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A flutist steps into the solo spotlight
The flutist Brandon Patrick George in New York, Oct. 10, 2020. George’s debut recording includes works by Bach, Boulez, Prokofiev and the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Donavon Smallwood/The New York Times.

by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As a teenager attending a public arts high school in Dayton, Ohio, Brandon Patrick George kept two newspaper clippings pinned to his bedroom wall.

The first was a profile of flutist Demarre McGill, who had performed a concerto with the local symphony orchestra. George’s grandmother had saved the article for him, with its accompanying photograph of a classical musician who was Black — just like him. The other was an obituary for Jean-Pierre Rampal, whose trailblazing career reaffirmed the flute as a solo instrument.

To George, now 34, the two clippings were like flares, lighting the way to his goal of becoming a flutist.

Since then, he has toured some of the world’s most important concert halls as a member of Imani Winds, an ensemble dedicated to championing a new and diverse repertory for wind quintet. But now he is stepping into the spotlight as a soloist with a debut recording, a program that showcases the flute in all its wit, warmth and brilliance.

The album includes pieces by Bach, Boulez, Prokofiev and the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, born in 1949. George spoke by phone recently about his personal connection to each of these works, and the conversation they seem to spark across centuries. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q: The first work is Bach’s Partita in A minor. You developed your interpretation on the Baroque traverso flute, and only switched to modern flute days before the recording. Why?

A: I really wanted to get into the sound world of what Bach would have been hearing. At every step of the instrument’s development, we tried to get an extension of what it was already able to do; we were not trying to get rid of qualities, but add possibilities.

Yes, the modern silver flute can be played with the warm tone of one that’s made of wood. It takes a fraction of the air to make a sound on the Baroque flute versus the modern flute. So I was working with a slower air speed and using less air, which was allowing me to get a bit of a warmer, more delicate tone.

Also, it’s a dance piece. One thing that really confused me about listening to modern players approach the solo partita was that often it was played so freely and with so much rubato. What kind of dancing could anyone do to that?

Q: Next up is Pierre Boulez’s Sonatine, played with the pianist Steven Beck. Your idol, Rampal, declared it unplayable. What draws you to this music, and how does it relate to the Bach?

A: I studied with Sophie Cherrier at the Paris Conservatory; she was hired by Boulez to join his Ensemble Intercomporain. As part of my study with her I would go sit in on their rehearsals at [the electronic-music institute] IRCAM. I had just turned 20. And I was hooked. In the Sonatine, Boulez is asking the flutist to go beyond what we think of the flute. This is an instrument that is capable of being beautiful, lyrical, charming — but it can also be very aggressive. In the score he calls for a strident sound, he even goes as far as saying “violently.” And he puts you against the piano part, and the piano is a monster.

But despite all these things, it’s basically a sonata. There are themes that come back, just like in Bach. There is this structure. Both Bach and Boulez are mathematicians at work. These pieces are puzzles. And while they are doing it, they are making you feel something.

Q: How does Kalevi Aho’s “Solo III” fit into the historical timeline of the flute?

A: To me, Kalevi’s piece is almost like an aria. The first movement is a melancholy, grief-stricken song. And he uses quarter tones. This is not something that we hear flutists play very often; the fingerings for getting those notes-in-between-the-notes are so complicated, and they vary from instrument to instrument.

He’s using them so you are rising to a point of shouting or really letting out a sigh of mourning. And because you are using unconventional fingerings, it changes the tone colors, too. The quality of the sound reminds me the oldest instruments in history: flutes carved out of stone or bone. So you’re seemingly playing an instrument with no keys out in the wilderness. And you’re by yourself.

Q: With Prokofiev’s Sonata in D, here accompanied by the pianist Jacob Greenberg, we are back in the familiar world of melodic and vivacious flute music. Why did you include it?

A: I’m actively making a case for the flute as a great solo instrument. And Prokofiev was able to shine a light on how lyrical and how sweet it can be. Of course, there’s lots of notes and virtuosity and the last movement shows him as a master of dance, of ballet. But it also made sense to me, taking people on this journey with these composers in dialogue, looking forward and looking back, to have this sonata written around World War II that is very Classical. This is the Prokofiev who wrote the “Classical” Symphony, putting his modern twist on harmony, looking back and writing a very elegant, almost Mozart-like work.

Q: In your work with Imani Winds, there is none of that dialogue across centuries, because the group is committed to music of the present. Why the focus on living composers?

A: Because you’re able to see the incredible amount of diversity that you can have, just from playing composers of today and recent years. What we’re after with Imani Winds is that we want every composer to be able to bring their story to the music that they write. When you are championing living composers you can have things that are thorny, luscious — things that have improvisation and influences of jazz and popular music. Then you are also changing how classical music is perceived. We want the music that we play to reflect the world in which we live.

Q: In that context, how important was it as a teenager to be aware of a Black soloist like Demarre McGill?

A: I can’t say enough about what it means having someone who looks like you doing something at an extremely high level. This guy looked like me — his haircut was like mine, actually!

He showed me that that music was for me. That I could play that, too. And that music could take me to college, to the great concert halls of the world, to places that people from my family have never been to. Seeing him onstage — that was enough for me.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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