We are back with a new interview in the blog! Today I introduce you one of the greatest flutists of the American orchestras. Probably one who has travelled most on his orchestral career. He has been in Finland and Barcelona, to jump to New York and finally to Los Angeles.

Don’t you know who he is yet? I doubt it! But if you don’t know him already, don’t worry that I tell you. He is Denis Bouriakov, principal flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and international soloist.

If you want to learn interesting and useful things about your life as a flutist, musician or person, please read until the end this interview! I hope you like it! 😊

Never compromise something musically to get it more perfect technically… …Yes, I am talking about those people who train to play “l’après-midi” in one breath.

Denis Bouriakov
  • How did you begin in music?

My father developed a love for classical music in his adulthood, but had a hard time understanding it. He thought it would be a good thing for my brother and me to play an instrument or two, so that we would learn to appreciate and understand it. Gradually, we all got very enthusiastic about making music together, with my father fueling it with his crazy ideas, such as learning a new short piece every day on the piano each one and practicing each instrument daily. Then, before we knew it, our apartment was full of music: between my brother and I, we played piano, accordion, flute, saxophone, violin, synthesizer, and even real drum set! My brother’s saxophone teacher had 2 children, who played drums and bass guitar. Together we formed a kids rock band with an invited lead singer. We had a wonderful time performing for a year or so; even toured to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, for a concert! This helped us develop a genuine love for making music. Early on it’s way more fun to do that sort of stuff than practicing Czerny etudes on the piano…

– Before working in the USA, you were in Finland and also in Barcelona! How was your experience there?

I had a fabulous time on my first job in Tampere, Finland! I still remember the relief I felt, and the joy of being independent and having a full-time job! I just felt so happy to have the ability to stay in Europe and to be able to play my solo and chamber music concerts and to have a stable orchestra job. My colleagues were absolutely wonderful; I had a bunch of very good friends from the orchestra. The cold winters with lack of daylight weren’t something too depressing for me at the age of 23. I enjoyed the whole culture with the saunas, parties, etc. The schedule was very light, with just one concert per week on Fridays. On top of that, I had a lot of weeks off, which was very convenient, because I could prepare for international competitions and play some solo gigs on the side with no scheduling issues.  But then, a couple years later, I started thinking about auditioning for other jobs and see how far I could get and where life will take me. During my first couple years on the job, I was focused mostly on competitions, and not on auditions for other jobs. But then the priorities gradually switched as I got older. Thinking of it more and more, as my 2008 New Year’s resolution, I decided to audition for every job, which would interest me in 2008. Barcelona was at the end of January, and I got lucky! So I started there in the Fall. It was a big upgrade in many ways! I think just being in that incredible city alone is worth so much! The architecture, the food, the weather… It’s simply amazing, and I still want to come back for vacations there. The job was a bit more complicated though. At that time it wasn’t the happiest relationship between the musicians and the management. I hope things have improved now. I started working there in the middle of October 2008, and the Met audition was in the first week of December. My, back then fiancee, and now wife Erin, convinced me to take the audition. She thought my style of playing and tone would work well in the US. I think it was one of the best decisions in my life to take that audition, which I wouldn’t have done without her support. It was behind the screen throughout, from the first round to the very last, which was very unusual for me. But it also made me feel in some ways liberated, as I could feel a bit more relaxed without eye contact. But then you always wonder what’s going on on the other side, who are all these people whispering and coughing. When I heard I got the job, it was one of the happiest moments, life-changing, without exaggeration. So, after 6 weeks into the Barcelona job, I knew I wasn’t staying there. They wouldn’t allow me to take a year off to go to NY, of course, since I didn’t even play there long enough to even finish my trial. So going to USA was going “all in” for us. If the Met didn’t work out, I would have no other job to return to. But of course, it was worth the risk. As they say in Russia: “Those who don’t risk, don’t get to drink champagne!”

– After being in Europe, you won the principal flute position in the Metropolitan Opera and then in 2015 in Los Angeles, where you are working now. How did you join the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

I joined the LA Phil the same way the majority of the players do – through the audition, in May 2015. I had to start in the screened semi-final round. LA Phil is very strict with this: they want every player to go through at least one blind round, which I think is fair. Playing at the Met was truly wonderful, and I believe playing in an opera orchestra is the best possible orchestral training one can get. You learn to truly listen to others, especially when you cannot see someone you are playing along with, all the way up on the stage. But the Met job is very tough… It’s a huge organization, which makes 7 performances a week happen, of 4 different staged operas. They have 2 principals in each wind section, but it’s still a lot more work than any symphony orchestra in the USA by far. I remember feeling exhausted towards the end of the season every year. The seasons go non-stop; there aren’t Christmas breaks or anything. So, after a few years, I was naturally interested in the LA Phil job when it opened up. The conditions are some of the best in the world, and you get to play in the beautiful Disney Hall! It’s stunning, both outside and inside, and always a pleasant shock for a firstcomer to see. Working with Gustavo Dudamel is special for me too. He is absolutely incredible and was one of the biggest factors for me in my decision to move to LA.

