SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Marina Piccinini is that rare commodity: a flutist with a celebrated international solo career. Piccinini will be the featured performer this weekend at Skidmore College’s annual flute festival.
“There aren’t a lot of us on the international level,” Piccinini said last week during a sunny day in Vienna while walking her dog. “In the concert world, it is always a struggle. Orchestras want pianists, singers, a sprinkling of strings. No one wants a flutist.”
Knowing that reality didn’t stop Piccinini from trying. When she started flute at around 8 years old, she had to teach herself how to play because there were no flute teachers. Eventually, she found a great flute teacher in Jeanne Baxtresser, who was then the principal flute of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Piccinini learned quickly. At 17 in 1985, she won Canada’s CBC Young Performers Competition, which brought her many solo gigs. The next year she not only began her freshman year at the Juilliard School, where she once again was studying with Baxtresser, who was the New York Philharmonic’s new principal flute, but she won the Concert Artists Guild International Competition.
Skidmore Flute Festival; Marina Piccinini in recital
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.$8, $5, Free for students
Piccinini Master Class
When: 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Free
Festival Student Ensemble
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Free
WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway
MORE INFO: 580-5321; www.skidmore.edu/zankel
“I was on a roll,” Piccinini said. “Winning early on was lucky. I didn’t have to wonder what I was going to do when I graduated.”
Even while finishing her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Juilliard, she was starting to build a career that eventually would include being soloist with orchestras in Boston, London, Tokyo, Montreal, Rotterdam, Washington and St. Louis. She has given recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, Tokyo’s Casals Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Seoul Arts Center and collaborated with the Tokyo, Brentano, Mendelssohn and Takacs string quartets.
But before all this became a reality, she, like all flute players who aspire to the professional music world, wondered whether becoming an orchestral flute player was for her.
For a week during one summer, she played with the New York Philharmonic as principal, and she tried out the principal chair in the Boston Symphony at then-music director Seiji Ozawa’s request.
“I did consider orchestra. But I decided not to,” she said. “My teachers thought I was an idiot and stupid. But it’s an attitude to take the chance to be a soloist.”
Flute repertoire limited
One of the things she already knew was how limited the repertoire was.
“It’s lousy,” Piccinini said.
Except for the Mozart, Nielsen and Ibert flute concerti, there wasn’t much else. So commissioning new works became a way of life. Among the world premieres that she’s given are works by Michael Colgrass, Paquito D’Rivera, Lukas Foss, Michael Torke, John Harbison, David Ludwig and Roberto Sierra. In fact, the Harbison became a bit of a calling card, including a 1997 performance with the Albany Symphony Orchestra where Harbison, who was present, was amazed that she’d memorized the difficult flute part, Piccinini said, laughing. In 2016, she will give the world premiere of Alvin Curran’s new work with a consortium of orchestras.
She does much transcribing of works. Her program at Skidmore — which includes Yuko Uebayashi’s Sonata, Three Pieces for Solo Flute by Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Paul Taffanel’s “Fantaisie sur le Freischutz,” and Jennifer Higdon’s “Lullaby” for two flutes (with college flute professor Jan Vinci) — will have her own transcription of Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18. Michael Sheppard is her pianist.
Piccinini has made several recordings. Her most recent is set for a January release of her transcriptions of Paganini’s Violin Caprices (Avie), followed by publication of the transcriptions by Schott Music.
How has Piccinini managed to make herself such an enviable career?
‘The whole package’
“There are key elements like practicing all the time, luck, and perseverance,” she said. “You need the whole package.”
A soloist also must be exceptionally well prepared.
“I believe in a lot of rehearsal. I need to feel comfortable with the other person on stage,” she said. “But with an orchestra, you get a Thursday rehearsal, a Friday dress, and then the concert. It’s tough. You must know the whole piece so well that you should be able to conduct the orchestra. That’s actually happened before.”
For new works, even if she premieres it, she must always be aware of how she plays it, how she’ll promote the work and how she’ll be honored. Yet, after all these years, she was amazed when she was recently hired to go on tour next year with the Vienna Philharmonic to play the Nielsen Flute Concerto.
“I can’t think of the last time this has happened — for a flutist to go on tour with such an orchestra,” she said.
Another coup is that along with being the flute professor at Peabody Institute for the last 10 years, she will become the new flute professor at the conservatory in Hanover, Germany next April.
“It’s a lot of traveling, and it’s a gamble to teach at a college. But both allow me to pursue my performing career,” she said. “It’s essential. It keeps me inspired and I can give that energy back to my students.”
She enjoys exploring the differences between European flutists and U.S. flutists, such as in their concept of beauty of tone and emphasis on technique development. She’ll bring that curiosity to hearing Vinci’s students.
“Jan is a dedicated teacher. I’m sure her students will be a dedicated bunch,” Piccinini said.