Saturday, May 7, 2011

Meet Our Musicians: Zart Dombourian-Eby and Philip Kelsey, Flute and Bells

Between final rehearsals the other day I had a chance to check in with Zart Dombourian-Eby and Philip Kelsey, the soloists in our orchestra who play the all-important magic flute and magic bells solos in Seattle Opera's production (which opens in a few hours). It's conductor Gary Thor Wedow's job (one of his many jobs, in fact) to sync what they're playing, down in the pit, with what the singers and prop personnel are doing up onstage, to give you the impression that the props you see are making this magical music. There's a famous story of how at the first production in Vienna in 1791, Mozart played a prank on his librettist Schickaneder (who created the role of Papageno) by playing the bells at the wrong time, leading Schickaneder to improvise the line, spoken while slapping the prop onstage, "Das Glockenspiel musst kaput sein!" You'll hear our Papagenos say that line...except that over the years, it's worked its way to apply to a different situation.

Zart, you play the two extended flute solos when Tamino, in the story, is playing his flute to charm the wild beasts and to endure the deadly trials of fire and water. Are these solos like Siegfried’s horn call for a horn player, that is, things you have to play over and over again your entire career?
No, I haven’t done them that much…I’ve only done Magic Flute one other time, at Seattle Opera in 1999. As a flute player, the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome is the main solo that you really dig into...that, plus the Forest Murmurs [from Wagner’s Siegfried]. Both those pieces are done by orchestras all the time in concert. And the suites from Carmen are very flute-ey, with the solos that open Acts 2 & 3. With Carmen, we have a lot of flute operas coming up next year. Gluck’s Orphée has a huge flute part--now that’s one you start learning that when you’re in Junior High. The solo that heralds Orpheus’s arrival in the Elysian Fields, that’s a good one to learn all about baroque ornamentation: the “Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

Although much of Mozart’s music is not all that challenging, technically, many musicians find they’re very exposed in Mozart. Speight Jenkins likes to say, of singers, “Mozart takes your clothes off.” Is that true for woodwinds, too?
It’s true for entire orchestras: you're naked when you play Mozart. It looks so simple, but it’s the hardest thing to play. It’s great for an orchestra to play Mozart, it keeps you on your toes. In my solos in Magic Flute I have to be precise rhythmically and in terms of pitch; yet you still have to be expressive. It’s got to be everything at once.

In Seattle Opera’s Magic Flute there’s a dialogue scene, in Act Two (when Tamino is trying to ignore the talkative Papageno) when you play, as a solo, the melody of Tamino’s Act One aria, “Dies Bildnis.” Was that your idea? Usually flute players simply reprise their first solo at this point.
It was actually Gary’s idea, our conductor. I love it, because it’s a beautiful melody and I don’t play it when he sings it the first time around. A lot of the ornamentation I do in that solo is based on Gary’s suggestions, too. He’s such a scholar, he brought me a full page of references he had looked up, from Mozart’s period, of how it should be done. He’s inspiring that way: a wonderful musician as well as a scholar.

He’ll be back next year, to conduct your solos in Orphée.
Yes, I’m looking forward to that! This is the first time I’m playing with Gary Wedow, but all my colleagues in the orchestra loved him when he made his debut [in 2007, conducting Julius Caesar and Iphigénie en Tauride]. I’m very much looking forward to next season…we’ve got Porgy and Bess, and John DeMain is THE conductor in the world for that opera, he conducted it when we did it last time. And lots for the flute in Carmen and Orphée, and probably in Attila--Verdi and Rossini always put flute, or piccolo, which I play, in the overtures, or in the storm scene. And we end with Madama Butterfly, and I just love Puccini...his harmonies, his arias. My father used to play Puccini operas all the time when I was growing up.

Phil Kelsey, you've been Seattle Opera's assistant conductor for many years. How old were you when you first got to know The Magic Flute?
I was 12 years old, and a member of the San Francisco Boys' Chorus, which provides singing boys for San Francisco Opera. My colleagues with stronger voices got to perform the trio, but I got to know the opera then. It's been a fifty year love affair with this magnificent score.

How many productions of The Magic Flute have you played or conducted or performed as magic-bell-guy?
Although I have worked on a number of productions of Flute in various capacities, this is the first time I've had the chance to play the magic bells. It's something I've always wanted to do!

What do you want out of a Magic Flute production--are you more into the silly, whimsical side of this show, or the profound Masonic numerology-cum-sacred Orphic ritual aspect?
The ideal Magic Flute for me is above all entertaining, but uplifting as well. Mozart's music tells us that he was deeply serious about the search for wisdom and compassion that the "ritual" aspects of the libretto present. It also tells us that Enlightenment isn't worth anything if there isn't room for a sense of humor.

What’s the difficult part about doing a superlative job with the bells?
The magic bell music is tinkly and fun, but it is also elegant and melodic. It musn't just sound like a music box, it must be a Mozartean music box.

Tell us a little about the instrument you’re playing.
Mozart originally wrote the part for a keyboard glockenspiel, which was an oddity even at that time. There are not many of them in existence today. Nearly all theaters use a celesta (which was not even invented until a hundred years after Flute); this is the instrument we are using.

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