Gena Raps (GR): Do you remember your first concert?
Carol Wincenc (CW): Oh, do I remember my first concert! I had been playing the flute for three months. Because I was very quick I was selected to study with a private teacher two months after starting. I came into the flute class, weeping, and the kids said, “What’s wrong, Carol?” It was group lessons, and my band director had probably mentioned to my parents, “She’s really got to start studying privately.” I didn’t know that. I said, “I have to leave the class, I’m going to study privately.” They all cheered and clapped. The band director was thrilled. He put his arms around and said, “Don’t be upset. You’ll still be in the band.”
For the first performance, they asked me to play a little flute obligato line with a choral piece. I was taught to put the eight-inch cleaning rod in the flute and leave it there. The band kids had said, “Just leave your cleaning rod in the flute.”
We all marched out. I had my music stand and was ready to go. The conductor pointed at me and gave the upbeat. I played. Nothing came out. It’s a miracle I still want to play today, because it was so mortifying. She’s looking at me, I’m looking at her.
She just proceeded. The chorus sang, the piano played. I mimed. I’m desperately blowing into my flute; it was like blowing into cotton. Back in the band room, everybody applauds, and I’m forlorn. I was nine. I don’t even know if I took a bow, I was so mortified.
I took my flute apart and the damn cleaning rod was right in the middle of the tube, blocking everything. I doubled over and sobbed again.
GR: How large are audiences for you now, especially for concerti?
CW: There are two memorable concerts. One was at the Chautauqua Institute — have you ever seen their amphitheater? It’s so gorgeous. They can easily seat 5,000 outdoors. The other was at St. John the Divine. I played the slow movement of his Renaissance concerto with Lukas Foss, and I looked out, and there were 5,000 people. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s like a sea of people. But generally, the normal is 500 to 3000. The top of my wish list is to make a career just playing in homes. I love the intimacy.
GR: Since nerves are integrated with breathing, how do you get your nerves under control?
CW: It’s hard, because you’re absolutely right; if you’ve got all that adrenaline rushing through you, it affects the breath. It depends on the situation. I love an intimate hall, an intimate church and an intimate living room. Large halls affect me. For example, when I did a performance at seven and a half months pregnant I was dizzy. I decided to commune with the stage by lying on the actual stage floor.
GR: That was when you played the world premiere of the Henryk Gorecki Concerto at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It’s one of the greatest halls in the world. The acoustics are exquisite.
CW: It was amazing, because you can play so softly, and know it’s going to the nosebleed section.
GR: It’s hard to imagine that this tiny instrument, 18 inches long, can carry to the end of a modern concert hall.
CW: Any great singer can sing pianissimo¸ and it will carry all the way to the back. I’ve been known to lie down on stages, look up, and just feel the vibration of the stage and the space. I really like to have plenty of time in the hall before the concert.
GR: How long were you in Amsterdam before you had to play?
CW: Probably we had a rehearsal a day before. Maybe I came in two days before because of the jet lag and being pregnant.
The formality at the Concertgebouw is momentous. Gentlemen in festive garb stand with you at the very top of the stage; they ask, “Are you ready?” and open the doors. You see the orchestra and the audience below and walk delicately down a red carpet to the center of the stage.
GR: At seven and a half months pregnant, did Nicola say hello?
CW: I don’t remember if he was sloshing around during the performance.
GR: And it was a world premiere.
CW: Yes, it was, and everyone was there. I mean, it was covered by the New York Times, there was a photo in the New York Times, and — yes, it was a world premiere, and Henryk Gorecki was so celebrated at that point, so … yeah.
GR: How does your interest in Gurdjieff and your spiritual life inform your teaching? Obviously you felt very spiritually connected to that hall.
CW: The Gurdjieff work is specific. You develop inner attention, in the hopes that it keeps you awake.. You take in and are attentive to everything that’s going on inside you, and around you. It helps to stay in the moment.
I’m grateful to be playing a breathing instrument, because breathing brings me back to myself. I have a whole technique. It’s called healthy depletion and healthy completion, so that it’s not panic depletion and panic completion.
When you give yourself the permission to breathe, it gives you a sense of confidence and a feeling of security. Much of our Western music is written unrealistically. Like Bach, for example …
GR: Or Beethoven. The Diabelli Variations are 50 minutes of nonstop playing. It’s a tour de force; even a pianist needs to understand the breath and breathe through long phrases.
CW: You have to navigate through. If you just take the Allemande or Partita of the Bach flute sonatas — it’s really a keyboard work of nonstop sixteenth notes, without a break. You have to have that sense, like a singer, of this feeling of permission to breathe; otherwise, you’ll be conveying unrest and unease. Bach’s music is all about fluidity, when you think about it. They were dance forms originally; not that they were danced during his lifetime. A dance form is a sense of constant motion. The writing is not conducive to a breathing instrument.
