December 2022FeaturedInterviewsIssues

Alexa Still Artist Interview

Alexa Still is a New Zealander, known for her recordings and premiere performances around the world. Her graduate studies in New York were with Samuel Baron and Thomas Nyfenger. After winning some competitions, she returned home, spent the next 11 years playing principal flute in the New Zealand Symphony and began making solo CD recordings. She left the orchestra to teach at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was then headhunted for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where she was also Director of Performance Research, and she now teaches at Oberlin Conservatory.

Can you give us 5 career highlights?

Being soloist for John Corigliano’s Pied Piper Fantasy with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and conductor Michael Christie. The concert was a celebration of Corigliano’s 70th birthday and the performance had an awesome director and an awesome lighting guy, and a ton of actors being rats in addition to the usual bunch of young flutists playing the part of the “children” lured away by the piper. We had blocking rehearsals- a first for me. This work is always a very moving event, and I’ve played it quite a few times with different orchestras and subsequently done other performances with rats too, but Corigliano’s 70th was very special.

Performing Elliot Carter’s concerto at the NFA convention in Minneapolis. It is a tough piece to listen to and I definitely wasn’t convinced that Carter was the right piece for a flute convention, but Leonard Garrison was determined to program it. Ransom Wilson did a miraculous job putting the orchestra together in just two rehearsals. We got a standing ovation!

Performing Mathew Hindson’s House Music Concerto for the Australian premiere, the US premiere (at the NFA) and recording it. House Music is technically the toughest piece I have ever played but also the most overtly thrilling and entertaining. The recording is available online.

I premiered Joseph Schwanter’s “Looking back”, a commission to honor Samuel Baron spearheaded by Laura Baron and supported by a huge number of Mr Baron’s students. The contributors voted for me to perform the premiere, a great honor, and I played it with Stephen Gosling, who is a monster pianist! We did the premiere at the NFA convention in New York and it was a terrifying moment to see many in the audience were following along with their copies of the score, but it is a difficult but truly amazing sonata and definitely a piece I need to record.

Michael Fine, the producer I worked with a lot a long time ago, is now also a composer, and recently wrote “Concierto del Luna” for flute, guitar and orchestra. I got to perform and record this piece with the awesome guitarist Jason Vieaux, conductor Phillip Mann and Ensemble Bravura. I also did the premiere recording of Aaron Jay Kernis’ air in the version for flute and piano with Tatiana Roitmann Mann. This disc was released on SONY Korea in March, in their first ever high definition compact disc recording.

How about 3 pivotal moments that were essential to creating the artist that you've become?

When I was a grad student, I entered the New York Flute Club competition. I was travelling from a lesson with Nyfenger at Yale the previous day, and the trains were all horribly delayed. I arrived at grand central when I should have been playing already. But something made me get a taxi over to Lincoln Center anyway. When I walked in, fully expecting a “too late-go away” response, I was instead met with: “you are just in time, you are on NOW!” I remember hurrying through a room full of flutists all warming up on their Moyse de la sonorite thinking to myself “here goes nothing”, having not yet touched my flute that day. And, of-course, the elevator was broken! We kind of ran up two or three flights of stairs (felt like 6!) to the room with the judges. I played Borne’s Carmen Fantasie. I was so desperate for air after hustling up the stairs that I couldn’t think about being nervous. I thought my heart would pound out of my chest. But evidently I played OK. I won. I am a lot more chill about performing as a result of that experience. I worry a lot less about last minute check-ups and a lot more about directing my mental focus.

My first CD came about in an age when CDs were a thing and record companies were thriving and making recordings. I was sitting in my orchestra during a break in a recording session, and Michael Fine, who is now an even more famous producer and composer, wandered over and asked if I would like to record a solo CD. Of course I said yes, and they let me choose the rep, so my first CD has the Griffes Poem on it and a bunch of other pieces that I loved and weren’t readily available on CD at that moment in time. That rep turned out to be a wise choice, the CD sold well and the project just one in a series of recordings for that company, which put my name out there all over the world. And they let me keep choosing rep. Now those recordings are pretty much all out of print, but I am particularly proud of a disc of all William Grant Still’s music we did in the early 90s. I don’t really know what led Michael Fine to ask me about recording, but there is no doubt without that initial contact, my career would have looked dramatically different.

