When Julien Beaudiment was still just a teenager in France, he was already a prominent enough flutist to warrant attention from his hometown newspaper. “I was doing a concert in my hometown, and I was saying that my dream was to work in America. For me it was always something that was really fascinating to do: to live here, to work here. That story became ‘Julien’s American Dream.’ ”
That dream has come true. Mr. Beaudiment, now in his mid-30s, was chosen to be the new Principal Flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last summer, and before the end of the 2013-14 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he had been granted tenure. After taking some time to consider his options, he officially left his prior orchestra at the Lyon Opera and committed wholeheartedly to his new colleagues and new city.
A few weeks ago, he sat down to talk to me about the unlikely path from dream to reality, through the audition and tenure process, how he went from being apprehensive about living in Los Angeles to embracing it, and what he loves about making music with this orchestra in this city.
In October 2012, it seemed that the LA Phil’s vacant Principal Flute chair would remain empty for a lot longer. The orchestra had just held auditions for the position, but no winner was chosen. It was the latest setback to a position which, after two decades of having stability with the same two people holding the position, had become rather unstable. Counting former principals Janet Ferguson (who stepped down in 2006) and Anne Diener Zentner (who retired shortly thereafter), four people had held the title in the past six years — the other two being Mathieu Dufour (who resigned after half a season) and David Buck (who was not given tenure after two years).
There was some question as to whether or not the orchestra would find the right fit, both musically and interpersonally. Speculation even arose among some in the broader community of orchestral musicians as to whether or not certain members of the LA Phil’s woodwind section were developing, ahem, reputations — oh let’s call them “extra-musical” reputations — of being difficult, possibly preventing the orchestra from attracting the best candidates.
Rather than hold another round of open auditions, the orchestra’s Collective Bargaining Agreement allowed them to invite specific flutists in to be considered for the position.
Mr. Beaudiment had no direct connection to the LA Phil, and unlike some musicians in similar circumstances with other orchestras, had made no lobbying effort to be considered for one of these preciously rare invitations. Instead, the internet did his lobbying for him.
“I was in London and I got an email from Whitney Crockett, Principal Bassoon of the LA Phil, who was inviting me [on behalf of] the orchestra to do this trial audition, which included playing a week of concerts with the orchestra, playing recital excerpts with the orchestra, and a recital in front of the orchestra. He said, ‘We’re looking for a new Principal. We followed you on your website and YouTube and we like what you’re doing. So, would you be interested to do all that?’ I said, ‘OK, I have nothing to lose.’ ”
He had always been a fan of the LA Phil, but had never actually heard them play in person. “I have many recordings of [Esa-Pekka] Salonen and the LA Phil, and also [Carlo Maria] Giulini — Falstaff. For me, it’s always been one of the best orchestras. And of course, now with Gustavo.”
His trial week was scheduled for subscription concerts in February 2013. I attended one of those concerts, and while I found his playing excellent, the most notable thing about hearing him play that weekend was that you could really hear him play; in fact, he was almost too loud. It didn’t help that the music on the program that weekend (works by Wagner, Brahms, and Schumann) didn’t exactly showcase the flute.
On paper, his lack of familiarity with the orchestra, and them with him, seemed to be another potential handicap — a handicap that neither of the other two flutists invited by the LA Phil for trial weeks shared: Stefán Höskuldsson, Principal Flute at The Met Opera in New York, had played with Whitney Crockett for many years; Guy Eshed, then Principal Flute of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy, played with the LA Phil as guest principal during their European Tour in Spring 2013.
Given all of that, I did not think that Monsieur Beaudiment would be the new Principal Flute of the LA Phil. In fact, as I confided to some friends at the time based on the admittedly limited exposure I had to the three candidates, I would not have been surprised if the LA Phil had declined to give offers to any of them.
Thankfully, I was wrong. In June 2013, when it was time for Mr. Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to decide which (if any) of the three excellent musicians would be offered the Principal Flute chair, they chose Julien Beaudiment.
With job in hand, the most difficult part would seem to have been over. Not necessarily so. A great audition does not guarantee gaining tenure with the orchestra (just ask Mr. Buck). Plus, not only was Mr. Beaudiment an outsider, he was from another country, with all the challenges — musically and personally — that such a situation entails.
