Interviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Chatting with the LA Phil woodwind principals Whitney Crockett, Denis Bouriakov, and Boris Allakhverdyan

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has made some rather impressive hires during the Gustavo Dudamel era, but perhaps none more intriguing than the three stellar principal woodwinds.  They’re tough to miss, both because they sit dead-center in the orchestra and, more importantly, because their playing is impeccable.  They also share a notable line-item on their curriculum vitae:

  • First was Whitney Crockett in 2009, Principal Bassoon of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and former Principal of the Montreal Symphony before that.  The Floridian was Maestro Dudamel’s first orchestral hire as Music Director.
  • Next was Denis Bouriakov, Principal Flute of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and former Principal of the Barcelona Symphony and Tampere Symphony (Finland).
  • Most recently, Boris Allakhverdyan, Principal Clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and former Associate Principal of the Kansas City Symphony, joined the orchestra last year.

That’s right, three former Met first-chair players in the same section hired within relatively short succession.  To paraphrase Auric Goldfinger, Ian Fleming’s iconic Bond baddy:  once is happenstance; twice is a coincidence; three times is a trend.

What might have been the reason for this?  With the orchestra in the midst of auditions for a new Principal Oboe, might this trend continue?

This past summer, I had the chance to chat with each of them individually over lunch and learn more about their backgrounds, why they chose to leave the opera pit in Manhattan to come to sunny Southern California, and what they think are the important factors in being a principal woodwind player in the LA Phil.

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The three musicians come from diverse backgrounds, but shared an early love of their respective  instruments.

Mr. Crockett immediately fell for the bassoon as a 13-year old, but he had to fight for the chance to play it.  “I saw it, and I knew I wanted to play it because it looked cool,” recalls the Miami native.  “But my band director didn’t let me play it to start because he thought it was too hard, so I played saxophone for three months.  I kept bugging him because I really didn’t want to play saxophone, so he let me take it home over Christmas.  I remember sitting there for like eight hours a day trying to figure the fingerings out with a chart.  I came back and played some stuff and he felt like I had it.”  His band teacher was right.  After graduating from Miami High School, Mr. Crockett went on to study at Juilliard before embarking on his professional career.

The other two musicians began playing their instruments even younger.  Mr. Bouriakov came from a non-musical family and began singing in the school choir of his Crimean hometown at eight-years old, but hated it so much that soon he asked to switch to a woodwind instrument within the next year.  “I wanted to play oboe but they didn’t actually have one, so I played flute instead and it felt natural.” Soon after, he was being hailed as a teenage prodigy, touring multiple continents and playing for  presidents, princes, and the Pope. At 18, he entered the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London to study with William Bennett.  He graduated in 2004 with a fistful of accolades, was named an Associate of the RAM in 2006, and a Fellow of the RAM in 2014.

Mr. Allakhverdyan was born in Azerbaijan of Armenian descent.  The family moved to Moscow when he was still a child, and soon after, he  began taking clarinet lessons at age 9 from his father, Valery.  “He was actually a rather prominent teacher in the area.”  The younger clarinetist eventually earned a Bachelor of Music in 2006 from the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory, an Artist Diploma from the Oberlin Conservatory, and a Master of Music from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

All began their professional careers in symphony orchestras before eventually winning auditions at the Met.  For most musicians, and perhaps in a different decade, that would have been the last full-time job they’d ever want or need to have.  The Met offered prestige, a high salary, and a track-record of stability.

“The Met was clearly a step up,” remembers Mr. Bouriakov, “that when I won the audition, I quit my Spanish orchestra right away.  I didn’t even worry about asking for leave, not that they would have given it to me, but it didn’t matter.”  Mr. Crockett says, “As long as you were willing to work your ass off — like 50% more compared to some symphony orchestras — you’d get paid well.”  Mr. Allakhverdyan was more than content, and wasn’t necessarily looking to leave, at least initially:  “When I joined the Met in 2013, I had no expectation for how long I’d be there.”

So what led to the exodus from the red velvet confines of the opera house in Lincoln Center to the billowing wood interior and vividly patterned seats of Walt Disney Concert Hall?

It started with the workload.

“I never saw myself leaving at 40-something for another orchestra,” explains Mr. Crockett, the westward pioneer of the trio.  But he found himself weighing the benefits of being in a top-tier orchestra against the burdens the Met’s demanding schedule put on health and his personal life.  “I may be miserable, I may not be seeing my family, my children, but Thursday is going to come and there’d be a paycheck, and at the end of your career you’ll have a pension.  [Had I stayed,] I could stop at age 62 with a really good pension,” he continues.  “But I didn’t want to stop playing the bassoon at 62.  I love playing the bassoon, and I wanted to be physically capable of playing past that age.”

Mr. Bouriakov expressed similar sentiments.  “At the Met, we work like crazy from the second half of August until the season ends middle of May.  During that time, you have one week off and four personal days which you can take, but that’s also complicated.  You have to take a week in which you can be safely rotated off because there are four operas going on at a time, and if there’s a non-traditional opera, you have to commit to all the performances.”