Also, back in my orchestra days, we once played Mahler’s tenth symphony with a so-so guest conductor. Mahler 10 has a rambling flute solo with very little indicated on the part. I thought I had a well-considered plan but in rehearsal, the conductor immediately stopped me doing anything even remotely expressive. SO, I did as instructed in rehearsal, but after hearing it sound so un-mahler-like repeatedly in rehearsal, I decided I just couldn’t let that happen in a concert. I knew this wasn’t “professional”, but I just couldn’t let the piece suffer. When we got it to in the performance, I very carefully did NOT look up and played the way I thought it should go. The next morning, I saw there was a great review in the press with specific mention of my playing but I was fully prepared to be reprimanded because there was no question I overtly disobeyed. I tried to quietly sneak into my seat for the morning’s rehearsal hoping to delay the confrontation but I didn’t escape the “please see the conductor” from the personnel manager. To my relief, the conductor complimented my performance! Yes, I can be the team player and I actually love being the role of supportive chamber musician but there are times when the light is yours and the responsibility, even, is yours. I think this moment helped me believe in the strength of my musical convictions.

What do you like best about performing? I love the feeling of connection with the audience. I found the pandemic performances- playing with an invisible audience- incredibly challenging because I just had no sense of the connection component… I hadn’t realized how important that is to me and I am so happy to be back playing for in-person audiences!

CD releases? I am REALLY excited about my upcoming CD of Valerie Coleman’s works. This will be my 16th solo disc I think, but my second on the Oberlin Label, distributed by Naxos. This projects has been percolating for literally years. It is finally ready to go but the birth process is frustratingly long because, being a physical release as well as digital, it has to wait until January. Evan Hines is the terrific pianist and the poetry that inspires Wish, Fanmi Imen and Elegy is compellingly read by Carmen Ambar. Valerie Coleman is amazing. I just can’t wait to share this CD!

What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?

A performance of Thea Musgraves’s Orfeo II for flute and string quintet in October, a couple of recitals in November; the first including the Faure Sonata, and music by women composers: Goldfish through Summer Rain by Anne Boyd, Uebayashi’s Moment du Crystal and "Poem" by Ukranian composer Zhanna Kolodub. I am still working out the program for the second recital which will be built around Xango E Oya by Jeff Scott for flute, bass, piano and hand drums. I am very excited to be playing Xango with the one and only hand percussion expert Jamey Haddad! I’ll probably include a piece I just recorded for the New Zealand record label Atoll: Kaitiaki by Alexander Alford for solo alto flute. Kaitiaki means the Guardians in Maori and the piece is very special. Then in the spring, I have some flute festivals coming up in the spring starting with Tennessee Tech’s annual Flute Day on February 3 – 4.

What are your goals personally?  My personal goal is to continue my efforts on being a good person and contributor in this world! Since I am officially an empty nester now, I also plan to be a better dog mom and get on with doing some of the myriad of things I didn’t make time for yet.

Professionally? I feel very lucky to be at Oberlin. I don’t aspire to be anywhere else. But I do aspire to keep growing on flute, and to keep looking for ways to be a better, more positive and more enlightening teacher. I hope to do another couple of CD projects of music I think we need to have recorded. And I want to figure out how I can best meld songs by Leonard Cohen and flute! Further down the track, I want to put my repair skills to work on customizing flutes to suit smaller hands.

What inspires you the most in life?  Seeing people succeed. My students inspire me every day! And, of course, there are so many incredible performers out there, at the touch of a keyboard. I think inspiration is more about making the time to take in and appreciate what others offer.

