Marina Piccinini: Good music and a very good life
By Robert Bigio
Bach: Sonata in E major BWV 1035, movements 3 and 4.
Marina Piccinini, flute; Brasil Guitar Duo.
Avie AV 2196. (6:39) www.avierecords.com
César Franck: Sonata movement 4.
Marina Piccinini, flute; Andreas Haefliger, piano.
Avie AV 2087. (6:05) www.avierecords.com
I was quite unprepared for Marina Piccinini’s accent, which is
as exotic as her background. Her mother is Brazilian, her
father is Italian and she was born in the USA where her
father, a mathematician, was a graduate student. Her mother
was homesick, so the family returned to Brazil and stayed
there until Marina was eight, when her father was invited to
teach in Switzerland. A few years later her father accepted a
position in Newfoundland, so Canada was added to the mix.
Some years after that, Marina went to the Juilliard School.
‘I’m a New Yorker, if anyone asks,’ she says with a laugh.
That does, in fact, explain everything.
Marina’s first musical experience (‘A somewhat tacky story,’
she admits) was a performance of The Magic Flute at the
Zurich Opera, which entranced her and led to her life-long
love of opera and the singing voice. After the performance
she announced, ‘I’m playing the flute.’ (Announced, she
stresses, not asked.) She was too small for a flute, so she was
given a recorder. She hated it, but played it for two years.
On arriving in Canada, Marina finally got her flute and
joined the school band. Flute teachers were scarce in
Newfoundland, so her first teacher was a trumpet player and
conductor who taught her to play using the Rubank
elementary teaching book. This teacher also taught her how
to breathe. ‘This is how you do it on a trumpet,’ he told her,
and gave her instructions which turned out to work perfectly
well on the flute. Apart from these lessons, she taught herself
until she was sixteen. When she finished high school someone told her of
a good flute player in Toronto. She hadn’t heard of her, or, indeed of many
other flute players, as she mainly knew singers and loved opera. The player in Toronto was
Jeanne Baxtresser, at the time first flute in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and professor of
flute at the University of Toronto. Marina, then still aged sixteen and therefore too young,
applied to the University of Toronto, having been, as she puts it, somewhat creative about her
age. She got in and spent a year studying with Jeanne Baxtresser, who was, for Marina, a
fantastic teacher. After a year her teacher said Toronto was the wrong place for her and
suggested she go to Juilliard in New York. At the age of eighteen, Marina enrolled at Juilliard to
study with Julius Baker, the first flute in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
While at Juilliard, Marina met and fell in love with her
fellow student Andreas Haefliger, the pianist son of the
great Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger. She had been offered
a place at the Tanglewood Festival, but chose instead to
spend her summers in Switzerland with Andreas. It
turned out that Ernst Haefliger was an old friend of
Aurèle Nicolet, who had been first flute in the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra when Ernst Haefliger had been
at the Berlin Opera. Lessons with Nicolet were
arranged. Marina says they provided a wonderful
change from the teaching at Juilliard. In fact, she has
only ever had three teachers: Baxtresser, Baker and
Another huge musical benefit of spending summers in
Switzerland was that Ernst Haefliger taught a
masterclass in Zurich. He invited Marina to play
obbligato flute parts from Bach arias with his students.
This, says Marina, was a wonderful learning experience,
and she even got paid for it. All the while she continued
her lessons with Nicolet.
Teachers, says Marina, never stop. She recently played the Ibert Concerto in Basel, and played
Debussy’s Syrinx as an encore. Aurèle Nicolet was in the audience. He went backstage
afterwards and gave Marina a lesson on Syrinx. ‘Once a teacher, always a teacher,’ she says.
A year after Marina arrived at Juilliard, Julius Baker retired and was replaced in the NYPO and
joined at Juilliard by Jeanne Baxtresser, with whom Marina has maintained a close friendship.
‘Jeanne is my daughter’s godmother,’ she says, ‘and she gave me many of her beautiful concert
dresses. Julie Baker used to say he was passing on the torch of great Jewish flute
playing—Jeanne is passing on the torch of great flute dresses!’
Jeanne Baxtresser, says Marina, is ‘a wonderful woman, intelligent, compassionate, funny,
diplomatic, caring’. As a teacher, though, she was surprisingly tough, especially at first. She
used to tape her lessons. On one occasion Marina played Hindemith’s Acht Stücke. ‘Jeanne turned
off the tape recorder and said she didn’t want to hear any mistakes in the future. She then turned
the tape recorder back on. I was so shocked I made sure I never made any more mistakes.’
Marina says there has been a great change in her attitude. ‘Now Jeanne is a sweetie pie.
Everyone loves her. I once jokingly asked her what had happened: did you get it all out on me?’
She now sees herself in Jeanne Baxtresser’s teaching. ‘If you want to be angry with a student you
have to be not angry. If you are actually angry you cannot show it.’
