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Exquisite Allegories: Exploring the Flute Repertoire with Ai Goldsmith

by Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine, September/October 2017

Interview & Review reproduced with permission.


With her disc Les exquises Allégories, flutist Ai Goldsmith presents a stimulating program, not least because two of the pieces are by Walter Gieseking. While this disc provides the primary focus of this interview and is the disc reviewed at the end, two more releases by Ai were considered: Air Japonais (issued by the artist, 884501400466) and Songs of the Human Spirit, in which she is guest artist on a program of songs and arias by Henry Mollicone performed by soprano Nancy Wait-Kromm and the composer (Newport Classic 85683). 

Both of the full discs (Les exquises Allégories and Air Japonais) you kindly sent me are with Miles Graber; is he your regular accompanist? 

Yes. Miles Graber has shared his talents with me since we first performed at Sir James Galway’s masterclass in 2007 at Festival del Sole (now Napa Valley Festival) in Napa, California. I also play frequently with pianists such as Tim Carey from the UK and Dianne Frazer from the USA, but Miles is like my main musical Santa Claus. He gifts me with his time and talent, and also resembles Father Christmas in a jolly way. 

What about your personal history as a musician? Who were your principal teachers? (I know you were at UCLA—who was your principal teacher there?) And indeed, who were your principal influences musically? 

I studied with Sheridon Stokes (who is a legend in his own right as a Hollywood studio musician and a champion of contemporary music) and with David Shostac (who recently retired from his post as the principal flutist of Los Angeles, CA) while at UCLA. Sheridon taught me to think for myself, and he always challenged me to make a beautiful phrase on the spot. From Dave, I learned how to play the flute well—all the basic technical things, orchestral and solo repertoire, and also how to shape phrases while staying true to the score. He also encouraged me to trust my instincts, which he told me were good even then. 

The most significant teacher in my life is the French flutist Isabelle Chapuis. I have known her now for half my life. She was born in Dijon, and began learning the flute from her family friend Michel Debost, then went onto study with Marcel Moyse, and with Gaston Crunelle and Jean-Pierre Rampal at the Paris Conservatory, earning the Premiere Prix. She is the principal flutist with Opera San José. Her operatic experience, combined with the principles of the French school of flute playing, made her place importance on simple, natural expression. Isabelle taught me the fine points of the arts of articulation, vibrato, and tone production. We always explored subtleties of nuances and tone colours. She encouraged me to take risks, and to connect with the audience with every note. Isabelle is one of those magical teachers who unlocks the potential in every student. That is what she did for me. She is a dear friend, a flute-mom, if you will, and my beloved mentor. 

Through Isabelle, I met the great American flutist Robert Stallman (who has recorded extensively and published a large volume of transcriptions). Robert has mentored me for something like 13 years! Robert’s influences span everything from maintaining an open sound and special technical flute know-hows to interpretation of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and beyond. Robert’s deep knowledge of the music of Bach, Mozart, and Schubert is exquisite. He is a true scholar, flutist, and a musician. Like Isabelle, his training is based on the French school (Alain Marion and Jean-Pierre Rampal, for example). Both Isabelle and Robert often said that the heart of the person behind the flute is what is important—that we cannot hide behind the flute. They also impressed upon me that performing is “about the music, not about you or what you are.” I think these are the most important things I learned from the two master musicians. 

Your website (with its lovely URL: tells of a hand and wrist injury that threatened your mobility and has given you a different view of the world. Could you expand on how that incident changed you? 

The incident is one of the most painful experiences I have ever had. Imagine being in severe pain for days, which grow into weeks, months, years. But I won’t bore you with that. What I will say is that it is this experience that made me understand the feelings of others and the tendencies of my own mind. I started to deeply explore my own psyche and spirituality. What really prevented me from going into deep depression is the concept that life is a workbook of problems, that each problem we face is there to reflect back to us the tendencies of our own minds, that one of the purposes for being alive in this world is to evolve our tendencies and the capacity to love—starting from the stage of fundamental love, nurturing love, to eventually reaching that of forgiveness and ultimately achieving existence as love. This philosophy gave me hope—because I knew that I only faced problems that I am capable of solving, and that in discovering the tendencies of my own mind that lead to the present state I would have the chance to evolve into something more than what I was before. That meant that I could transform myself for the better and find a happier self. 