– Are there differences between Europe and America in the orchestral world?

Well, it’s a bit hard to generalize, since every orchestra is unique in its way, both in Europe and in the USA. But there are certain things which are different in general, I think. In short, USA orchestral playing is more about blending and being perfect, and then being soloistic when you have to be. European playing is more about being a soloist who can also blend and play in the orchestra. It’s a different priority in playing. I think it starts with training at school. In Europe it’s more about studying the solo repertoire and then attending the school orchestra sometimes. In USA conservatories, in general, the orchestra is the priority, and mock auditions and orchestral excerpts are studied since early age. It’s all preparing you for an orchestral audition eventually. Which, of course, is very practical if you want to win a job. I try to take good things from both approaches in my teaching. I am personally not a fan of playing when it’s all about blending. I think some US orchestras go too far with this approach and they start to lose their identity and personality, and sound sort of the same. I am not talking about the top US orchestras, of course, but of the second tier and below. I think what makes a great orchestra truly great, is the combination of those unique personalities of the players, and their musicianships. When you hear the Berlin Phil, you hear a group of top soloists in the world making music together as a group. They don’t always necessarily have the same ideas about phrasing, and even style sometimes, but that’s what makes it so interesting and wonderful to hear. So I think one has to be able to blend well as a member of the section, and also lead and be the big soloist and bring something personal in, when it’s the right moment in the piece. I am very fortunate to be a part of an incredible woodwind section in LA. We have only one more spot to fill in now – the principal oboe. It is a very special position for me, naturally, and I hope we find the right person once things get back to normal. 

– You won prizes in the Munich ARD, Jean-Pierre Rampal, the Prague Spring, the Carl Nielsen, and the Kobe competitions, among others. Which is your secret to win those prizes?

Haha, well, there is no big secret! I think the main thing is just to keep trying. A lot of students think they are not good enough to participate in a big competition. Or it’s too much work and they can’t handle it. Or too stressful, or they don’t have any connections with any jury members, etc. Many different reasons. And they are waiting for the right moment to try a big competition someday. The truth is, there is almost never the right moment for anything, whether it’s a competition or an orchestral audition. So the main thing for us is to try everything we can! I heard so many stories in Russia saying that all international competitions are rigged, and you can never succeed unless you have a strong connection with some jury members. While it may help some people, I must say I knew no one from the juries when I started competing. And it didn’t matter too much. I think in general most of the jury members have integrity as musicians and vote honestly, and between 12 judges it’s objective enough. Of course, there are some “politicians” always, who will vote in a calculated manner to create an advantage for their students. But one vote is one vote. You might get a prize lower as a result at most, but that’s not a big deal in the end. So my advice is just to keep trying; nothing beats that. 

– What do you think that makes you a special flutist? 

Well, we are all special in our own way. I think what makes one special is having a personality and the ability to show it through making music. It’s the ability to tell the story, not just play the notes. If you succeed in that, people will want to come back to your concerts and hear you again. When there is something real, everyone recognizes it even without musical training. I think we all have things we hear and feel, and cannot explain or describe in words. 

– What has made you get where you are?

I was very lucky in my life to be surrounded by amazing people who supported me since I was little.  My father was beyond supportive; he gave up many things and jobs for my flute, and was very brave to take drastic action. Such as move 1,200 km north from our home town in Crimea to Moscow, to study flute his 9-year-old son. Not every parent can do that for their child. We had to be separated from my mom and brother for 2 years; they stayed in Crimea and moved to Moscow a couple of years later. My father was a “tiger dad”; would sit in every lesson and take notes. Then he would remind me of those things when I practiced. I was also lucky to meet the right teachers at the right time in my life. All it took was two teachers – Yuri Dolzhikov in Moscow and William Bennett in London. Both gave me exactly what I needed at the time. Dolzhikov helped me to build a strong technical base for the rest of my life, and Wibb was just everything in one teacher you could ever want – an amazing intelligent musician, who also gave me a deeper understanding of some technical aspects of playing as well. Of course, I had to work hard and tried not to miss opportunities when they come up. Luck is an important thing in life too, and not to be underestimated. But one can only win a lottery if they bought a lottery ticket, so you can only get lucky if you keep trying. In a way, you have to attract your luck, not wait for something good to happen to you out of nowhere. 

– What can you recommend to the professional flutists who want to win an audition? Or a competition?