Marina now teaches at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, part of Johns Hopkins University.
This, she says, takes some organisation as she has homes in New York and Vienna. Peabody has
been very supportive. She has been allowed to run her studio as she wants to, and she has an
assistant. When Marina is at Peabody she starts very early—at seven in the morning—and works
all day. She has, she says, wonderful students from all over the world.
Marina says she likes students who are interested in life, in music and the arts, who are self-
motivated and independent. ‘I had to be independent, because I didn’t really have a flute teacher
until I was sixteen. My life didn’t follow a pattern. I like students who follow their own path,
rather than those who look to me to tell them what to do. They won’t get far without
independence. I like it if students have their own likes and dislikes.’
Did she ever consider an orchestral career? In the 1990s she was offered the first flute job in the
Boston Symphony Orchestra by Seiji Ozawa. She thought deeply about it, played many concerts,
toured with the orchestra and recorded with them. It was a hard decision, she said. The BSO has
two principals, but rather than playing complete concerts in turn, the principals are required to
play half of each concert, which would have restricted Marina’s solo career. She remembers the
moment she made the decision: she was just about to go on stage with the BSO to play Olivier
Messiaen’s posthumous Concert à quatre (a little-known work for flute, piano, cello, oboe and
orchestra) when she discovered she was pregnant. That made the decision tough—the security
of a full-time job would have been good and she loved the BSO, but then she had just been taken
on by Colbert management in New York, and the flexibility of a solo career became more
She does have other orchestral experience. When Jeanne Baxtresser left the NYPO, the conductor
Kurt Masur asked Marina to play a few concerts. She played one week with them, then a tour,
but by then she knew it was only for fun. ‘Playing in an orchestra requires a different state of
mind from being a soloist,’ she says. ‘I have made this choice, and I like it.’ She does wish she
could play in an orchestra occasionally, and this sometimes happens. András Schiff has asked
her to play in his chamber orchestra, but she is generally too busy.
Her choice of music is interesting. She is committed to expanding the flute repertoire and has
given the first performances of Matthew Hindson’s concerto entitled House Music (performed
with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roberto Minczuk); Michael Colgrass’s
Crossworlds, a concerto for flute, piano and orchestra which she performed with her husband
Andreas Haefliger and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Hans Graf; and Gran Danzon, a
concerto for flute and orchestra by the Cuban composer Paquito D’Rivera, which she performed
with the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. She has a busy concert career
and regularly performs as soloist with many of the world’s great orchestras.
She is a busy chamber music player who has worked with the Tokyo, Brentano, Mendelssohn
and Takács string quartets and with Nexus, the percussion ensemble.She is a regular participant
in festivals at Marlboro, Santa Fe, Spoleto and others, and she has performed at the Saito Kinen
Festival in Japan at the invitation of Seiji Ozawa. She considers her work at the Marlboro
Festival, which she first visited as a ‘young player’, to be a big part of her summer.
As to extended techniques, Marina says she prefers not to use them. There are, she says, a
limited number of techniques that really add to the flute, and a piece with extended techniques
has to be a good piece of music first. ‘I love the sound of the flute,’ she says. ‘I don’t want it to
sound like something else. I don’t like multiphonics because they don’t make a flute sound
great—they make it sound like a pipe. If you want to do that, get a pipe! I say that with all due
respect to those people who are good at multiphonics.’ She says she loves the Boulez
Sonatine—‘A great piece, with not one extended technique.’ She once played the Boulez with
Bruno Canino, who used to play it with Severino Gazzelloni, the pioneer player of contemporary
flute music. Canino was amazed, she says, at how easy it was to play it with her. Since
Gazzelloni’s day, says Marina, this work has become not so difficult.
‘I always go back to what brought me into music, and that’s great singing,’ says Marina. ‘What’s
fantastic about being a musician is you only get better. As long as you practise hard and keep in
good shape, you’re always finding something new. I can never understand people who say
they’re bored with their instrument. I wouldn’t begin to understand this.’
Marina Piccinini’s life changed dramatically on 11 September 2001 when she opened her curtains
to see one of the twin towers blazing and a spot heading for the second tower. This became for
her a spiritual matter. Quite apart from the horror of the death and destruction, she realised that
when she and her husband were away on tour, their daughter Chiara would be looked after by a
nanny, and they had no family in New York. They did have family in Vienna, so they moved
there. At least in case of disaster, she says, she knows her child will be looked after.
‘I don’t want to be a cellphone mom,’ she says, so she is particular about the concerts she takes.
She and Andreas are often away, but, she says, when they are home, they are really home, with
plenty of time to spend with their daughter.
‘I have a good life,’ says Marina. ‘I am wife to a great pianist and mother to a wonderful child.’
And, one might add, she is a rather wonderful musician.
This article first appeared in September 2007 in Pan (now Flute), the journal of the British Flute Society.
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