Interview with Jeanne Baxtresser
By Hannah Lang
Pan: The Journal of the British Flute Society:—March 1997
Jeanne Baxtresser made her professional debut with the Minnesota Orchestra aged fourteen. Following her graduation from The Julliard School she became Principal Flautist in the Montreal Symphony and later the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 1984, at the invitation of Music Director Zubin Mehta, she began her tenure with the New York Philharmonic. As well as a hectic orchestral schedule Jeanne is a much sought after teacher, chamber musician and competition adjudicator. Her students from Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music occupy positions in major orchestras worldwide. She can be heard on numerous recordings as soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player.
I was fortunate enough to meet Jeanne Baxtresser last summer when the New York Philharmonic were in London for the Proms, and to hear her in a marvelous performance of a selection from Prokofieff’s ballet Romeo & Juliet: in a packed Albert Hall. When we talked earlier in the day I began by asking her about her background and beginnings as a flute player…
JB: I come from a musical family, my mother was—still is—a concert pianist, and while the children—there were six of us in the family—were raised, she placed the playpen right next to her as she practised. She’d be practising many, many hours a day, and as soon as we’d start to fuss she’d rock the playpen a bit and then go back to it! We were completely happy. So music was in my bones and my body and brain before I can remember having a conscious thought, but I was slow to find the flute. I started with the piano, which was a disaster. I was very impatient. I heard my mother’s magnificent playing for all those years—Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Scarlatti etc. My beginning attempts simply weren’t satisfying to me. I was too anxious to get on to something that sounded more like what she was doing! Then I started on the violin, but that also was not good because my fingers were not suited to it. I didn’t like the feeling. Same with the cello, and it was by pure chance that I happened to see, at public high school, a woman come through with a woodwind quintet who played the flute. My mother and father (who played the piano quite well and adored music) loved string and piano chamber music. We had many evenings in our home where the playing would go on until the small hours. The woodwinds were a whole new world to me. I saw this woman with this gorgeous flute, and the sound just grabbed my heart. ‘That’s for me’, I thought, ‘I like the way it looks, I like the way it sounds’, and when I got my little rented flute I realised that I liked the way it felt. I liked the song in me that was able to be expressed through the breath. It is so important to have your child on an instrument where they love the feeling of it—of the bow across the strings, the fingers on the piano keys, or the feel of the reed or mouthpiece. So with the flute I just fell in love. I started when I was nine, and by the time I was fourteen I knew I wanted to play the flute professionally. I think it was the best thing I did, for one thing. I just loved doing it. I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy, which is a music school for high school students, and when I graduated I went to the Julliard School in New York, studied with Julius Baker, who was my ideal of a flute player. Those were great years. In my last year at Julliard I thought, ‘I’d better take an audition.’ I’d been working on orchestral repertoire all along. I didn’t mention to Julie Baker that I was going to do it. I made a reservation and went up to Montreal which had a first flute opening and took that audition, and it was long! I thought everything had to be memorised, there was no list, so anything they asked for I started to play before they got the music to me, so that was the way they just continued. It was about 45 minutes before somebody asked me if I could play the Prokofieff violin concerto second movement flute solo, and I said ‘I would, but I hadn’t heard that piece, I don’t know it’. I was totally free, totally relaxed, I had no expectation of getting the job, it was the furthest thing from my mind—this was part of my education, I thought. I got the job. That’s when the hard work began! It was really something. I finished my schooling and went up there. It’s a fabulous orchestra, and a major season, and suddenly there I was. I had to teach myself a lot of things. All the concerts were broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and we did Brahms 4, I think, in the first concert, and I heard myself on the broadcast which I had taped. I was looking forward to it, because I thought it went well, then when I heard the tape I was a little upset with certain things that I had done that I wasn’t aware of (things in intonation) and I thought, that’s the last time I’m going out on stage without hearing myself play on tape before I go. So I got a little tape recorder, and everything I played I taped, so I would always be the first to listen to it and make those corrections. I would never hear it for the first time on the radio. That was where I really started to educate myself, and I think those were tremendous learning years for me. The orchestra became my teacher, my own ear became my guide. We can’t guide ourselves without a tape recorder. It’s impossible to get that distance. So I learned a great deal in that wonderful orchestra. I also met my future husband, David Carroll, who was at that time the principal bassoonist of the MSO. We have shared a wonderful musical life together, and he still sits about two feet away from me in the bassoon section of the New York Philharmonic. After nine years in Montreal I auditioned for the Toronto Symphony; Andrew Davis was Music Director at that time. That was a difficult audition for me because I had a reputation, I was older and I hadn’t taken an audition in nine years.
