Friday Night Flute Fight

Champion French flutist loses in a TKO decision with an unprepared Oregon accompanist

By MARIA CHOBAN

I went to the Friday night fights and a flute recital broke out. Julien Beaudiment, on the left, wielding tone and dynamics with roundhouse and rabbit punches. As light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, the renowned French flutist danced around Portland accompanist Cary Lewis’s unpracticed, overpedaled, flabby playing, trying to give the audience the show it expected to hear.

A former principal at the Los Angeles Philharmonic who tours, teaches and is principal flute of the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon, the 40 year old flutist, Beaudiment was the centerpiece of this year’s Greater Portland Flute Society Flute Fair: a Saturday seven hour extravaganza that takes place every year at Aloha High School featuring masterclasses, ongoing flute choir performances, competitions, and flute vendors.

Beaudiment giving a master class.

Sadly, this concert, the Friday night before the Saturday Fair, showed just one example of a much larger problem in our classical music culture. While the rest of the city has grown more sophisticated and accomplished thanks to the influx of new blood, too often, its classical music performances are weighed down by deadwood — by musicians who are unwilling or unable to devote adequate time to prepare their performances and consistently sound awful.

Lincoln Hall at Portland State University was full of flutists who were focused on Beaudiment’s technically strong performance, with all the right dynamics, textures, phrasing. But the non-flutists who paid to see the show couldn’t miss the accompanist dragging down the performance as a whole. Beaudiment spent the match — er, concert — jousting or step-dancing over Lewis’s limp, bodiless playing, and late attacks.

Too many of the performers who dominate the scene here habitually deliver embarrassingly unprepared performances like this one. What’s really sad is that he’ll never know that Portland actually does have plenty of fine musicians who he would have enjoyed playing with instead of tussling against. Here are five stellar pianists that should have been on stage with Julien Beaudiment (in alphabetical order): Colleen Adent, Janet Coleman, Asya Gulua, Monica Ohuchi, Doug Schneider. There are probably others. Everytime I hear these five pianists they are practiced, well rehearsed with their ensemble, and they bring their own unique personality and musicality to the performance.

Instead, we got a fight.

With the exception of Friday night’s opening piece, a drab arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine (a beautiful piece he wrote for solo piano), the concert program was an entertaining mix of intriguing, accessible new / contemporary work with older chestnuts. Nothing older than 20th century.

For me, the concert really began with the second piece. Yan Maresz’s Circumambulation (1993) for solo flute pits Beaudiment as a metronome ticking down low D’s and C#’s while he skitters around those ticking fingers with melodic phrases, trying to defuse the bomb that’s inevitably going to detonate at the end. I can’t wait for him to record this!

Accompanist Lewis returned to sabotage Philip Glass’s haunting Facades, unable to control the even, minimalist piano accompaniment. I stopped listening to the music and waited for the next piano note to drop out. As I’ve heard Lewis do many times over the years, his unprepared performance used many of the dodges common in Portland performances by unprepared accompanists: playing that’s too soft, often with too much pedal to hopefully blur the wrong notes, plodding playing too tied to the score to be able to interact with the soloist, too many wrong notes and misalignments between soloist and accompanist.

Bartok’s Romanian Dances fared even worse than Glass. It’s evident that Beaudiment is a dancer and classical musicians usually are not. The fifth and sixth movements are an elided dance — fast, stomping, accelerating with a sense of whirling dervish. Lewis’s plodding, over-pedaled sloppy playing with too many wrong notes overwhelmed Beaudiment’s best efforts to Ian Anderson this thing to life. Dancing like a fiend, Beaudiment still could not whip this ending into an exhilarating frenzied YAYYYYYYYYY!!!!!! — settling for an embarrassed smile from Lewis as they bowed at the end of the piece.


Ian Anderson Dancing and Playing Bach’s “Bouree.”

Matthew Hindson’s closing 2017 Odysseus and the Sirens began with a mash-up of Mozart and Ravel harmonies, its translucent loveliness morphing into a primitive dance. Lewis sounded several beats behind (Beaudiment confirmed several measures behind!), turning what should’ve felt like precise sacrificial stabbings as at the end of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring into a botched bludgeoning. Nothing lined up!

After Friday night’s fight, Beadiment entered the reception exhausted, glazed, looking like he’d gone ten rounds in a bad boxing match. Had he gone ten rounds with Colleen Adent, he would’ve come out looking exhilarated, not exhausted.

