In what has become a nearly annual event, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has named a new Principal Flute: this time around, the winner is Benjamin Smolen, the current Principal Flute of the Battle Creek Symphony.
Mr. Smolen has played as a guest with the Pacific Symphony before. Now that he’s got the full-time gig, let’s hope he sticks around a little longer than his three predecessors, each of which held the Principal Flute chair in Orange County for ever shortening stints:
- Mr. Smolen takes over the chair vacated by Mercedes Smith, who joined the orchestra in December 2010 after having been Principal Flute of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestra for seven years. She won the audition in August of that year, just one week after having won the prestigious Young Artist Competition put on by the National Flute Association (NFA), defeating Mr. Smolen and many others in the process. She played with the Pacific Symphony through August 2011, and then she went back to Houston.
- While Ms. Smith was in California, filling her seat as acting principal in Houston was Monica Daniel-Barker – who happened to be Ms. Smith’s immediate predecessor at the PSO. When she began her tenure with the Pacific Symphony in 2008, Ms. Daniel-Barker was already traveling between Texas and Northern California where she was principal of three orchestras (Marin Symphony, California Symphony, and Modesto Symphony). She ended up resigning the position in 2009, admitting later that adding Orange County to her commute proved to be a greater strain on her personal life than she had originally anticipated.
- The short-stay trend began with Heather Clark. After studying with Jim Walker at USC, Ms. Clark won the NFA Young Artist Competition in 1994, became Principal Flute of the Long Beach Symphony in 1995, and Principal Flute of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 2003. In addition to maintaing the first chair position in those two orchestras, she was also an active studio musician by the time she won the Principal Flute audition with the Pacific Symphony in October 2005. She began playing with the PSO a few months later, and before the end of the 2007-2008 season, she had resigned.
It’s unclear why the orchestra has had such difficulty holding on to their lead flutist. Unlike the very public departure of Mathieu Dufour from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, there have been no public comments from the PSO, nor have Ms. Clark or Ms. Smith made any statements regarding their respective situations. Certainly, there are a whole host of dynamics within both an orchestra and a player’s personal life which could lead to a given player to stay or leave. Whether the previous three departures were mere coincidences or shared some common thread, I will leave for more knowledgeable parties’ comments or others’ speculation.
Speaking of the LA Phil, the flutist hired to take over for Mr. Dufour was David Buck, who has played with distinction since joining the orchestra at the beginning of the 2010/2011 season. During his audition for his previous orchestra, the Oregon Symphony, some who heard Mr. Buck referred to him as a “flute god.” The Oregonian raved about him: “He’s just about everything you’d want in a flutist, combining supple tone, rhythmic dynamism and technical agility. When he plays, the flute becomes a natural extension of an imaginative musical personality.” Now, his old band is hoping to find another deity when they hold auditions for a new Principal Flute that began yesterday and go through the end of the week.
A different flutist made a move in the opposite direction, from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest: earlier this year, Demarre McGill left his Principal Flute chair in the San Diego Symphony to take the same position with the Seattle Symphony. His former orchestra begins its search to replace him in a couple of weeks.