HL: It was your second!
JB: Yes—of my three auditions Toronto was the most difficult. The New York Philharmonic audition was much easier because I learned how to prepare mentally and physically for the whole experience. Principally the Toronto Symphony is a wonderful orchestra. Also Andrew Davis was a thrill, a joy to work with as a musician, instrumentalist and fabulous conductor. He has an overview of music that has many levels which was wonderful for me to learn about. He has joy in his music making. Genuine joy that makes performance a real trip, like going on an adventure. This particular aspect of performing is so crucial to music making. My three principal conductors Andrew Davies, Zubin Mehta, and Kurt Masur all have this ability to make every concert seem like a completely new experience. They are very different conductors with very different temperaments but the discoveries never cease with any of them!
HL: When you got the job in the Philharmonic, was it a great thrill to be back in New York?
JB: Yes, I was coming home. When I was a student in New York there were no women in the Philharmonic so I didn’t even dream of the possibility. I must admit, when I first got into the Philharmonic I was so overwhelmed I could hardly play! To be playing in this great orchestra, the orchestra where I had sat in the hall as a student and looked at my teacher. One thing that might emerge from this conversation is that you keep learning. Even coming into the Philharmonic in my thirties, I was still learning how I had to handle things. I had to realise I defined that position now. Somehow I felt, sitting in that position where my teacher had been, in the great New York Philharmonic, that I wasn’t good enough—I had to be so much more. Of course you can’t be more than you are. As soon as I could settle back into feeling, ‘This is it, it’s me, if they don’t like it I imagine they’ll let me know’, then I was fine. Coming to the Philharmonic was a very different situation from Toronto. Going from two or three concerts a week up to four and five really shifts a great balance in your life—suddenly you’re working a lot more than you’re not working, and as we don’t have a co-principal system you have to be doing major parts of the programme, so that was a big transition. New York is one of the musical centres of the world, as London is. Any given night there are people out there of great importance in the musical world and a full house of 3000, and you always feel you have to be on your best. There are also NY critics and the whole thing, just like London. So suddenly the accelerator was down to the floor, and that little car was going as fast as it could.
HL: What do you think are the strengths of the New York Philharmonic?
JB: It’s an orchestra of virtuosos. The personality of the individual is able to dominate and that leads to a musical richness. It’s very much like America: a melting pot where everything comes together yet everyone retains a certain individuality. That’s New York City as well. Each orchestra in the United States has a reputation for a certain type of thing. I don’t want to get into any trouble making ridiculous generalisations, but the Philharmonic has the reputation of reflecting in a way the personality of the city: tremendously energetic, brash in a way, very exciting. It requires a certain amount of change from a player coming in from the outside to get into that—it’s like jumping onto a merry-go-round as it’s going its fastest. For me the strengths are that it’s a tremendously exciting orchestra, the players play like high powered soloists all the time, and it has a great spirit. The orchestra members are also very good to each other. When you get into the Philharmonic people said ‘Welcome to this wonderful family’, and it has certainly been that. it is a very versatile orchestra, great reading orchestra, fabulous with modern music, with American music, and, of course, the standard repertoire. The New York Philharmonic also has an extraordinary history of great music directors including Toscanini, Mahler, Bruno Walter, Pierre Boulez and into my time with Mehta and Masur. Each one has left an indelible impression.
HL: Can you tell me about your CD and the book of extracts? How did they come about?
JB: Well it is interesting. When I studied flute at the Juilliard in the 60s people didn’t think about the excerpts very much. There were the technical studies, the etudes, the solo repertoire which is so: important, and then, kind of as an afterthought you were expected to prepare these on your own, go out, by the way, and get a job. Fortunately I’ve seen this changing over the years where today people do make a very serious study. When you’re auditioning for an orchestral position it involves an institution giving you a lifetime job. In return I don’t think it’s too much to expect the player to spend a tremendous amount of study and preparation for the audition presentation. It always interested me that people would prepare for a year for a competition where the prize might be $250, and yet for an orchestral audition where the prize would be a lifetime of employment and security they’d practise for a month. My mission, through my career, has been to help students realise that this is not only an obligation, but a joy, to learn this music from the bottom. For example, to start to just listen to a recording of Scheherazade, without listening to the flute part. Just listen to the piece, read about the piece, and then graduate to the point where you are concentrating more on the flute part, and then how the flute part relates, and then practising the more difficult solos. This is a process that should take a great deal of time and care and love. I think my feelings about this are clear if you listen to the CD and read the book. This is a process that takes many years and can’t be crammed—it’s not like an exam at the end of school where you can read up real fast and then just kind of get through it. Those are my feelings about auditions: it can be a glorious experience. The orchestral audition is a singular experience in a musician’s life because there is no other time when you come on stage alone, to play this fabulous music without anybody: getting in your way. There are no problems with balance or intonation. There is no conductor, it’s your: interpretation of the Debussy, it’s your: interpretation of Brahms fourth or Beethoven third—what a great freedom.