I listened a lot during this time to live concerts and recordings. I also watched a lot of performances of different genres, including theater. I began to perceive the personalities of the performers in their music and performance. That helped me understand what was meant by Isabelle and Robert when they said that one cannot hide behind the flute, that the heart of the person behind the instrument is important. I realized that if I wanted to change the music that came out of my instrument for the better, I needed to cultivate myself from the inside as well as work on technique. Isabelle and Robert taught that to play music is to give love to others. I started to truly feel the meaning behind these concepts. 

I also began to study scores from a more analytical perspective, since I was not able to play the flute much. I also started to record myself and learned to listen to myself critically. I think all these things add up like layers of ice under an iceberg. 

Indeed, your biography talks about a “mindful” path—an interesting word these days with the prevalence of “mindfulness” as a therapeutic technique/intervention everywhere. It’s particularly relevant as it is an extension of an Oriental practice into Occidental thought processes, and your Airs Japonais has its basis in the cross-pollination between East and West. And as I listened, it struck me that your playing is indeed very “mindful”—or perhaps the best word would be “aware.” Is all of this part of what you strive for in music? (and perhaps in life itself?). Yet being in the moment does not preclude an awareness of the music’s overall structure, does it? 

Perhaps the sense of awareness and mindfulness comes from the way I approach the score. I learn the score as if studying a three-dimensional road map. When I perform the music I always know where the music is going and how it is going to get there. One might say I know how the last note should be played and I build all the other notes in relation to that last note. I might also equate music to a play: I know how different nuances in the underlying meaning of the play can be brought out by how actors deliver their lines. 

I think being in the moment does not preclude an awareness of music’s overall structure. I am in the moment when I perform the music and take risks when inspired, just as an actor is in the moment when acting out a role and may improvise a gesture, look, or an inflection of the voice. Even though I know the roadmap, like any driver I have control over just how fast to enter a curve and or how much brake I use when going down a mountain. That is why I feel comfortable taking risks. The risks I take create excitement. To be perfectly honest, when I am focused and in the moment the notes tell me what they feel and how they want to be played. 

Do you teach now as well as perform extensively? 

Yes. I teach a brood of students, ranging from beginners to advanced students who win competitions and are placed in leading roles in their ensembles. I also teach masterclasses by invitation at universities and festivals. I recently agreed to coach flute sectionals on a regular basis at a high school that has an excellent wind ensemble. I understand they will embark on a European tour in the coming season. 

It’s clear you have wide affinities. The programming of your Airs Japonais disc, which I’d like to look at just for a short while if that’s OK, is exquisite, with Eugene Bozza’s japanoiserie finding its place in amongst works by Yamada, Noda, Otaka, and Takemitsu. The blending of cultures is clearly important to you (as you yourself straddle the two areas, of course…). 

My background gives me a unique perspective. I lived in Japan long enough to understand its cultural and artistic subtleties. I also grew up in an American-European-Jewish family in the United States. My dad was born in Holland as the family fled from eastern Germany during World War II. My Japanese grandfather spoke English, having studied English from a Protestant minister, and my grandfather always had foreign guests at the house when I lived in Japan....I suppose all this makes me feel at home in so many different cultures and philosophies. I feel comfortable playing music of mixed influences because I suppose it is the most authentic to my personal experience. 

Also on that disc you play a reduction of Hisatada Otaka’s Flute Concerto of 1951. Did you feel restrained by the arrangement? (I have heard Otaka’s Piano Sonatina on a Thorofon release, and like the Flute Concerto, it is both lovely and skillfully written). 

To be perfectly honest, yes, I did feel a little restrained by the arrangement, especially in the last movement. However, apart from the last movement, I think the reduction works well enough for the other movements. I have performed this work for a concert audience several times using the piano reduction and it has been favorably received each time. 

Also, your contribution to the album Songs of the Human Spirit is really lovely. Can you tell us more about the music of Henry Mollicone? 

