"Flute repair is tedious, time consuming and exacting," Phil Unger says. "You have to be mellow."
But there are compensations. Flutes need his special touch, but so do their players. Nurturing relationships with clients entails entertaining flutists from around the world over leisurely meals.
Judith Mendenhall, the principal flutist of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra, calls about a brunch Unger is arranging for New York's top flutists. Members of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, plus jazz players Lew Tabacking and Ali Ryerson, will meet to offer their opinions and advice to a major manufacturer.
"No, you don't have to bring anything," Unger tells Mendenhall. "Just a bottle of Scotch. I like a single-malt. We could share it back in the corner," he teases.
It's all fun and games until someone loses a flute. On rare occasions a computer crash or postal error has sent a repaired instrument astray. Recently Unger overnighted a replacement flute to a player just in time for a performance.
There have been other close calls. Bill Tillman, saxophonist of the group Blood, Sweat and Tears, once halted a concert because his flute had a leak. He didn't shout, "Is there a flute doctor in the house?" But knowing that Unger was in the audience, he called him onstage. Ten minutes later the show went on.
Serendipity averted disaster en route to a small-boat Amazon cruise before a convention in Rio. A missed contact forced Unger onto a flight to Manaus with $50,000 (U.S.) worth of flutes, which he nervously envisioned loading onto a canoe headed into the jungle. In mid-flight a woman strolled up the aisle playing the violin. She was part of an orchestra headed to Manaus with a crew filming a documentary about their conductor, Julio Medaglia. Unger loaned the orchestra his flutes for the week he was in the jungle.
Later orchestra members appeared at the resort and Unger took flutist Alexander Eisenberg piranha fishing.
Unger ended up selling Eisenberg a $10,000 flute, but Eisenberg more than made up the cost a few years later. Unger returned to Brazil and looked up Eisenberg just in time to supply the check for $35 on U.S. funds he needed to enter a composition contest. He won four years of study at Indiana University, plus $10,000.
Such is life for the owner of the Flute Center of New York: hours of deep concentration at the workbench alternating with music, food and friends — and the occasional jungle adventure.
Flute Center of New York, 1841 Broadway, Suite 1106, New York, NY 10023, USA
Photo credits: John Wessel.