HL: So it’s a liberation.
JB: It is, and if you’re ready and you have all this experience and background behind you, you can just fly, play this music and have a great time, and maybe even get the job! So that’s how these projects came about.
HL: I think it’s very interesting that you decided to do the piano accompaniments as it seems to me that a very important part of playing the extracts is really knowing what’s going on.
JB: It’s very important. Again that’s one part of this big process that I mentioned very briefly, which starts with just listening to the recordings, going to a concert and hearing the piece. I think one of the final things should be to play with the recording. That’s what I used to do, so that I could feel the rhythm and harmony happening underneath me. To play with the piano version helps because you’re playing with a living human being that will or will not bend for you, which is important. When I work with my students I often tell them to practice from the piano part so that their vision encompasses not only the flute line. You start to see and memorise, just by having it there peripherally, everything that’s underneath, so you’re thinking vertically. Also I’ll tell the pianist, don’t give an inch here, you just chug away like forty string players that are following a conductor, and let the student fit in. And in some instances I say, here you have to be able to give a little bit and bend. Sometimes I want a very sympathetic accompaniment, sometimes not, and that’s also good for them. My collaborator on the book was Martha Rearick, who is a wonderful flutist, and wonderful pianist, and she teaches at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She was responsible for the piano reductions.
HL: She’s a flute player as well a pianist?
JB: Yes. It was her basic idea, and we collaborated to bring this to fruition.
HL: Is this the first instrument of the orchestra to have done this?
JB: Yes, at least in the United States. I think there are some editions here in Europe where they have done it, but this is the first one here, and it has just worked beautifully. In the book we used the real: orchestral parts. The engravings used are those of the original publisher. We got permission from every publisher to photograph those parts so that you see Petrushka: in this book exactly: as it’s going to look on the audition. The other thing we did was that we did tremendous research into all the mistakes, and these parts are riddled with them. We didn’t change the parts, but we took the mistakes and made an errata section after each piece where we identified them. It’s crucial that a player know when the full score differs from what appears in the flute part. The book took three years to do—that’s including all our other work—but it was an enormous project and we really put our heart and soul into it.
HL: Very satisfying
JB: I can’t believe it. You know it’s interesting for a performer to have something you can actually put your hand on, that you did. You hold this thing and it exists, and will tomorrow and the day after and it won’t disappear.
HL: I noticed that there were similar CDs for the other woodwind instruments. Are they in the same mould?
JB: Yes, this is a series that Summit Records has done, and it has been very successful in the United States. They had the first oboe player of the Cleveland Orchestra, first clarinet in Chicago; Phil Smith, who’s our principal trumpet here in the Philharmonic, and others. We were all talking about it and agreed it was the hardest thing we ever did. We all did the same thing: when we were asked to do it we were wildly enthusiastic ‘Sure, I know these things, I can play this, this will be fun!’ and then getting into the studio and talking about your ideal performance, and then playing it for a tape, it was just overwhelming. I wrote about each excerpt in the book, and that took a tremendous amount of thought: how much do I write, how much do I say, how many limitations do I place on the player? Any, none, some, what? That was an enormous task, but the culmination of speaking on this CD and then playing:… I thought the book was hard! This was a real lesson in difficult!
HL: Was it like auditioning all over again?
JB: A hundred times worse because I couldn’t rely on spontaneity. In a recording such as this one I had to be very concerned with accuracy in technique, rhythm, intonation and style for obvious reasons. I found, however, I could never forget to let my inspiration be my guide, or my performances would become mere athletic events. It is important to remember this in an audition as well. Although there’s no such thing as perfection in any of those areas. And although in your practice you work to get it at your best level, I think to bring into an audition the idea of maintaining a perfect standard crushes the creative side of what you’re trying to do. You are indeed in the audition trying to seduce this jury to hearing something that goes beyond technical accuracy, that reaches levels of inspiration. I would want a jury to hear not the player but the music. The music is so great, and if you do a great audition the committee will, I think, be mostly just taken away with the beauty of the music, and you are somewhat incidental in that. But then they realise, ‘My gosh! This person brought me into Brahms, or Debussy, I want to sit by this person’. So that’s the way to think. In this recording of course you couldn’t let go like that.
