“I’m always thinking, dreaming about what is not conventional,” Emmanuel Pahud tells me. He’s talking about his upcoming residency at LuganoMusica but could very well be talking about his career as a whole. Appointed principal flautist of the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 22, he has since become the most prominent flautist in the world, with a busy schedule encompassing orchestral, chamber, solo and teaching work. We are, in fact, meeting just after a chamber prom rehearsal; that evening, he and the rest of the Berlin Philharmonic are performing at the BBC Proms, and after that he is headed to São Paulo for the world premiere of a flute concerto. Unconventional in his breadth of repertoire, ensembles, and travel schedule, but as he believes, “if I feel that I am trying to do the same thing as before but not as fresh as the first time, then I think it is time to move on and do something else”.

That same curiosity and drive for innovation motivates his programming for the LuganoMusica residency, with three programmes spanning 300 years of repertoire and culminating in the world première of a new flute concerto written by Eric Montalbetti. As Pahud describes it, “We start the residency with Bach and end it with the new concerto. It’s a long journey, and this is exactly what I like to do with my audience. We have been together from the start, embarking on a journey together, so that we know more together by the end.” Does a residency give him license to be more adventurous in his programming decisions? “I do not necessarily tailor my programmes for a particular audience,” he explains, “because I want to surprise them, to take them somewhere they wouldn’t expect. This is the dynamic I can have with a residency, to put more weight on discovering things”. And the draw of Lugano specifically? “The new concert hall is a beautiful new space,” in reference to Lugano Arte e Cultura, the impressive new cultural centre opened in 2015, “and allows all sorts of musical combinations, from solo flute to full symphony orchestra, to really ring. This way we can explore a wide range of not just musical eras, but different combinations of ensembles”.

The residency opens in December with an all-Bach programme with Trevor Pinnock and Jonathan Manson on harpsichord and cello. First of all, the perennial question: the modern metal flute, or the wooden traverso? “The good thing is that the range of colours on a traverso is still possible to play on a modern instrument, unlike a harpsichord and a piano for instance,” he believes. “It is possible with the flute not only to imitate the traverso, but once you’ve played a traverso, you know which notes are stronger or weaker, the inflection, the dynamics, which guides you in the performance of this music.” Of his colleagues, “gods of the ancient music world,” as he refers to them, “I love playing this music with them because it’s so full of life and energy, and this sort of intensity in music making is something you don’t always find. I think to start with such a programme, to see how the hall rings with this kind of music, and then coming back a few months later to explore a much wider range of romantic to modern music, is a very nice progression.”

This progression continues with a programme of chamber works by Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, and Rimsky-Korsakov, master orchestrators whose symphonic works are staples of the Berlin Philharmonic. Does Pahud’s experience performing these works inform his interpretation of their less-known chamber works? “It goes both ways, I think. My activity as a chamber musician or as an orchestral player nourishes the other. Russian chamber music, for instance, always has a very powerful piano part, and therefore the winds should not be too shy, as in a symphony. It’s music that stretches with epic dimensions.”

And finally, the première of Montalbetti's Flute Concerto with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Jonathan Nott conducting. Those not familiar with Montalbetti need not be surprised: Pahud describes this as “a coming out, if you will, for Eric Montalbetti as a composer. He used to be artistic director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and he was inviting conductors, shaping programmes, in conversation with a lot of artists, but secretly started composing during those years.” And what can we expect from Montalbetti’s concerto? “It’s a bit too early to tell – you can look at the music on paper, but especially with an orchestra, the complexity of sound and blend is very complicated to imagine. But he has put down ideas on paper that are very precise, very refined – very French, in the style of Ravel perhaps, in the precision and in the colour.”

Pahud has long been a proponent of new works, having commissioned and premiered works by Elliott Carter, Matthias Pintscher and Michael Jarrell among others. Is this an attempt to expand the standard repertoire available to flautists? “It’s something I’ve been doing repeatedly in the last 15 years,” he recounts. “The more I do so the more I like it, because these composers have a reflex in their personality to be non-conventional.” But what of the longevity of the works? Many works are commissioned and premiered with great fanfare and then never performed again. “I always try to get the composers to arrange the cadenza material as a solo piece or to work on a reduction for flute and piano,” he responds. “It makes it much more accessible to further generations of flute players. That’s what we did with the Elliott Carter concerto, and also the Jarrell concerto, and all of those are now being performed and are being programmed in international competitions. If I’m the only one playing it, it doesn’t mean much." 

Pahud finishes the residency not just with the première of the Montalbetti concerto, but with a masterclass the very next day. Does he have a particular teaching philosophy? “I’m not a specialized teacher with a particular systematic approach,” he comments, “but I am there to help. I tend to not enter too much in physical detail because everyone will have different body types, and what is true for me will not necessarily be true for everybody.” What is the hardest thing to teach, especially for someone who is not a regular pedagogue? “When we play the flute,” he explains, “we don’t see what’s happening with the air. What you would see in a string instrument; how you press the bow on the string, the speed, pressure, angle, position – all these need to be visualised. This requires a lot of fantasy on the part of the player. It’s quite a mysterious process, actually, but it’s fun at the same time.”

And what is needed for these students to succeed? “A good dose of talent, discipline and hard work, fantasy, motivation. Of course, your family and surroundings help – some people come from backgrounds which make it harder to become a professional musician, and that is also part of our mission with academies and scholarships and masterclasses to recognise talent and provide them with the opportunity to develop their skills.” And after having reached the level of success Pahud has had, what’s next? “Well, there’s everything else involving the flute! That’s a lot of music. When I travel I like to meet local musicians, not just classical musicians, but those who play music from different cultures. In this way, we start to get in conversation through our instruments, so I hope this will take me even further. We’ll have to see what my retirement plan is going to look like, but I still have lots of things to do!”

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Article sponsored by Fondazione LuganoMusica