the composer's wife, Margaret, and its gently flowing melodies are steadfastly romantic.

"Be Still My Soul" (2003), by Rhonda Larson, was an unexpected pleasure. It is for solo flute accompanied by a synthesizer, which, Siebert said, essentially allows the flute to accompany itself against a background of its own harmonics. The composer utilizes a hymn tune of the same name by Jean Sibelius as the basis for the piece. Hammond handled the electronics with ideal subtlety, making this the only time we have ever welcomed the sound of this "instrument." Watson Hall has three large speakers embedded above the stage but the dynamics generated in this work were mostly "ppp." Larson is multitalented - she is a flutist, a composer, and the leader of her own rock group. (Her website, at [inactive 9/08], is worth exploring.)

The appearance of Hindemith on a program can cause dread: will it be the work of the "good" Hindemith, who composed such works as Mathis der Maler or the various Kammermusik scores, or will it be the work of "bad" Hindemith, whose Gebrauchsmusik fully defines "prosaic" and "workmanlike"? The 15-minute Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1936 was called "a masterpiece" by James H. North in Fanfare (Nov./Dec., 1989). Banned by the Nazis, it is by turns energetic, elegiac, and ecstatic. Siebert brought out the depth of feeling in its serene middle movement, in which the flute melody is contrasted with spare piano chords. The last movement is an insistent march that ends in what Jonathan Woolf, writing in MusicWeb (7/2/02, at [inactive 6/04]), calls "a small blaze of neo-baroque glory."

Three short Paris Conservatory pieces, surely used to examine students' proficiency and dedicated to Paul Taffenel, professor of flute at the school from 1893-1908, were anything but dry academic exercises. Georges Enescu's "Cantabile et presto" (1904) begins with a slow melody but the presto section, with its swirling fast line and lovely trills, allows for virtuosic display, and the piano part would have been worthy of Liszt. A 1901 piece by Franck student Louis Ganne contrasts the flute's melody against a very rhythmic piano part. It has an elaborate and showy cadenza with impossibly rapid runs and trills - this composer pulls out all the stops! A Philippe Gaubert composition from 1920 features a delicate piano part and a lovely slow flute melody before a faster ending. All of these are far superior to the transcribed tripe that plague programs by the "big guns" on the flute circuit, and Siebert sailed through them with aplomb.

The last name of Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili (1924-89) was misspelled in the sparse printed program; information about the composer can be found at [inactive 4/06]. His 1968 Sonata in C, for flute and piano, is delightfully tune-filled. The first movement features a swirling melodic figure for the flute that allowed Siebert to use her full palette of tone colors. Some unusual flute key techniques were also exploited. The slow movement begins very quietly and features a long sustained melodic line. Rapid darting runs grace the lively finale.

Throughout the concert, Siebert's tone was precisely focused, and she demonstrated her mastery of wide dynamics. There was no hint of a "hollow" or anemic sound in her quietest passages, and her ability to play extremely rapid runs cleanly was amazing. Her breath control was astounding, too, and seemingly effortless. She played a "hybrid" flute, made with several different metals. Silver has the reputation of facilitating brilliant sound, but red gold produces a tone with a strong fundamental and thus a powerful low register. In a extended and fascinating interview with Don Bailey (at [inactive 2/08] - requires current browser...), Siebert describes her instrument, a Powell model made in 1959 with a Jorg LaFin 14-karat-gold headjoint. The November interview covers her introduction to music, the two years she spent as a student at the NCSA, her experiences at Juilliard, and her affiliation with the New York Philharmonic.