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Cecile Chaminade’s Concertino is a very popular piece for auditions, demonstrating a little of everything and very pleasing melodies. I expect many flutists own this piece, but maybe there are some who don’t, so I found a Russian edition of this piece in the collection at imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page"
Later on, I realized that all I downloaded is the piano score… I didn’t even go looking for a flute part, as I rarely work from flute parts. If you would prefer to play from the flute part alone, you could cut and paste the flute part together from the score. (I note that my purchased editions of this flute part have a terrible page turn requiring messing around with photocopies and tape anyway!) The opening of the Concertino is attention grabbing musically and a good way to settle down nerves, in that starting off at an mf is certainly much more relaxing than a piano dynamic. Unfortunately, it is also one of those uncomfortable, never ending phrases that seems to elicit very strong opinions from everyone concerning places to breathe. I’m going to be a little unorthodox - I won’t recommend breath spots, and I also suggest eliminating anyone else’s ideas that may be pencilled in, and whiting out any editorial in your music!
The indication in Russian, below the flute part, roughly translates to “the triplets should be played freely”
Chaminade clearly didn’t play flute so the practicalities never occurred to her. It just isn’t possible to do justice to the atmosphere of unhurried beauty and effortless sound sustained through these expansive melodic lines if one is also desperate for air…. So, accept that breaths are necessary, trial many different spots and sizes of breaths to see where you need them, and then figure out how to ‘sell’ what suits you! Remember that more small breaths may be much more effective than infrequent but much bigger holes, and that the choice of a similar spot in repeated phrases may come across as a bit annoying. I often recommend students playing music in this style to listen to Sir James Galway; listen closely to a recording where you can note his breathing spots on your music. You’ll quickly understand he is the master of last-minute breaths that never interfere with musical flow or momentum. By keeping the sound spinning, and shaping the note before the breath based on where the phrase wants to go, he gives the magical illusion of the music simply continuing.
The intonation challenges of this piece hit us right at the very beginning! That opening D is potentially the most strident sound on the flute and a tad bright in pitch. Then we get E, which can sound comparatively muffled and is often flat. This is a terrible combination, given that the interval of tonic to supertonic (we’re in the key of D) sounds best wide, as the largest step in the scale. This intonation problem is more manageable if we tone the D down a bit in colour and pitch.
The tenuto marks in measure 4 are better understood if we think of string bowing - you’d change bow here, so you’d have a louder and a distinct note where the tenutos are marked. We can replicate that tenuto idea quite well by playing these notes out and adding a tiny diminuendo right at the end of the first note of each pair - the sustained sound gives the idea of the note being long, but backing off a little, just at the end, makes it much easier to hear the re-articulation of the next note. The rhythmic detail of a repeated note is very important to appreciating the heavier or broader character of this opening. The more live your performance acoustic may be, the more important this effort to be clear becomes, akin to enunciating clearly in a speech. The other phrase slurs, starts and stops are practically incidental in comparison. In fact, if you think of most of the slurs over the melody as bowing marks, you can more readily discard or ignore what you don’t like or what doesn’t suit your breathing. With the exception of repeated notes, omitting or changing that sort of detail won’t matter much in these sustained romantic melodies. How you shape a sustained phrase, in the bigger picture, is much more important.
The dynamics at the beginning quickly build to a grand sounding forte - if one has enough air! In my opinion, the written dynamics sound really super and really enhance this piece. One still has to do the usual flutists’ adjustment of playing louder in the lower register in this work with a reasonably full accompaniment, written by a non-flutist! But the dynamic indications provide marvellous contrast and accentuate each musical character. I encourage students to do what it takes breathing wise to make the forte indications possible…and remind them to play at the dynamics they intend to use when deciding on breathing spots!
The scalic passages, such as the two measures before the first notated key change into Bb major, seem to scare flutists; especially younger players who often panic and rush. There is a poco stringendo (a little hurrying) in the flute part for these, which you’ll note is missing from the piano part (maybe Chaminade didn’t write that?). It somehow takes confidence to play through scalic passages at a moderate pace, but this really does sound best with very little stringendo as the gesture already has an accelerando effect written in that we’ll hear best when we can hear all the notes. More reasons to keep it steady include that we will want a bit more speed to help create the Piu Animato section later on, and the feeling of virtuosic speed really belongs in the more ‘notey’ middle section (see notated key change into a minor, no accidentals).
Right after the notated key change back to D major, we have more repeated notes with staccatos - a nice little change. Try to play these with a distinct articulation too.
The opening section of this work culminates in dramatic fashion, following more scales that sound very brilliant by covering roughly two octaves. When I was a student, I understood that this was free like a cadenza (thankfully) but I took that to mean “throw caution to the wind”! Well, that may be thrilling, but not quite for the right reasons! I recommend students listen to virtuosic pianists playing romantic repertoire (the masters of this style), listening specifically for effective placement of ‘profound’ notes or chords, and the way blindingly impressive run-type gestures can make such good musical sense. Pianists often slow down at just the right moment near the end of such a gesture, whereas we tend to simply crescendo. Presumably keyboards players master this type of rubato because that is what works best on an instrument that can’t crescendo on any one note.
The flute can crescendo, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use other expressive devices too! A way to practise this concept is to work backwards, thinking primarily about arriving unmistakably on that destination note: play the fortissimo D as you hope it will sound - beautiful, commanding and loud! Then play again with the leading in note, C#, aiming for that same fabulous D with the unmistakable musical emphasis given to a big downbeat. Try stomping on the D too - this is surprisingly difficult to do and will help you assess your coordination (the note needs all the best air support and articulation right when you predict it should sound…. If you can’t do it exactly where you predict, how will your pianist ever figure out where to play with you?). Then add on the B and so on and so on.
Russian indication here is roughly translated to “with agitation”
The first measure of the Piu animato is another spot where we need clarity or space around the notes. I think this may be the toughest section, because the momentum here is pushing forward, and breathing just can’t be rhythmically intrusive. Clipping these slurs a little, or that idea of distinct diminuendos on note ends and more accent on beginnings, helps and also suits the accented passing note gestures. In the 8th to 9th measure of this section, players often put in a little rallentando and an a tempo and similarly three-four measures later. The whole note or semibreve trills are actually not that interesting, so you might consider dropping out of the way a little and crescendo-ing towards the end of the measure. In the two solo flute measures (measure 19 and 20 of this section), the falling scale gesture can be played with tremendous freedom (try a rubato of starting late and slow and speeding up) which sets the stage for a very satisfying a tempo in the piano part.
The transition passage, from this point until the next notated key change (A minor), seems to be about dissipating the energy of the animato. Suddenly, it is possible to play much more softly here and be heard, providing a great opportunity for exploring some tone colours. I hope this wets your appetite for the next issue of Flute Focus, where we’ll get onto the dazzling middle section, and the cadenza!