“It’s a stressful process,” he admits. “At the same time, as a foreigner, you have to add that it’s a new life, it’s a new country, it’s a completely different city from any European city, so at the beginning, it was a shock. “
“So [getting tenure] is a difficult process itself, but it was extra difficult because it’s a new life happening at the same time. It’s a huge shock when you arrive. When you go to New York or Boston, it’s like a European city, but LA is so different,” he says now with a smile. “In Lyon, I never used a car, and here I use it everywhere. It’s a complete change.”
Moreover, he admitted that it took time to adjust to playing with his new colleagues, in an unfamiliar concert hall, as part of an orchestra with a different sound than the one to which he was accustomed.
“As a European, I can sometimes be too bright, because we play in a brighter way in Europe, especially in France. The articulation in France is very clear, so sometimes here it can be a bit too much, so I had to try to find a bit more darkness in the sound to match better with the players in the section. And also because I was playing in an opera pit for twelve years, and now I’m on stage, the projection is not the same. In an opera pit, you’re always too loud, and here you have to play a little different — loud, but not all the time.”
The brightness — and loudness — which were easily heard during his trial week remained apparent during the first few weeks of the 2013-14 winter season at Walt Disney Concert Hall, especially with Gustavo Dudamel on the podium. After that, he seemed to back off a bit while working on blending in with his colleagues more.
By the time Mr. Dudamel returned in December to conduct a series of concerts that featured some iconic works in the flute repertoire — The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky’s Petrushka – Mr. Beaudiment sounded like a different flutist. The power was back, but now it was matched with a richness of tone, beauty of timbre, and nuanced phrasing that you hadn’t heard since, well, another Frenchman had sat in the same Principal Flute chair.
Music critic Timothy Mangan took notice at those concerts too; he stated that “Flutist Julien Beaudiment worked wonders in his many solos” in the Tchaikovsky, and made a point of mentioning his playing as one of Petrushka‘s “shining moments” along with other LA Phil soloists.
By February, he was getting the kind of loud cheers typically reserved for more established musicians within the orchestra — Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky, Principal Timpani Joe Pereira, or Principal Horn Andrew Bain, to name just a few. What led to this evolution?
“When you go to a new orchestra, you have to fit in,” Mr. Beaudiment explains. “You have to bring what they wanted you to bring — if they hired you, they want you to bring what they liked — but also to fit into their tradition. So, when you join people who have been playing together for years, you have to be yourself, but at the same time, to be flexible and to blend into the sound they have.”
“So when I play a duet with Michele that she has played 100 times, sometimes I have to listen and match what she does and adjust. At the same time, I sometimes have new ideas, and she’s very open, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do that, because I’ve played it that way for years, but let’s try that.’ So deciding what we do — her way, my way, our way — it’s challenging, but it’s worth it.”
Come spring, he had become an audience favorite and one of the orchestra’s bona fide stars. Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra seem to have agreed, and by May, they granted him tenure.
Now, the decision was in his hands. Would he stay with the orchestra or not?
Artistically, there was never a question.
“I love this orchestra, and I love its sound — a very American sound,” he declared emphatically earlier in our discussion. “It is, first of all, really amazing technically. Most of the time it’s really perfect. People have very strong sense of how to play together, a very firm sense of rhythm, which I think is really important in an orchestra.”
“I think [the LA Phil] has very good homogeneity, but what I like is that the sound is the most important to keep and to protect here: the sound, the sound, the sound. It’s never hard. It can be powerful and it can be sensitive and very delicate. I love the sound here.”
He continues. “I think it’s very transparent. I love the string sound, which is very transparent. The woodwind section is also very transparent, but with that darkness inside, and I think the brass is the best section in the world. Really. American brass is the best, I really think they’re amazing.”
There was, however, more to making this life-changing decision than musical concerns. “I was sure about the artistic side, but it’s a new life too, so it was tough.” He takes a few extra moments to collect his thoughts.
“After playing in Lyon Opera for twelve years, I had my habits. It was my life, and suddenly your life has to change. Everything you do, everything you see, everything you eat, everything you speak about is different.” He pauses again, as if he has more to say, but he shifts gears and smiles again.
“But everything that was, at the beginning, bothering me is not a problem anymore. Now, it’s just part of life. So much so that I decided officially to quit my job at the Opera Orchestra of Lyon. So I’m staying here, which is a big decision to make — a very big decision.”
“Now I can relax and enjoy my decision.”
In the process, he has also come to enjoy life in Southern California and has discovered much to love about Los Angeles.