Henry’s music feels at once modern and familiar. Henry’s music is rhythmically and harmonically diverse but his music tends to elide from one element to the next, so the experience a performer has playing his music is different from that of the listener hearing it. Henry constantly keeps the performer on his or her toes when playing his music but takes the listener on a smooth journey. His music can be jazzy, robust, and bustling, or calm, poetic, and mysterious. He is perhaps best known for his opera Faces on the Bar Room Floor, which shows both his talent as a composer and his great sense of fun and humour. 

Please expand on the piece from which that disc takes its name, with its Native American basis (although not in terms of folk melody). 

This work was commissioned by an operatic soprano, Nancy Wait-Kromm. Nancy was inspired by her travels to the Crazy Horse National Monument in South Dakota, and especially by the poems of the Shoshone, Aztec, Lakota, and Sioux tribes, and also anonymous texts. Henry Mollicone creates atmospheres true to the text, and there are morsels of music that are suggestive of Native American tribal music without reliance on specific Native American folk melodies. He writes in a contemporary musical language, yet manages to allude to something older and closer to the earth. I have performed a fair number of works for soprano, flute, and piano, and I find Henry’s Songs of the Human Spirit to be a true chamber music, as opposed music where the flute simply decorates the soprano line. 

As to the main offering as regards this interview, the disc Les esquises Allégories, it might be worth looking at the individual pieces as some composers might not be too familiar to readers. But first, what brought this particular programme together? 

The program emerged from my interest in the Sonatine by Walter Gieseking. The producer Göran Marcusson, who is an incredible, internationally active flutist, introduced me to the son of a Greek-American flutist who gave the American premiere of the Sonatine, Lambros Callimahos. I received copies of the program from the Lambros Carnegie Hall recitals, and copies of the letters between Lambros and Walter Gieseking. This is how I discovered the existence of the Variations on a Theme by Grieg by Walter Gieseking. It turns out that Lambros inspired Gieseking to compose a set of variations for the flute, which became the Grieg Variations. A premiere of the Variations was eventually given by Callimahos and Gieseking. A German friend helped me purchase a copy of the Variations from an antiquarian/pianist in Berlin, and I began reading through the work with Miles Graber. 

I also wanted to tell a story and take the listener on an emotional, psychological journey through the program on the disc. Carl Frühling’s Fantasie is presented first, a work that is inviting and Romantic, and ends with warmth and hope despite the sadness in the middle section. After this charming episode, if you will, the listener is plunged into the brooding and driven atmosphere of the Fantasia by Grigory Smirnov. His work taps into darker emotions that are inescapable in life. I think we all can relate to the feelings evoked by Smirnov’s work, even if we are reluctant to face them. Presenting this work in this order is akin to showing hidden feelings inside one’s own mind, such as frustration and confusion, and the listener may be made a little uncomfortable. However, the Smirnov Fantasia does not dwell on darker feelings. They pass. Then comes the Variations on a Theme by Grieg. This work is like the method of introspection: A concept (koan) is presented (in this case the theme), followed by examination of that concept/theme from diverse angles. In the end, we understand both the concept and one’s self because we experienced it in different guises. I also find each variation is a micro-cosmos and beautiful on its own. The Schubert is like a prayer, a period of calm and warmth after the moments of reflection afforded by the Variations … and then we are back in “life” with the Gieseking Sonatine, which sends the listener onward with positive energy and joy. 

Talking of Carl Frühling (1868–1937), he was a composer who also performed with the likes of Huberman, Sarasate, and Wellesz. His Fantasie, written in 1929, was originally for flute and orchestra, but the only extant copy is for flute and piano (as here). Yet I didn’t miss the orchestra! I suspect this has something to do with your pianist, as he is clearly a sensitive musician. How would you introduce this piece to someone who didn’t know anything about it? 

The Fantasie by Frühling is like what one might overhear if Carl Reinecke met Max Bruch and Richard Strauss in Vienna at a soirée, with Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms joining in the conversation and a bust of Beethoven looking down at them from the wall. There is vulnerability that grows into strength through hope … there is elegance, grace, charm, doubt, sorrow, joy … everything! It makes me think of words like beauteous, sublime, stupendous, soaring, yet it is also personable and intimate. 