Lessons for Oregon

Flute Fair’s value shone the next day. In the last of Saturday’s masterclasses, Beaudiment worked with the six students, and he seemed to be enjoying himself throughout. His natural musicality — unimpeded by accompanist incompetence — not only lit up the stage, but was magnified by his abilities as a physical comedian. Where most teachers are didactic and boringly verbose, Beaudiment, striking tableau after tableau, made us laugh and understand what he was trying to get across. For example, (cue French accent) “You must not sound like a microwave oven when you lose all support breathing.” And then he’d dial the oven up and down with his right hand, breathing along, raising and lowering his body, opening his eyes wider.

Julien Beaudiment: l’un des meilleurs flutistes français en masterclass au Cap-Ferret Music Festival from TVBA – TV Bassin d’Arcachon on Vimeo. Beaudiment in a master class.

A concert flutist friend who’d thought Beaudiment’s Friday’s performance “unmusical” changed her tune after hearing him play unaccompanied on Saturday. His performance at the masterclass offered lessons for more than the students. Portland concert presenters and audiences can also learn from Friday night’s fight.

    1. 1. A performance is only as good as its weakest link.
    1. 2. Don’t judge fantastic performers or music negatively when they’re dragged down by other inadequate performers sharing the stage.
    1. 3. Portland is not a backwater small town without great talent. But that’s what some touring soloists come away thinking.
    1. 4. Don’t choose local performers just because they have recognizable names, are nice and friendly (as Lewis always is), or are used often. Choose them based on actual evidence. If you don’t trust your ears, ask someone who’s qualified.

Wanting to corroborate my insights, I spoke with Beaudiment after the Saturday masterclass. He looked stricken. Visibly distressed, screwing up his face as he recalled Friday’s concert fiasco, he was also genuinely puzzled by the choice of accompanist. I apologized for Friday’s choice of accompanist and assured him that there are at least four great pianists he should’ve had on stage with him and to please not judge Portland’s classical music scene based on this experience.

Beaudiment is conscientious, generous, entertaining and it’s unconscionable that we undermined all his showmanship, generosity and hard work with exactly the opposite, using an unprepared accompanist. He wasn’t allowed to show the audience (who paid as much as $15 each) what we paid him to do and what he loves to do. It was a crime against him as much as it was against us.

I don’t mean to single out Lewis. I’ve heard him and many other Portland classical regulars do this many times. I know Portland is better than many of the local names and organizations it protects. I hear consistently fantastic locals all the time!

When we bring superb musicians like this to Oregon we owe them, and the audiences who are paying to hear them, a prepared cooperative, maybe even magic performance as this one might’ve been had any of the other five pianists I mentioned been on stage. In fact, every Oregon classical performer who charges money owes every audience fully rehearsed, properly practiced, committed performances. Not a fight, where everyone, especially the audience, is the loser.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

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6 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Two quickies vis-a-vis the above:

    1 – Asya Gulua, OMG, YEEEEEEEES! Hearing her play during MMM recently was one of the festspiel’s absolute highlights. This pianista, droogies, is a world class talent.

    2 – As Mamet through the mouth of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross might put it; “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you, go home & play with your kids.”

  2. Rhonda Rizzo says:

    I didn’t attend this concert and so can’t speak to Lewis’ preparation or performance, but I DO want to commend you for calling out what I’ve quietly named “the culture of mediocrity” that has infected much of Portland’s classical music scene. I’m a professsional pianist and I know that sometimes “stuff happens,” but don’t we all owe it to our fellow performers, audience members, and the music to hold ourselves to a higher standard? Thank you for having the nerve to say publicly what many of us has griped about for years.

  3. bob priest says:

    PS.
    Another ubiquitous overstayed mainstay that oughta consider the central thrust of Maria’s review here is Andre Watts.

  4. Jack Gabel says:

    Surely I’m not the only one cringing in the wake of this onslaught of collective liberal guilt – inescapably ubiquitous these days? We’re told more than once herein that “we” failed. Well, someone or some small committee at the Greater Portland Flute Society produced this concert and presumably arranged at least one ensemble rehearsal, or maybe not – what could go wrong? Seems much of what we’re told went wrong on stage should have been worked out in ensemble rehearsal. If not (going on what’s written here, as I did not attend), how is that “our” fault?

    • bob priest says:

      Uh-huh, thanx for the yucks, Jack.

      The broad spectrum of what Maria attempts to bring into focus here includes the likes of you & mmme, as uncomfortable as that might be. If you don’t get that, oh well.

      • Jack Gabel says:

        guess at my age I am a laughable type – but you know the advantage to living at such a vantage – no longer care what’s written, or even if anything is, nor if my name is spelled right

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