If you practice the permission to breathe, then you don’t feel apologetic about it. I always say to my students, think of singers. You rarely see a singer in an apologetic mode for taking a breath. They just breathe. They have words that naturally come to some resting place.
How did you develop your distinctive sound? Your vibrato reminds me of a violinist.
CW: I was imitating my father’s sound, because he was my first teacher and was demonstrating on the violin all the time. (My father was a phenomenally gifted musician, a concertizing violinist. ) As a young flute player, I thought that was the way you do it. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I go into vibrato and non-vibrato; I was imitating open strings and fingered strings.
My father had tremendous spin in his sound. It’s the nature of the vibrato and how you get the spin in the sound. In fact, I’m giving a class this summer and the title is: “Spinning: Discovering the Spin in Your Sound.”
GR: You built your career before you became a mom. When you became a mom, you were out on the road, touring all the time.
CW: I didn’t have a desire to have children in my twenties or early thirties, when the calling knocks on the door. There were things I wanted to accomplish, and I was ego-centered.
My mother’s passing was the big wakeup call for me. My older sisters had their children who needed attention when she was passing and we kept a vigil around her deathbed. Later in the evening they were torn, because it wasn’t clear if she would pass that particular day. They needed to get back to their kids who were coming home from summer camp.
It was eye opening to me. I thought, what is this life all about? Here I am, having the huge privilege — as agonizing as it was— to watch her die; it was a gift, and it was the huge “Aha.” When she passed, I said, “My God, she went from breath to no breath; and what must birth be? Birth is no breath, to breath.” It was absolutely huge then, to me; I wanted to include that in my life experience.
GR: You were a single mom for most of the time.
CW: Nicky’s father left when he was eight. He has not had much presence in his life. He loves his son; he just was not up for parenting.
GR: Did you enjoy being a mom?
CW: I adored it. It’s bittersweet; it’s so demanding. I didn’t have a nanny. I took him everywhere. He was in Europe four times before he was two. He went with me in utero for the Gorecki premiere, and then he came back, as an eight-month-old. He was by my side and certainly heard all that music.
GR: Do you have a philosophy of teaching?
CW: “To thine own self be true.” For me, the task is how to stay in touch with your authentic essence while still having the ability to be larger than life. The students who study with me are interested in playing publicly. Students on the fast track feel a calling to be out there, communicating. That requires a very specific inner state, which will draw in the listener by being able to interpret music in a larger-than-life way.
For example, Yuko Uebayashi is writing a piece for me called “Misere Recordia.” When she came for my Ruby Anniversary celebration, she was inspired seeing all the people I had gathered. The series was about gathering musicians together. There’s the classic painting of the Mother Mary with her arms outstretched, and all these people are under her outstretched arms. She decided to write a piece that touched on my natural way of getting people to come together to make music.
GR: What’s it like teaching at Juilliard, where students and colleagues are the crème de la crème?
CW: I really love it. I was just with my two freshmen; they’re blown away by being there. They were big fish in the pond that they’re coming from, and now suddenly they’re in this gigantic sea of remarkable talent. I make sure there’s a balance with all my students, that they’re attending to their physical selves. I’m even thinking of getting my Alexander teacher training since I put my hands on my students, all the time – the way a vocal teacher has to be talking about the head, neck, jaw, cheeks, throat, back, shoulders, abdomen, hips, pelvis, knees, feet and how you stand. It’s critical to wellbeing, because of this whole aspect of the breath.
Now, flute is synonymous with the most avant-garde, 21st-century musical ideas. It’s an adaptable instrument. It can rip through the most treacherous, fast playing and sound effects. We can have percussive effects, we can have harmonics, we can have clicking, blowing, singing and playing at the same time, breathing and singing and playing.
GR: You play in the New York Woodwind Quintet; you played with the Emerson, the Guarnari, the Cleveland and the Tokyo Quartets. Were there tensions as the only woman?
CW: They have a funny sense of humor, these guys. No; the common thread is the music. It really strips away the differences. That’s the beauty of making music with other people.
With the New York Woodwind Quintet, it’s my therapy, and they are my teachers. The beauty is hearing how they play and their comments. We as wind players share that our tongues form and shape things. For example, the kind of staccato is important in wind playing as it determines the length of the note. Basically we have five completely non-compatible timbres that come together. We are five soloists coming together, exploring and playing.
GR: You’ve been innovative and dedicated in commissioning new repertoire for the flute.