What has been your professional greatest challenge? Back in the dark ages of my symphonic career, I was principal flutist of the New Zealand Symphony, the only female principal player in that orchestra, and we had a chief conductor by the name of Franz Paul Decker. I think he fancied himself to be a modern-day tyrant in the likes of George Szell. He loved causing drama, and in the words of the orchestra’s administrators, was unique in his ability to shout down the fax machine. Well known in Montreal and Barcelona, he was infamous amongst musicians for this bad behavior but at the time- the 90s- many organizations still put up with it. He really didn’t like women playing in principal chairs and made that abundantly apparent to me even while I was on trial. I was just lucky he didn’t have veto power. For my first two years on the job, he spent large portions of every rehearsal, throughout his 6-8 week part of the season, making me play tricky passages over and over again.  It was obvious he wanted me to crack under the pressure…. but I am somewhat stubborn and I was absolutely determined not to cry. Actually the toughest part was holding myself together when my colleagues tried to empathize with me at tea breaks. When I got out of the day’s rehearsals, I’d either go for a motorcycle ride or build rock walls just to retain some sanity. I warned the orchestra I was going to file an harassment suit and figured all I could do in the meantime was stick up for myself and just do my best playing regardless of his inappropriate obsession. One day, I miraculously managed to follow his somewhat sporadic beat during a prominent solo part of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. I have to admit Decker was a good conductor but what he did in this one measure was kind of ridiculous and yet somehow I followed; I was 100% right with him for every note. He stopped, glared at me, and it was like time stopped everywhere, with everyone holding their breath and waiting to see what would happen next. After what felt like an eternity of glaring, he suddenly slammed his baton down, calling for the break. When we went back to resume rehearsal, it was like a giant switch was flipped. From then on, he would stop the orchestra to lecture everyone on what a great flutist I was. Honestly, overdone praise was almost as bad and I would not wish this circumstance on anyone, but with distance and time I have learned to appreciate that this truly miserable period in my life helped me grow a toughness that gives me a special confidence. After that experience, I feel I can handle anything.

What has been your personal greatest challenge?

I come from New Zealand which has a very small population and a wonderfully generous governmental support of the arts, more like how cultural efforts received state support in Europe. But I, being a comparatively young applicant, was not the recipient of any scholarships towards studying overseas. I did my undergraduate degree in New Zealand where I didn’t actually have a flute teacher at all for two years so I was desperate. I paid for my first year at SUNY Stony Brook with money I had saved up from teaching and playing gigs. I was extremely lucky to get a TA position in the second year of my masters because otherwise that would have been the end of my formal studies! My family was very supportive but didn’t have a lot of cash on hand when I was a student. They helped me out by buying me a good flute when I was about 14 and then paying for half of my Brannen flute (the one I still play) in my 20s, but other than this, and a lot of incredibly lucky breaks, I am a self-made person as they say. At one point my husband and I collected aluminum cans to turn them in for NY state’s $.05 recycling fee to help make ends meet. I have a vivid memory of being greeted by a new private student as I emerged, somewhat embarrassed, from the bottom of a large garbage bin with sticky soda cans in hand.

It took me some time to think of the best answer to this question. I realize I very, very seldom ponder this aspect of my career because I learned early on to focus instead on what I could proactively accomplish, but I’d be lying if I said financial resources have not been  a considerable challenge along the way.

Who were your music mentors?  and what did you learn from them?

Samuel Baron, Thomas Nyfenger and Julius Levine.

I studied with Samuel Baron at SUNY Stony Brook and Thomas Nyfenger privately. I openly studied with these two amazing teachers at the same time, which I realize is highly unusual, and I think about them both every day. Mr Baron taught me about musicality and structure, how to make music a captivating journey for the listener. He was also an inspirational role model of passion and positivity for all of humanity with his love for music. I remember, at the beginning of my time studying with him, thinking that he was already an older man and I shouldn’t expect too much, but he just kept growing and improving!

Thomas Nyfenger had a deep, deep knowledge of how people play the flute! He really taught me everything about how I play, to break down and understand technique, how to listen. He was an incredible flutist with an amazing aptitude for controlling a very wide range of tonal colors and style! He was also an example of how devastating someone’s mental health challenges can be.

Julius Levine was an amazing double bass player who taught chamber music at SUNY Stony Brook. He very generously welcomed me every week in this class, and I learned how to phrase musically from this man. For Julius, no breathing spot was ever going to be acceptable and no note, however fleeting, could be ignored!

Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun, (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?

I am a bad but very enthusiastic gardener, trying to create pollinator habitats. I love all dogs. I love refractions in light, stained glass or anything like that. I like sewing and have created a number of my concert dresses but I am totally hopeless at using patterns. And I am a totally addicted reader; I read literally anything and I will do it voraciously and essentially non-stop. I don’t let myself read much of the time because I know I have zero will power to stop. Fortunately, I am also a very fast reader, but the horrible reality is that I will neglect *everything* else until I get through the last page.

What 3 things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?

1)    Have fun with your passion. Life is short! Go for it and also try to live the life you aspire to.

2)    Nurture your friends. Our relationships with others affect everything we do, one way or another.

3)    Don’t take yourself too seriously. You definitely need faith in yourself, but no one needs the baggage of an oversize ego.

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