HL: Do you think these things apply to whatever position in the orchestra you are applying for?
JB: No question, in fact we’re going to do a second volume of the book and of the CD, and I’m going to bring into that the entire section, all positions. I have an enormous respect for each one: each position has its challenges. The second flute player has to fill the position of a soloist, because there are big second flute solos; that person also has to do a magical job of blending and supporting, and then sometimes act as equal partner in solos—duo solos, like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra: where you want two equal sounding flute players, you don’t want a first and a second sound. The person has to know how to play back in Brahms on a sustained note, how to come forward in a Brahms line when it is important. The second flute job is an extremely challenging position. I have a great second flute player, who’s taught me so much, Renée Siebert. Then we have the Associate Principal who is responsible for the pieces that I don’t play, and for anything I do play, if I get sick. That’s an enormous responsibility; every day you wake up you don’t know if you’re going to be playing Daphnis: that night. You may not know until 7:30 that night, and so you have to be ready all the time. Plus your own job, which is big in an orchestra like the Philharmonic. We do so many concerts that the Associates play a great, great deal, and I’m off many weeks: I’m on tour on my own, doing solo recitals and master classes. Our marvellous Associate Principal is Sandra Church. And then of course you have the piccolo position, which is one of the most important positions in the orchestra. I think a piccolo player can make an orchestra sound fantastically brilliant, and can also make an orchestra sound sloppy and kind of run down. It depends on the brilliance of this player. Our piccolo player is Mindy Kaufman and she is brilliant, so we’re luck! All the players in the section, Renée, Mindy and Sandy are great piccolo players, great alto players, as well as brilliant flutists. Sandy plays a beautiful silver piccolo which is interesting, a Powell. Anyway, in the next book and CD I’m going to concentrate more these other positions.
HL: So did they come out together or separately?
JB: The book and CD were separate endeavours.
HL: But the same repertoire
JB: The book has a few excerpts I couldn’t fit on the CD.
HL: I thought it would have been interesting in some of the extracts to have had the piano accompaniment.
JB: They wanted this record to be as close to the real audition sound as possible. You can always listen to a recording, you can now play it with piano, but actually to hear a player with experience play it exactly like it’s going to sound for the audition committee was what they were after—the uniqueness of that situation. That’s what we were after, and believe me I felt it in that studio, alone, playing those things as I did for my last audition 14 years ago.
HL: So when a job comes up in the Philharmonic, what sort of number of people apply?
JB: For a flute job, easily over a hundred, hundred and fifty. We receive many applications, beginning with people who are not qualified but just want to write and get the repertoire list, and then people that maybe are not qualified but want to see if by chance they can get in for the audition and for the experience and so on. We have to go through a list. The Philharmonic is very liberal, anybody that really wants to play will play, and we listen very seriously. We do have a taped elimination where we listen, and the whole committee is there—not the conductor—and if somebody is truly ill prepared it’s very evident, and we don’t hear them. You should make the most beautiful sound you can on a tape, but we try not to listen for tone quality, because that will vary wildly from tape to tape machine and depending on the set up and so on. That is not what we’re judging, we’re judging pretty much on those things that don’t lie on a tape: intonation, technical accuracy, rhythm. Some people are using very inadequate equipment, and you can’t punish them for that, so if all these technical things are in line, and the basic stylistic knowledge—you don’t play Beethoven like you play Stravinsky—then they will be accepted into the next round which are the preliminaries in the hall.
Those are probably going to be behind a screen, and that may take three, four, five days. Again the conductor isn’t there. Then we get to the next round which is the semifinal where we hear those people again, I’m not sure at this point if it’s behind a screen or not, but then we will get it down to a smallish number, four or five, which is what we would present to the conductor and to ourselves, as the committee on the final day. This process may take a period of months. Again, we’re appointing somebody for life. it’s one of those few jobs today in the world where, on the basis of what you do in an audition, you’re awarded a position that will make a career. The big orchestras are like that—in the smaller orchestras people are thinking of moving on. You don’t move on from the Philharmonic.
