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You must have fun when you play

You must have fun when you play

By Ainars Pudans on Feb 16, 2024

Denis Bouriakov is an international soloist and principal flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Winner of Prague Spring competition (2009) and prize winner of many international competitions: Nielsen (2002), Kobe (2009), Rampal, Nicolet, Larrieu, and others. Denis Bouriakov received his musical education at the Moscow Central Special School and the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied with William Bennett. Before LA Philharmonic, he was the principal flute with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Denis Bouriakov constantly searches for ways to expand flute repertoire, making transcriptions of violin and cello repertoire. Currently, he teaches flute at the University of California in Los Angeles.

We met with Denis after his masterclass during the 16th Adams International Flute Festival in the Netherlands. We wanted to know more about his encounters with his teacher William Bennett, broadening his flute repertoire and sources of inspiration.

I know that you’ve studied with William Bennett. Can you tell us about some memorable moments or teaching methods? During your masterclass, we already heard one of his keywords “e-le-phant”. Is there anything else memorable you would like to share with our audience?

The biggest difference for me as a kid who just came out of high school in Russia where music was super serious stuff, and you weren’t supposed to even smile was Bennett’s approach. He often said, “You must have fun when you play”.
He was always wearing bright color clothes, sweaters with rainbow or something yellow and pink. This really took me by surprise because I had this perception of a professor that was hard to overcome at the beginning. Imagine my surprise when he came to pick me up at the train station and picked up my suitcase, and I just kept saying “No, no, no, you can’t carry my suitcase!”, but he just laughed.
So, he wasn’t so serious, and he made music really fun, and I think that is so important. Because, after studying for a long time, sometimes we forget what this is all about. It’s about fun and bringing joy to the audience.
As for the word “elephant”, he used words to describe phrasing, finding words that correspond to the phrasing. So, the “elephant” was three notes descending line “e-le-phant”, and for two notes he used “taxi”. If it’s a notes phrase, going to the second note then it was: “I LOVE you”. So, all these phrases and words were his way of making it easy to understand the principle, because it is easy for us to stress syllables and words, we are used to that but in music sometimes it’s not happening. I think he wanted to find a very approachable way that people would understand. His teaching wasn’t complicated, no matter what was written in the score or in the manuscript, he made it easy for us to understand the idea.

Talking about flute repertoire, are you looking at some new pieces or well-known repertoire for other instruments that you would like to transcribe for flute as you have done with Sibelius or Tchaikovsky violin concertos?

I’ve done a lot of transcriptions and arrangements already. I’m kind of slowing down a little because I have played most of my favorite works for violin and cello. But I am still looking for some new pieces I could play on the flute, maybe Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo variations”, I think it could work very well on the flute.
I have made an arrangement, but I haven’t learned it yet, Chopin’s “Revolutionary étude” for two flutes. Recently I started adding piano parts for some flute works. It is so time-consuming, but I think that Karg-Elert’s “Sonata Appasionata” Op. 140 could work really well with the piano. I made an arrangement of Joachim Andersen’s Etude No 3, from Op 15, I made the piano part because it’s a waltz. But at the moment I’m not working on anything in particular.

Do you see études as training pieces or musical ones?

Of course, it’s musical! If you think of Chopin études, they are performed as concert pieces. It’s like painting. Sometimes painters do it as an exercise but there’s an artistic idea, of course.

You have been exposed to music and musicians in almost any part of the world. Do you see some differences in musical taste and preferences from region to region?

Well, that’s generalizing things, you know but there’s a huge difference between USA and Europe. In America the priorities are different. So, the flute players are trained to play mostly quite well in tune and in tempo, accurately – that’s the main goal and interest. They are interested in getting a position in the orchestra, and they practice orchestra excerpts all the time. I’m not saying it’s wrong because you do need to get a job, but I think that the European model of developing more rounded musicians, learning sonatas and concertos, and understanding them is very important, rather than just playing excerpts the whole time and training exactly how to nail it and win the job. And when they start the job, sometimes they realize that musicianship isn’t there. In Europe it’s a much longer tradition, everything around you is older – architecture, paintings, there is so much history, it’s more understandable in the context. In the East, it’s also a big history but not in the sense of Western culture and music. As I said it’s very dangerous to generalize, especially when there are exceptions everywhere.