CW: There’s quite a list of pieces now. Thirty-some pieces.
GR: Did you commission the Gorecki Concerto?
CW: Yes. Often, they were underwritten by a patron.
GR: You chose the composer.
CW: The Gorecki is thanks to Jay Hoffman, who was my publicist at the time. He was savvy about who was hot up-and-coming. He said, “I’ve got to tell you, Henryk Gorecki has captured everyone’s attention. This is big, and I think you should connect with him. It’s going to mean you have to go over there,” and that was the best thing I ever did.
I had been behind the Iron Curtain in 1966 with my family, when we went to see our Slovak relatives in Bratislava, and that was shocking — gray, no personality. There was no luster, nothing. And that was in 1966. I went to the Soviet Union with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1972, 1973, and 1974 and that was eye-opening.
Fast forward, now it’s 1989 after the Wall came down. Being with Gorecki’s family was wild. Our common language was French, because my Polish wasn’t good enough. I could make out a lot, because it’s a Slavic-based language and I’ve heard a lot of Slovak growing up.
He took me hiking to Roman ruins, which is my passion. He was somewhat lame in one leg. Sitting and talking with him about music. He would listen to some of my music, and I would listen to his. That was very powerful.
GR: What were unique performances for you?
CW: I’ve played on cliffs … prisons … I played for the 600th anniversary of the Kinkakuji, which is the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. It has a beautiful lake in front. This was a big production with NHK TV in Japan. There were 2,000 people sitting at the rim of the lake at night. I was to represent the maiden of the spirit world that was connecting the living and the dead. The shoguns were still inhabiting the Golden Pavilion in this particular dramatic setting.
I was to be rowed across the lake in a very narrow boat, playing unaccompanied flute works from memory. They wanted the effect of my spirit walking across the water. They used a fog machine to enhance the feeling that I was in the mist. My master Zen rower didn’t get the cue. I kept saying, “Now! Now! We have to move.”
I was to be gliding; it was the most eerie feeling. I felt like there was nothing underneath me. I had to be poised and looking off into the distance. Oh, my God, the floodlights and the fog machines. That was special.
Another time I was preparing to play the Mozart concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall. I went up a 14,000-foot peak at Mt. Aeolus, Colorado. (Aeolus was god of the winds.) We base-camped and got up the next morning to climb to the summit. I took out my flute. Mind you, there’s a 3,000 – 4,000 feet drop right in front of me. I thought, “If I can play the first movement of the Mozart concerto up here, I’ll have that forever, and I’ll take that out on stage with me.” Well, it was terrifying. I’m crouched and playing. I hear distant rocks falling, like an avalanche. Serious mountain-climbers with their helmets, their ropes and their pitons appeared. They must have heard me and thought, “We died and went to heaven.” It was absolutely breathtaking, and very difficult to do, because there’s not much air at 14,000 feet.
GR: You climbed Mount Mozart.
CW: When I walked out on the Barbican stage, I honestly thought to myself, which was more terrifying: being out here on the Barbican with the London Symphony, or being on that peak?
GR: You recently had your Ruby Anniversary – 40 years since winning the Naumberg – with a concert at Juilliard. Andy Thomas wrote The Samba for forty flutists for the occasion.
CW: We were a mix of colleagues, former students, a Juilliard pre-college string quartet, and percussion players. In the flute choir were … the youngest was eight, and the oldest were around my age, my Juilliard classmates. It was thrilling. Four dancers from Juilliard joined us.
GR: A documentary about your career is soon to be released.
CW: Leonard Yakir is the filmmaker. The theme is “This is your life, Carol Wincenc”; it focuses on those three concerts that were central to the Ruby Anniversary.
GR: What do you have coming up?
CW: I’m going to do a 25th anniversary celebration at Juilliard in September. I’m so excited about it. There’s the magnificent aria in the St. Matthew Passion, the Aus Liebe for flute, two oboe d’amores, and mezzo. We will have an interpretation of that beautiful aria with theremin. It’s so beautiful. It feels like you’re in a vast cathedral. You’ll hear remnants of the Bach, but the theremin will create its own sound. Ed Billows, who’s head of the new music studio at Juilliard, and I are collaborating on the arrangement. Then I’ll play the Christopher Rouse concerto and also the new piece of Yuko Uebayashi, with the Escher quartet.
GR: Lots of collaborative work!
CW: I think the flute is far more interesting in combination with other instruments.
Terrific article. It’s especially wonderful when a superb musician interviews another superb musician.
Really enjoyed the interview1
i’ve known Carol Wincenc personally for quite some time, but learned all kinds of new things from this interview!