You chose to move straight to a decidedly more contemporary mode of utterance in the Smirnov. Despite the change in language, though, the piece is just as atmospheric as the Frühling. This is based on the first version of the Fantasia, and the notes refer to a revised version—perhaps you could be more specific about the differences? You say that several gestures are clarified and enlivened? 

Yes. I had the first published version of the score when I studied and recorded the piece. Later the same year I met Grigory and performed this work at the National Flute Association Convention (an international flute forum based in the USA), with the composer and the publisher Edition Svitzer in attendance. It was at this time that I learned of the corrections to the score. They are slight but I think they make a difference. For example, there are changes to the piano part such as note/register changes and simplification of the bass line that, to my ears, have an effect of punctuating the phrase more than in the version I recorded. Also, some measures are rebarred, slurs are removed in the flute part to give more rhythmic emphasis, and there are alterations to the notation of extended techniques. Maybe one day I will have a second go at recording this work. 

I hear a lot of Prokofiev in this piece; certainly it is unmistakably Russian-tinged. Do you agree? Do you hear any other influences? 

Yes, speaking from a purely personal perspective I do hear echoes of Prokofiev and maybe also Stravinsky. I am also reminded a little of Ravel’s iconic flute solo from the ballet Daphnis et Chloé at the end but I suspect that is a coincidence. It’s funny but the composer and I never discussed this. I think that Grigory would like to be known as sounding like himself…! 

I was very excited that music by Gieseking is here. His Variations on a Theme by Grieg is a lovely piece, a very varied set of variations. Gieseking really seems to take Grieg’s theme on a walk here in an expansive and lovely way. How would you describe Gieseking’s musical vocabulary? 

A tricky question to answer, indeed! Having only played two (and the only two available) works for the flute by Gieseking, I feel a little shy to say too much about his musical vocabulary. Yet, to my ears, the musical styles of both works are congruent to one another, so I might dare to say something. It feels like free flowing prose and poetry, combined. Just when you think Gieskeing is about to make a traditional, Classical phrase pattern he shifts into a new idea or a fragment. Reading James Joyce gives me a similar feeling—or maybe even something by Oscar Wilde, because I feel that Gieseking is both serious and playful at the same time. There is something wistful in Gieseking’s music, all the time—except in the finale of his Sonatine. I think he must have been a sensitive, intelligent, positive, strong man with a sense of humour, but who also carried melancholy in his heart. Or maybe the underlying melancholy that I hear in his music is the effects of the war, which all would have felt. 

Also I’d like to ask about the technical challenges of this work? Did he write naturally for the flute? 

Oh no! He certainly did not write naturally for the flute! There are more than a few very awkward passages, and it takes a little creativity to make some of them work. There is no place to breathe. There are also issues with the interpretations of articulations in the Variations—there are sometimes as many as three versions to choose from—flute line in the score, alternate violin line in the score, alternate violin part. (The Variations is published for flute or violin and piano.) I deciphered the articulations based on what I thought were Gieseking’s musical intentions. There is a recording of Callimahos and Gieseking performing the work. I listened to it a few times before deciding to record the work, but I chose not to listen to it while preparing to record the Variations. Maybe that was a mistake from a scholarly perspective, but I wanted to create my own ideas and interpretations based on my personal study of the score. One might say that my version is an informed but artistic interpretation as opposed to a historical reproduction. 

Do you hear any characteristics of Gieseking the pianist in his composition? (I’ll probably mention this in the review, as of course Schnabel was also a composer and his music sounded nothing like the music he was famous for playing!) 

