Leslie Newman’s “The Voice of the Flute” launches 5 at the First’s 8th season

Leslie Newman (photo: LeslieNewman.ca)

Is there any instrument quite so expressive as the flute? In the hands of a master, it can sound as ephemeral as mist, as delicate as a breeze . . . or as buoyant as a wave. It can be melancholy or joyful. It can invoke love or longing. Fear or daring. Rage or calm. Whatever the mood, the flute can evoke it with exquisite, incandescent poignancy. And because it can express the emotions we feel but cannot always articulate, the flute has transcended eastern and western classical music to enter genres like pop, rock and even hip hop.

On October 7, Canadian flautist Leslie Newman will explore the many facets of the flute’s voice in “The Voice of the Flute”, the first concert of the 5 at the First‘s 8th music season, which she will perform with concert pianist Jeanie Chung and cellist Roman Borys, who is one third of the multi-Juno Award-winning Gryphon Trio and Executive and Artistic Director of the Ottawa Chamber Music Society.

Many will recognize Ms Newman as First Flute of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, a position she has held since 2008. Ms Newman’s love of the flute began early in her childhood, at the age of 6, with foundational training from her mother. “I was very lucky to grow up with parents who loved music and were deeply involved with it on an amateur level,” she recalls. “My mom played (and still plays!) the flute, and she taught me until I was twelve years old.”

Growing up in the countryside, she was preoccupied with riding and other activities until the summer after Grade 11, when she attended a program called The Johannesen International School of the Arts. There, the idea of becoming a professional musician took root: “I spent the summer having lessons with Jeanne Baxtresser and Julius Baker [and] the fire was really kindled in me to pursue music as a career.”

That career started early: she made her debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the age of 18 years, performing Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto. Since then, she is much in demand. In addition to the Hamilton Philharmonic, she has performed as a guest principal flute with several major orchestras, including the Bournemouth Symphony, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Esprit and the Hallé Orchestra under Kent Nagano. Performance tours have taken her through Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Europe and the U.S. with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She also performs with the innovative chamber trio Three with Guy Few and Nadina Mackie Jackson, and is one half of a flute and harp duo with Erica Goodman.

Despite this profilic career and impressive range of experiences, Ms Newman remains modest and approachable — and gamely addresses my abundant curiosity and questions about her training, the flute and Saturday’s program. I realize that this concert presents a precious opportunity to hear Ms Newman perform in the intimate and acoustically-rich First Unitarian Church, an ideal atmosphere in which to appreciate the flute’s many-hued, multi-faceted voice. “It’s so appropriate,” she says of the concert title, which she attributes to the “genius” of 5 at the First’s Artistic Director Rachel Mercer. Ms Newman will open the program with two pieces that were actually written for voice: Francis Poulenc’s Vocalise-Etude and Joseph Schwantner’s Black Anemones. “They are among my favourite pieces to play because of the opportunity they offer to explore such a rich expanse of colours. At its most beautiful, the flute has the freedom, power, sweetness and flexibility of the human voice.”

Cellist Roman Borys; photo: Bo Huang

The next piece, Harry Somer’s “Etching” for solo flute (which is part of a larger orchestral suite), evokes the sensuality and beauty of Picasso’s etchings, which inspired the work. “We are lucky to have a wealth of extraordinary flute music by Canadian composers, and Harry Somers was one of our most great and influential.”

Also on the program is The Prokofiev Sonata, an important piece in the flute repertoire – “a great work by a great composer at a strange time of great artistic productivity.” Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94 was written during 1943, during the last years of the Second World War. Prokofiev had been relocated from Moscow to the relative safety of Kazakhstan, and the strict confines of the state on artistic freedom had been somewhat loosened…”hence, perhaps, such creativity,” she muses. “It’s not the usual case that violinists adopt pieces from the flute repertoire…they have a wealth of great sonatas of their own! However, in this case, when David Oistrakh heard the piece, he thought so highly of it that he asked Prokofiev to adapt it for the violin, and it enjoys a place of equal importance on the stage in this form.”

The program will also include Assobio a Jato (“The Jet Whistle”), a composition for flute and cello by Heitor Villa-Lobos. And what a treat to be able to play the Villa-Lobos Assobio a Jato with my friend and great artist, Roman Borys on cello,” she enthuses.”Its soaring melodies and driving rhythms are classic Villa-Lobos.” Yet another highlight will be Carl Maria von Weber‘s romantic trio for Flute, Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 63, a work whose “warm and vibrant sonorities” she has always loved and will perform with Mr Borys and Ms Chung.

Pianist Jeanie Chung

Clearly, the range of works will make Saturday’s concert appealing and accessible for audiences of all ages. Still, I wonder if  doing any pre-concert “homework” might yield background information about the pieces and enhance the listening experience. Ms Newman gently cautions against it: “There is nothing that you need to know. All that you need to do is to give yourself the mental space to be in the moment as fully as possible and allow the music to be within you as well. I think that the greatest gift of art is to allow us to be conscious and fully alive for that moment that we are moved by it.”

A 5 at the First concert also fosters – and encourages – interaction with the audience. Whether engaging in friendly banter with the artists during the performance, murmuring their appreciation throughout, or chatting over refreshments during the interval, audiences come to life in the intimate setting. The live performance becomes a truly shared dialogue between artist and audience.

As a final note in our interview, Ms Newman voices her gratitude to Rachel Mercer, “for inviting me to play on her series and for her exceptional work in creating and maintaining 5 at the First with such vibrancy over all these years.” “The Voice of the Flute” will be a lively start to another vibrant season and a not-to-be-missed opportunity to be in the friendly company of Ms Newman, Mr Borys and Ms Chung, 3 of Canada’s most expressive performers. Don’t miss it!

Leslie Newman (photo: LeslieNewman.ca)

News You Can Use

What: “The Voice of the Flute” featuring Leslie Newman, with Roman Borys, cello & Jeanie Chung, piano

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: Saturday, October 7, 2017, 3 pm

Where: The First Unitarian Church, 170 Dundurn St S, Hamilton ON, L8P 4K3

Info and Tickets: 5attheFirst.com

More about the Artist: LeslieNewman.ca

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.