Concerto repertoire for flautists is surprisingly limited, but one musician is testing the boundaries with her latest recordings
Katherine Bryan is best known to us as the flamboyant principal flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She was just 21 when appointed ten years ago, direct from her studies at the Julliard School in New York. Before that she had been a pupil at Cheethams School in Manchester and three times finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, so it was clear even then that she was a cut above the ordinary.
It was no surprise, either, to learn a couple of years ago that Bryan had cut her debut disc as a soloist on the prestigious Scots-based Linn label – a superlative collection of performances including the flute concertos of American composer Lowell Liebermann and Carl Nielsen, in which she was joined by her RSNO colleagues and conductor Paul Daniel.
The many favourable reviews referred to the delicacy, playfulness and natural musicality of her performances. The question was, when would the next release be available?
Well, it’s out this month – a follow-up disc that is every bit as charming, lively and challenging as the first. Once again she is joined by the RSNO, this time under Jac van Steen, for concertos by Christopher Rouse and Jacques Ibert. These, and two shorter pieces by Debussy (the beguiling Syrinx) and Frank Martin (his attitudinal Ballade), offer up a delicious cocktail of rare and beautiful music. Bryan’s wistful performances do every one of them justice.
Maintaining an American thread was important to Bryan in mapping out her programme.
“In the first disc I featured an American concerto by a composer I had come to know at Julliard, but who wasn’t so well known over here,” she says. “I’ve taken the same approach with Christopher Rouse’s concerto, a piece that was written for my teacher, and which I fell in love with when I was studying it.”
It is a genuinely lovely work, written in response to the death of Liverpool toddler James Bulger in 1993, news of which clearly touched the composer. Bryan and the orchestra spin out its lilting, Irish Celtic influences with affectionate spirit. Only towards the end of the work do we hear the more familiar, rhythmically spirited side of Rouse, though the Gaelic strain – in the manner of an Irish jig – persists.
In the search for suitable repertoire to record, Bryan has been struck by the small amount that is available. “In terms of new pieces, I am always on the lookout for modern music that can communicate with an audience. The Liebermann did that, and I think the Rouse does too. But there is a general lack of concerto repertoire, particularly after Vivaldi and Bach. When I’m asked to play a concerto, it’s normally Nielsen or Mozart. The options are limited.”
Bryan believes it’s down to a certain lack of confidence in the flute’s capabilities: “Perhaps some composers think it’s limited. While I would agree that it might lack the physical range of a string instrument or piano, I disagree with those who say it is emotionally limited.”
That’s what she’s set out to prove in her two CDs to date. “There are certain qualities that cannot be matched by other instruments, which is why it is so important to me to find repertoire that will present the instrument in a new way.”
Already, she has ideas on how to approach a third disc. “One of my thoughts is to look at the violin repertoire and see how that might work transcribed for flute. The Franck sonata sounds brilliant on the flute, and I know string players who would agree. I’m even looking to see how Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending would work for flute and orchestra. I think that would bring another dimension to it.”
Given the sound that Bryan herself produces – mellifluous and full-bodied – is any of that down to the actual instrument itself? “As far as I am concerned, it’s the player that makes the flute, and not the flute that makes the player. I’m not a flute geek. I know lots of players who try out hundreds of flutes and change head joints all the time, but my view is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’ve been playing the same flute for the past 13 or 14 years.”
She recalls being asked by a prominent wind instrument dealer if she would come in and try a selection of new flutes they had just received.
“I said I would blind test them and took a couple of my RSNO colleagues along to listen. There was one particular flute, they said, that enhanced my qualities, at which point a chap came in and said, ‘Don’t try that one, it’s just a student Yamaha.’
“The thing is, the flute is probably the nearest instrument to the voice. Obviously there are some that are like a good car – they just drive better. But that doesn’t make you a better driver.”
As for her career, Bryan finds that the current balance between orchestral and solo work gives her all the musical satisfaction she wants.
“On the one hand I love working in the orchestra, where I get to play composers I’d never come across as a soloist – Brahms for instance. On the other hand by taking time away to do chamber music and solo work, I come back to the orchestra with a new freshness. One feeds off the other.”
Over the past ten years she has come to love living in Scotland – she shares a home near Loch Lomond with her husband, RSNO cellist Kennedy Leitch – though coming here directly from Manhattan, she says, was quite a change. “I can’t decide whether, at heart, I’m a city or country girl. But the great thing is I can be walking the dog at home in my wellies, and within an hour be in Harvey Nicks in Edinburgh. That’s perfect for me!”
• Katherine Bryan’s latest CD is out now on Linn