Yes. I think so. Gieseking’s playing takes me places. And his music does the same. One characteristic of Gieseking’s music is that much of the musicality is in between the notes. What I mean is … for example, take the opening section from the Sonatine, first movement. The melody is simple and easy to play. Anyone can play it. Yet for it to make sense one must create a feeling of timelessness through agogic changes, mixing tone colors, varying the speed and the depth of vibrato, etc. I feel that French music in general from this time period is influenced by the flow of their language. As an example, when there are repeated notes, they “speak” as opposed to metrically cueing in a correct and accurate line. Such a “speaking” (parlando) style of playing lends a clear sense of direction to the phrase, but it is multi-directional—it creates waves as opposed to a simple line or a curve. Instructions for such details are not written in the score. I suppose one has to have an instinct for it. Gieseking’s recording of the Suite Bergamasque by Debussy shows that Gieseking has a natural instinct for such a style of playing. He creates atmospheres and a sense of time and space that is independent of the clock ticking in our living room. I often feel when playing Gieseking’s Sonatine and the Variations that Gieseking assumes that you understand when, where, and how one makes agogic changes to the notes; to inflect a slight cédez (yield) and/or change the tone colors in order to evoke a particular feeling or atmosphere; or to delay, halt, or speed up time, just like the way he knows how to do. 

Gieseking plays in a manner that vividly demonstrates the directions of the phrases, whether they be outward going or inward flowing. One mode he employs to build drama, besides the use of dynamics, is tempo change. In a performance of a Schubert sonata (I think the one I listened to is in A Major, D 664), he radically changed tempi several times from sections to sections, phrases to phrases, to the point that I thought was a little too much for Schubert as a whole. Yet, I could understand that Gieseking made those tempo changes because he was trying to make different gestures and directions in the music sound more alive than if one did not alter the tempi. I sense a similar propensity in his compositions to vary the tempo from one phrase to another in order to build a musical narrative. 

I see why you separated the two Gieseking pieces with the Schubert—the theme returns towards the end and forms a natural link to the tranquillity of Schubert’s Litanei, the performance of which is dedicated to the memory of your mother. Your performance of eloquent simplicity (from both you and your pianist) is a wonderful tribute. Would you like to go into this further? Why this piece, for example? Is the very title significant (it’s for All Souls’ Day, isn’t it?). Also I note the text begins with the words “Rest in peace.…” 

My mother inspired me to make a recording, before she passed away very peacefully. So it was a natural extension to dedicate something to her. However, I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to offer something like a prayer in the recording … because I felt that we live in a world where we are all connected in some way or another. I wanted to express this sense of belonging with everyone in some way. Recording the Schubert Litanei was a way of saying to the listener, you are not alone and you are important; you are loved, and we are connected by this great love that runs through the Universe. We all experience loss at some point in our lives. And when we do, I think it is common to feel lonely or alone. I wanted to remind everyone that every voice counts in this chorus of life. Schubert happened to do this so beautifully. That is why I chose this piece. 

Finally, we have Gieseking’s Sonatine, published in 1937. I was very intrigued by the first movement, French-scented but with a basis that seems to imply Germanic shadows. How would you classify this piece? I note that one of my colleagues in Fanfare found hints of Gershwin in the second and third movements.... 

This is an interesting question. I think it is both. And being both is being Gieseking. He was born in France to a family of German background and studied music in Germany. I know from personal experience that when you experience two cultures as a child, both influences become a part of your psyche. I think Gieseking can relate to both cultures and that is why his music bears affinity with both camps. 

I also hear Gershwin in the second movement. I sometimes play this movement with a more upbeat jazzy feeling, thought I kept it more “calm” for the recording. It makes me think of the movies with dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! 

And finally, on to recording and performance plans for the future. What next? 

There are some exciting possibilities up in the air for the future, but it is a little difficult to say where things will land—what lands on top and what lands on bottom. Apart from the “difficult to predict” bits that are flying in the air, I can say that I am in the stages of planning some recitals related to the recording, and a collaborative performance with another flutist colleague on the horizon. I am also in the process of working out the details with Muramatsu Flute Shop in Tokyo, Japan about stocking Les exquises Allégories and Airs Japonais at that store. As for a future recording, I have a dream of recording works by Beethoven—I know exactly which pieces. That will be a tribute to my days as an intern at the Journal of the American Beethoven Society. Everything begins with a dream…. 