HL: What do you think about the demoralising aspect of doing auditions? All the preparation to go and play for ten minutes, and then not get anywhere.
JB: I think you really have to look at the audition experience as part of the total experience of your lifetime. It is not the culmination of your career up to that point. I often tell my students that when you emerge from an audition it’s not like you’re going to be given a grade, a grade that encompasses your life up to that point. You shouldn’t walk around saying, ‘Well, I’m a B, a B minus, and that’s I guess what I am’. That is absolutely the wrong way to think. The audition represents what you were at that particular moment, that particular day. You could be a totally different thing on another day, depending on how you felt and your inspiration. We are not machines, we’re fallible human beings; we have good days, we have bad days, we have great days, and I think it’s very important that each audition represents part of the process. There are going to be other auditions after that, and there were probably auditions before, so this is one in a process. There is no question it’s demoralising, rejection is never easy, but it’s those people that are able to handle that, put it in perspective, to feel bad for a couple days, a week, and irritated, and maybe like you’re passed over unfairly, but also to be able to go back and say, ‘Well look, this happened, and that happened, and I think I want to try this next time, I want to do this, I learned that, I’m glad I did this because this really worked well’, and then to bring it back into the process. It’s like a long road, and that road keeps climbing in a wonderful way, but if you pause on every audition as if it’s a precipice to figure out whether you’re going to jump off or continue on, that will take you off the path.
HL: So what you’re hoping to encourage all flute players to do is not to see auditions as something that you prepare for, but as music that you play all the time, and practice all the time, and think about all the time, so that when you go for an audition you play the music that you’re immersed in. JB: You’re continuing a part of your musical life, but the best part of it—which is to play for people—that’s actually what we’re after. We’re searching for a position where we’re always playing for people. I remember the auditions I have taken I was so glad to have been there doing them because I thought, ‘I’ve worked hard for this, and I’m glad to have this opportunity’.
HL: It’s important to be a musician, not just a flute player.
JB: If you hear someone thinking of themselves and of the flute, and not of the Brahms symphony, and they aren’t able to bring in that whole depth of feeling. I must say, on the other side, that while everything we’ve talked about as preparation for an orchestral audition is extremely important, an equal partner in this is developing as a soloist. The other half of this personality will be the person who is performing in recitals, master classes, competitions, Prokofieff, Khatchaturian, Ibert, all these pieces, because that makes you a total performer, and in order to sit in an orchestra you have to be a soloist as a wind player. If you can stand up and play the Nielsen concerto you can play Daphnis & Chloë: in an orchestra and it is not a big deal, but you’ve got to have that part of your personality very well developed.
HL: Can we talk a bit about what else you do?
JB: I’m teaching currently at Julliard, where I have been since I came into the Philharmonic, and also at the Manhattan School of Music. That is a Masters programme in orchestral studies only, so we work very hard on that. I take people who are very serious, and who I think can do very well, so that’s a very successful programme—just about every student has a job. My students range in age from 16 to 26 or older, and come from all over the world. The last few years I have had some remarkable talents from Germany and Korea as well as the U.S. They are extraordinary individuals as well as wonderful students… it is a joy to spend time with them! That’s been wonderful. I’m also going to be teaching, starting next year, at Carnegie Mellon, which is a very wonderful university in Pittsburgh, and I’ll be going there to start my own programme as well. The teaching is my passion.
HL: Have you got time?
JB: It’s tough. I think when I was younger the performing was what meant the most to me. As you get older there’s this great desire to give, and to leave part of what you’ve learned behind. I try to bring all the students together because I love to have warm feelings between colleagues so that they can help each other. It’s a tremendously important resource. I learned a great deal from my teacher, he was fantastic; but I also learned from my colleagues—they taught me so much. There is an open exchange, and you feel close to each other in a healthy flute class.
HL: Do you think the conservatories in America are training people well nowadays?
JB: Our problem right now is that we don’t have enough orchestras for all the wonderful players. You also have a great tradition of extraordinary flutists and flute teachers here in the British Isles. Your star players have always enriched our musical lives and I know they will always do so. I personally am looking forward to having the opportunity to meet and hear some of your younger players in the future—maybe even here, in your beautiful country!
HL: Jeanne Baxtresser, thank you very much for your time and enthusiasm!
Reprint of extract from Orchestral Excerpts for Flute with Piano Accompaniment:: Copyright Theodore Presser Co. Reproduced by kind permission of Alfred A. Kalmus Ltd.