What are the main criteria when you have to select the best performers in a jury of some competition or orchestra auditions?

First of all, I look for someone who has something to say musically. Someone whose performance makes an impact. It’s not about how fast you can play. It’s a nice side-effect if you can play fast and still can express yourself but the priority for me is to hear something musically. That’s it. Of course, you need the technique to do it as well. You can’t be a great painter if you don’t have a technique. The same goes for musicians. But by technique, I don’t mean fingers only, which is the easiest part of the technique. Tone control, vibrato, legato, intonation etc. – these are harder to master than fingers but are the most important part of the technique. That’s why Moyse was so obsessed with melodic exercise as well.  

If you would have a chance to play any piece with any conductor and any orchestra, what would you choose to play?

Frankly, I never thought about that. Obviously, if I have to choose the orchestra – that’s a very clear choice: Berliner Philharmoniker. I think by far is the best orchestra on the planet. The most consistent too, because other orchestras can have great performances but, since I watch the Digital Concert Hall performances by Berliner Philharmoniker, it’s incredible how the level of music making and perfection in any sense is so consistent. So, definitely something with this orchestra.
As for conductors, I don’t know… I was fortunate to play with Gustavo Dudamel, recently we did Mozart’s Flute and Harp concerto, and that was pretty amazing. He is perfect for Mozart; it even feels like the incarnation of Mozart sometimes. He has so much joy in music making. His birthday is one day apart (26th of January) from Mozart’s (27th of January), and Emmanuel Pahud’s birthday is on the same day as Mozart’s, by the way. So, could be Gustavo as a conductor.
And for the piece, there are so many… I love playing violin concertos: Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky because they are on a different level from what we have. Although I love Reinecke, it’s one of the best flute concertos, I think, and definitely our best romantic concerto. 

Do you see a situation where the musical managers invite a flutist to play a violin concerto on the flute?

It depends on the orchestra and the conductor. I think this kind of situation would be easier in America because they are not tied up so much by tradition and staying always “correct”. For instance, in Germany, it probably wouldn’t be possible with a major orchestra. But if you think of composers themselves, especially of the Baroque period, everything could be played on anything, transcribing was a daily occurrence. I don’t think it’s so sacred that you shouldn’t be touching this. Composers are always happy if their music is played on any instrument. Can you imagine the situation if someone would come up to the composer and say, “This is a nice piece, but I would like to play it on the oboe”. Do you think that composer would shout “Don’t touch it?”. I don’t think so. So, I think they [music managers] should be more open in this case. In fact, I’ve been asked to play a concerto with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra in the following season. Gustavo originally suggested playing Nielsen’s concerto, but then I said: “You know, what about Mendelssohn’s violin concerto?”, and he said, “Yeah, why not?”. I think that if you are on that level, like Gustavo, you can be open to many ideas, and Los Angeles is a perfect place for exploring such ideas as well.

What inspires you?

Well, conductors could be very inspiring sometimes. Like Gustavo, he is inspiring, actually, every time. He is in LA for another three and half years, as a Music Director, and we don’t know yet who’s going to be the next one, but I’m sure he will be back a lot. So, when I was at The Met, definitely the singers. They were a huge inspiration because we had the best of the best. Sometimes I sit there and think “How lucky I am to listen to this performance?!”. And the orchestra was great as well.

Of course, we also get to play with some of the best soloists in the world on weekly basis, which is a blessing. I feel very fortunate to hear musicians such as Yefim Bronfman, Steven Isserlis, and many other amazing soloists here.

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