 LES EXQUISES ALLÉGORIES • Ai Goldsmith (fl); Miles Graber (pn) • TITANIC 281 (72:05) 

FRÜHLING  Fantasie for Flute and Piano. SMIRNOV  Fantasia for Flute and Piano. GIESEKING  Variations on a Theme by Grieg. Sonatine for Flute and Piano. SCHUBERT  Litany for All Souls’ Day

Speaking in the above interview, Ai Goldsmith says of her teacher Sheridon Stokes that he taught her to think for herself, and he always challenged her to “make a beautiful phrase on the spot.” This is the key to Ai Goldsmith’s playing: Like some pianists (say, Pires or Uchida), she seems incapable of an unmusical phrase. This, coupled with a search for musical truth and a firm belief in the music she plays leads to impeccably satisfying results. 

The first piece is by the Ukrainian-born Austrian composer Carl Frühling (1868–1937), who performed with such luminaries as Bronisław Huberman, Sarasate, and Egon Wellesz. The Fantasie dates from 1929. It is worth seeking out Goldsmith’s comments on this piece in the interview above; not only does her enthusiasm shine through as much in her words as it does in her music-making, but she sums up the influences one might here perfectly. And while it is true that Reinecke, Bruch, Richard Strauss, Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven all get a look-in, the splendid fragility of the writing, the whimsical, wistful fragrance the piece exudes make for a notably captivating experience. As accompanist, Graber captures the atmosphere of the piece perfectly, and this, coupled with Goldsmith’s own convincing way with phrasing and her ease of delivery, make this a wonderfully powerful case for a reappraisal of this composer. Incidentally, Frühling’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, op. 40, appears coupled with the Brahms Clarinet Trio and Schumann’s Märchenerzähliungen plus an arrangement of the latter’s Träumerei on an RCA disc featuring Michael Collins, Stephen Hough, and Steven Isserlis (63504) which might well be a fruitful next stop for the interested listener. 

From a Ukraine-born composer who travelled to Vienna, we turn to a Siberian-born composer resident in New York, for Grigory Smirnov’s Fantasia. The present recording is based on the first version of the piece (see interview for more on this). As Goldsmith says, the work “taps into darker emotions that are inescapable in life”; as she also comment, Smirnov does not dwell unnecessarily on these. The compositional technique itself is marvellously focused: There is the feeling of not one note wasted. Goldsmith and Graber capture the work’s aura to perfection. The piece comes in at around a quarter of an hour so the ear becomes accustomed to Smirnov’s mode of expression. 

The clear harmonies of the theme of Gieseking’s Variations on a Theme by Grieg come as balm to the ear. The theme itself is the well-known Arietta from Grieg’s op. 12. Goldsmith’s appraisal of this music as serious and playful at the same time is spot-on. There are seven variations, and Gieseking’s journeyings with Grieg’s material are wonderfully exploratory, expanding the harmonic scope; occasionally Teutonicizing it, more often giving it a breath of Gallic air. The highly reflective, held-breath fourth variation is a highlight, for this listener at least. Goldsmith and Graber prolong the atmosphere impeccably, while the sprightly, playful yet fluid Sixth Variation intrigues: certainly, it rewards repeated listenings. The final variation has a real sense of space and calm. The 1937 recording by Lambros Callimahos and Gieseking himself of this piece appears on APR 6013, which contains all of Gieseking’s Homochord recordings, supplemented by sundry rarities. 

The story of how the Schubert D 343 was included is touching indeed; Goldsmith provides an eloquent tribute to her mother, fittingly, through the medium of music. Finally, Gieseking’s Sonatine is a charming work, charmingly delivered. The suggestive, poetic nature of this work, as well as Gieseking’s Variations, inspired the disc title: exquisite allegories, as in instrumental music’s ability to conjure up atmospheres that transcend words. As befits a sonatine rather than a fill-blown sonata, there is no slow movement proper: The movements move Moderato to Allegretto to Vivace. The dotted rhythms of the central Allegretto seem to waft in the breeze, clear testament to the French aspect of Gieseking. The spiky, rapid finale is the perfect close to a lovely disc. The recording (Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California in April 2016) is excellent; perhaps the highest compliment is that one hardly notices it and concentrates instead on the flow of music. Perhaps the word “flow” is the key; the disc emerges as a thought-through program that leaves a most satisfying afterglow. Colin Clarke 

This article & Review originally appeared in Issue 41:1 (Sept/Oct 2017) of Fanfare Magazine.