Well, I’ll start with orchestral auditions. When you audition for an orchestral position, only a couple of people judging you will be flute players. This is very important to realize. The other judges all play different instruments, and will not be impressed by pure instrumental flutistic “difficult” things. They will be most impressed by your musicianship and personality, not by how fast you can move your fingers and double tongue, or your ability to circular breathe or play loudly in the low register. I have been on juries of different instruments auditions, and it is always the player who has the most to say musically who gets the job, not the one who didn’t make any mistakes. So, while it is important to practice your “Classical Symphony” passages, make sure you spend a lot of time understanding the character of each piece and play through the entire piece along with recordings, not just study your solos. You can always hear if the person playing was just practicing their solos, or if they know the piece and the context. Find out who you are playing with, think what sort of colors are appropriate for this piece and period, etc. Never compromise something musically to get it more perfect technically. For example, if you want to play something in one breath, but it makes you sound less expressive and less interesting, that’s not a worthy sacrifice, ever! Yes, I am talking about those people who train to play “l’après-midi” in one breath. I was one of them, as especially in Europe many teachers insist that it must be played in one breath. I was practicing it that way, but could never make it sound as good in one breath as with taking a breath either in the middle or towards the end. One time I played it for Andreas Blau and asked him what he thought of this. He thought of it for a few moments, and then answered: “Well, we had an audition for principal flute in Berlin Phil some years ago. Many great flute players came, and many of them played it one breath. But then, one person played it, taking two breaths, and he got the job! That was Emmanuel Pahud”.

Another thing, which sounds very obvious, is that you have to put enough practice hours in your preparation. It took me many auditions as a student to realize just HOW MUCH preparation is needed to perform your best. The difficult thing about auditions is that you have to stand out of the crowd in just a few minutes of playing excerpts alone. Often it’s only 5-10 minutes they hear in the first round. So every little thing you do matters, because you don’t have a full recital to show what you are worth as a musician. When I tried my first audition as a student, I practiced for a week or so, until I felt ready. At the time I would be learning a lot of solo repertoire, and this felt so much easier – just a bunch of short excerpts! Then I went to audition, and all sorts of things would come out during my performance that I didn’t expect. I remember one time being completely thrown off by seeing a lot of people in the hall during my audition for a German orchestra. They took off the screen for the second round, and I saw half the orchestra sitting there. Suddenly, I was so nervous! I remember playing the Carmen solo and hearing my heartbeat in my ears, like a (very loud) drum! Couldn’t focus or do anything…completely lost control! I would always prepare for international competitions for a couple of months or so, with lots of hours of practice, but it felt strange to do that for a bunch of little orchestral solos. But then, when I auditioned for Barcelona, I finally tried it – practiced 4 hours a day for a month, polishing every tiny detail, even when I already felt long ago I was ready to perform. Something very different happened when I played my audition there. I was still nervous, of course, but finally felt in control! It was the kind of nervousness I usually feel in concerts, the one which makes you perform better and feel excited. So ever since I practiced much longer for all auditions, and it allowed me to keep things under control under extreme stress one goes through taking an audition. 

For a competition – it’s in many ways similar. You also have to do all of the above. While all the judges are flute players in this case, they all have different opinions on many things – tone, style, etc. So one of the most important things here is to be convincing in your performance. Think of it as a listener and/or a judge: even if you hear someone play completely different from the way you would, if they make it sound convincing, you would still enjoy and appreciate it. So don’t be afraid to be yourself and don’t try to second-guess what the jury members like, but try to convince them with your interpretation, tell them how it should go. If you are not sincere in your music-making, they will feel it too. When you perform, you project everything you feel at that moment to the listener, whether you want to or not. So if you don’t feel convinced yourself, you will never convince the listener. If you don’t feel moved, the listener will not feel moved either…

– You play with a silver flute. What do you think about gold flutes?

I think it’s a matter of personal preference, and one is not better or worse than another, just different. I have tried golden flutes a few times and even considered switching. But I found my true voice on silver, and it seems to work better for me. What I like about silver is how easy it is to change colors. I cannot get the same range of colors on gold instruments. I find it especially difficult to produce a very hollow color on gold, which is so easy on silver. But gold has some interesting roundness and brilliance in the tone, which I like. That was the reason I considered switching. Also, I think it’s a bit easier to sound good when you are not in your top condition. Silver is more sensitive to you being in shape. So, while silver takes a bit more effort, for me it’s worth it for the wider color range I can get out of it. 

– How do you see the current musical outlook?

This is a difficult time for classical music, no doubt. Already fragile financially as an industry, to be hit by this pandemic is very hard for many musicians worldwide. But, I am optimistic about the future nevertheless. I am sure when this is all over and life is back to normal, people will want to go to concerts more than ever before, “hungry” after a year of not attending concerts. I think one could find parallels with wars ending. Whenever a war comes to an end, people feel so happy to be back to normal, and appreciate everything much more, including the arts. So I think soon we will see an increase, not a decrease, in numbers of people attending concerts and playing instruments. 

– And finally, some advice for our readers.

I feel always funny to be giving an “advice”, as I don’t like the concept of “Masters” and “Gurus” in general too much. Many “Masters” start taking themselves way too seriously from my experience and sometimes make me feel sick with their feeling of self-importance. I don’t ever want to get to that point personally. But I like sharing things that I would find helpful for myself earlier on though. These would be: 

Don’t feel too upset when failing at something, whether it’s an audition, a competition, or anything else, as it is an inevitable part of being a musician! Not one player in history won everything, so don’t beat yourself up. And here we get to the next part:

Keep trying!! Don’t get discouraged by not winning. As Wibb told me once, after one particularly upsetting audition: “it’s OK to be upset for a day, but forget it and move on tomorrow!”

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