He starts with the vaunted LA weather, and after a year, still speaks about it with seeming disbelief. “It’s truly amazing, and I say that every day. When I wake up and see the sun and the light, hear the birds, see the clear sky with no clouds, and palm trees: it changes your outlook.”
“I love that people are so cool, so relaxed and approachable,” he is quick to add. “It is something that is very different than Europe. “
“I like that you can have a very nice neighborhood and it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, not in a city. You can live in the Hollywood Hills, and you feel like you’re in a little village and not that there are 20 Million people around you. I like that. You can’t do that in Paris.”
“The city is full of these little villages.” We share more stories about LA neighborhoods, and he contributes with the confidence of a native Angeleno. “I love to leave my house and walk around Pasadena to take my petit dejeuner.” He seems quite comfortable.
Most of the time, he can be seen playing his 14k gold flute made by Sankyo in Japan; however, he switches to a wooden Sankyo flute with a modern mechanism in repertoire ranging from the 17th century to Schumann.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can play like they played at the time,” he says, “but the fact is that the wood is a delicate material, so it makes the sound warmer. At the time of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, the flutes were all wood, so you can try to make the sound the composer wanted at that time.” He even mentions that Mahler hated the sound of silver flutes, preferring wooden ones: “The Song of Earth, it’s really composed for this kind of flute.”
There are other concerns besides a simple attempt at trying to follow period practices. “It’s really intimate, and it makes it easier to blend with the oboe sometimes. When I play the gold flute, sometimes you can trust in its power too much and say, ‘It’s powerful, and since I can play with power, I’m going to do that.’ But a wooden flute is very delicate; you mustn’t push it to the limit,” he explains. “The more you play in force, the less it sounds.”
“I also like the clarity of the high register,” he adds. “I have the best of two world: clarity and darkness. I love it. And,” he says with a wry smile, “sometimes I like it as a detox after playing the gold flute, you know?”
Besides lack of power, the wooden flute some other distinct challenges: “The wood is always sensitive with the weather, humidity, etc. You never have the same sound. Usually, this flute sounds the best when it’s hot and humid. But when it’s cold or dry, you can really have some surprises.”
Still, he loves his gold flute. “I like both, but I have of course a big passion for my gold flute, as it is the best instrument I ever had.”
This mix in his preference for flutes — traditional vs. contemporary — mirrors his polyglot approach to music making.
“Tradition is a bit complicated. People think that because you are French, because you are from Europe, you belong to that tradition. I’m not looking for tradition, I’m looking for open-mindedness. Why should you only play things one way, the traditional way? OK, sometimes, why not — but maybe we can look at it a different way too.”
“There is a tradition here, too, with the sound with this orchestra, but I like it here because it’s in the middle. It’s not stiff like there’s one way to play it, because I’d feel really uncomfortable in that way. Instead, it’s always trying to find the balance between having the good tradition and having the new ideas.”
“I think that’s what represents the orchestra and the LA Phil in general: trying to build something that is different from other orchestras but sticks with tradition in a way that sticks with our tradition with the LA Phil flair. I love to do it. I love that you can switch from Beethoven 7 to John Adams, from Cosi fan tutte on a wooden flute to a Green Umbrella concert.”
He’s been with the orchestra for less than a year, and already he speaks with the kind of enthusiasm for the orchestra that shows how comfortable he is with his new environs. He seems to be a perfect fit for the LA Phil.
“I’m greedy. I want to enjoy EVERYTHING. From 20th century to baroque. I don’t want to be trapped in one single approach to play music.”
Julien Beaudiment’s American Dream seems to be coming along quite nicely. Here’s to many years of seeing and hearing him perform as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Principal Flute.
- Julien Beaudiment offered LA Phil’s Principal Flute chair
- Dudamel, Shaham, and LA Phil make old standards sound fresh; Julien Beaudiment sits in as first-chair flute
- Catching up with the LA Phil: trying to fill empty chairs
- LA Phil is gonna need a new Principal Flute — again
- Julien Beaudiment sitting in Walt Disney Concert Hall green room: photo by CK Dexter Haven
- Julien Beaudiment standing in black: photo by Mathew Imaging, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
- Julien Beaudiment in jeans standing in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall: photo by Martin Chalifour
- Julien Beaudiment holding wooden flute: photo by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of http://www.julienbeaudiment.com