IN: Reviews

A Magical Flute at a Winning Recital


Adrian Sanborn (file photo)
Adrian Sanborn (file photo)

The Northeastern flute community gathered on September 7th in Jordan Hall to hear a recital by Adrian Sanborn, this year’s winner of the James Pappoutsakis Memorial Flute Competition. It was founded to celebrate and encourage locally the perpetuation of those standards of excellence which Jimmy Pappoutsakis (1911-1979) demonstrated in his playing as a member of the BSO and and in his teaching at major area music schools.

Quality of tone is the overriding factor in choice of winner, since it “is the first thing that anybody hears and therefore appraises you by,” as Pappoutsakis pointed out. He went on to say that while in auditions everyone begins to sound the same, suddenly one player’s tone leaps out as “… so sparkling, alive and with personality—he is the one who is chosen as a finalist.” After that quality, Pappoutsakis sought accuracy in dynamics, solid rhythmic sense, musicianship, and an intangible self-confidence. Each November students from area music schools are heard in a screened audition, with finals held in February.

The moment the recital began, Adrian Sanborn’s gorgeous production, obvious technical mastery, and confidence made it clear why he won. (Sanborn completed his master’s this year at NEC, in the studio of Paula Robison.) The program comprised works that gave ample scope to Sanborn’s beauty of tone and mastery of technique: Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, Hindemith’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, and Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano.

The opening movement of the Copland wonderfully showed off Sanborn’s spacious outpourings, while the second showed his expressive coloration. In the active third movement the staccato passages were nicely grounded. Occasionally the flute was a little overwhelmed by the piano, but the balance settled down later in the program.

Sanborn’s ensemble amiability was evinced in the Debussy, with attractive moments in which players passed phrases in conversation and picked up each other’s affect. In particular, the first time the viola, played by Matthew Vera, continued a phrase from the flute, it was difficult to tell when he started. The end of the first movement was breathtaking, while in the second movement Annabelle Taubl’s harp glistened.

The Hindemith sonata permitted Sanborn’s varied colorations to be highly expressive, and he dealt with the technically complex parts without obvious effort. Pianist Deborah DeWolfe Emery provided sensitive and characterful support. This was some of the loveliest Hindemith I have heard, and the audience, a tough one I would think, seemed really to enjoy it.

In the Lieberman sonata, Sanborn once again dealt with technical difficulties successfully. Pianissimo high notes were crystal-clear, perhaps one a bit out of line but the rest well-corralled. In the first movement, of note were Emery’s limpid accompaniment, Sanborn’s lyrical line, and that high pianissimo at the end. The second movement was particularly intense in its activity.

The after ended with a well-deserved standing ovation from this audience of flutists.

All that was missing was a little more connection between Sanborn and audience. He looked at us only as he was coming onstage and acknowledging the applause, both of which he did with plenty of presence, but while playing he steadfastly looked at the music on the stand. Although there is no doubt that this was a demanding program and memorizing might have been out of the question, just a few moments looking out to the audience would have been nice.

The aims of the competition are clearly successful: past winners are performing and teaching nationally and internationally, and this year all winners of the 2014 National Flute Association Competition were from the Boston area. Pappoutsakis’s legacy is also furthered by the 2013 publication of the book, James Pappoutsakis, His Artistry and Inspired Teaching, transcribed and edited by Nina Barwell.

Sanborn, a prizewinner in the most recent National Society of Arts and Letters Woodwind Competition and a New World Symphony finalist, graduated from Harvard three years ago in mathematics and computer science, and when he’s not playing the flute he does biophysics research at the Center for Genome Architecture.

Letitia Stevens is a freelance classical singer, choral conductor and voice teacher

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