Both he and his wife, Erin, a fellow flutist whom he met while they were students at the RAM, discovered that the situation began to wear on them.  “The worst part is, if you have a family, coming back home at midnight or 1am on a regular basis.  At the Met, if you’d finish by 10:30, that’s a short opera.  Sometimes you get lucky and you play Strauss’s Elektra which is maybe two hours long, but if you have a Wagner opera then it’s six hours long.  My wife was alone taking care of our son all the time, and we both realized something had to change.”

Mr. Allakhverdyan put it most succinctly, repeating a quote he remembered:  “Life is short.  Operas are long.”

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If a challenging workload served as the initial spark to get them to consider leaving, the catalyst which accelerated the process was the 2004 retirement of Joseph Volpe as General Manager and the subsequent 2006 appointment of the controversial Peter Gelb to replace him.

“I never really had to think about stability in my first ten years at the Met,” recalls Mr. Crockett.  “The minute Gelb came in, everything became a little unsettled.  With Volpe, we knew what we had.  He had a track record of 20-something years.  I didn’t always agree with him, but he was fair, and the contracts were fair.”

The criticism of Mr. Gelb in the first few years of his reign was mainly focused on his artistic choices, but that, combined with a strong desire for more work-life balance, was enough to make Mr. Crockett (by then, a 12-year veteran of the Met) more open-minded to other opportunities.

“When the auditions [for LA Phil Principal Bassoon] came up, someone from the orchestra contacted me and asked, ‘Would you be interested?’  I hadn’t thought about it, but I thought about it and decided, ‘You know what?  I do!’  And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is scary.’  I hadn’t taken an audition in 12 years.  Thankfully, it worked out.”

Yes, it did, for both musician and orchestra.  By the time Mr. Crockett auditioned, the LA Phil had held both open and invite-only auditions, giving trial weeks to titled bassoonists from the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony.  None was the right fit.  Then Mr. Crockett played his audition and his trial week.  Soon after, he was offered the position, he accepted, and fans of the LA Phil have been grateful ever since.

The position he earned is one steeped in history and honor.  His immediate predecessor, David Breidenthal, was Principal Bassoon for over four decades, and before him was Frederick “Fritz” Moritz, former Principal Bassoon of the Berlin Philharmonic and 47-year veteran of the LA Phil.  “I’m very happy to be discussed among those two players and proud to be part of that lineage,” he affirms.

“I knew Moritz only by reputation, and he was always held in extremely high regard,” he states. He knew Mr. Breidenthal’s playing more directly, but not in the same way he was familiar with other great bassoonists of that generation.

“When I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s in Florida, you didn’t hear as much as about the West Coast orchestras.  Call it an East Coast bias or chauvinism.  You heard about Philly, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, and New York; you knew those players and had an opinion about them, but that’s pretty much it,” he confesses.

“But David I knew because he recorded the Mozart concerto on video with Zubin Mehta.  I heard that, and I thought, ‘Wow, that guy’s a serious player!’  I had a tremendous amount of respect for him for a long time even though I never met him.  A great player who everyone said only good things about.”

“Sometimes, you’d hear about other musicians in other places who stayed too long or let things get away from them.  You never would hear that talk about David.  He left playing at a very, very high level.”

Mr. Crockett’s decision to join the orchestra proved to be the first of many noteworthy and important additions to the orchestra:   Andrew Bain as Principal Horn; Thomas Hooten as Principal Trumpet, Nathan Cole as First Associate Concertmaster, Robert deMaine as Principal Cello, Burt Hara as Associate Principal Clarinet, Akiko Tarumoto’s return to the first violins (and eventual promotion to Assistant Concertmaster), and many others.  All of them, including Mr. Crockett, have brought a more expressive and individual quality to their playing, injecting more character and richness to the LA Phil’s sound.  Mr. Crockett has definitely noticed it too.

“The orchestra standards continue to get higher, and that’s primarily because it continues to hire amazing players.  That’s not meant to be an insult or a dig at people who’ve been here for a long time.  On the contrary, the orchestra was full of fantastic players before I got here.  Just one example: Carolyn Hove is one of the best English horn player on the planet, in my opinion.”

“But when you look at the people who’ve joined since I’ve been here – trumpet, horn, er, horns, cello, flutes, clarinets, trombones – their standards are all amazingly high.  It’s more fun when the standards and the pressure is higher.

We all want to be the best musicians possible.  It’s not just what we do – it’s who we are”

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The most notable smudge on an otherwise outstanding hiring track record was the revolving door that the Principal Flute chair had become between 2009 and 2015.  Before Mr. Crockett joined the orchestra, Mathieu Dufour came and went in the span of a few months.  After he joined, David Buck held the position for two years before he departed.  Julien Beaudiment moved from France to LA after making some difficult life choices, only to have to move back to France because of health issues.

The orchestra felt snakebit, the position seemed cursed, and some were wondering if Pedro Cerrano needed to offer rum and cigars to Jobu to help purge the evil spirits that had seemingly inhabited the chair.

Meanwhile, back at the Met, things had gone from bad to worse.  In 2014, Mr. Gelb had threatened to lock out most of the unionized workers, including musicians, unless they made concessions.  An agreement was eventually reached, but the damage was done. “How much of an impact did Peter Gelb have in my decision [to leave the Met]?  Quite a bit,” admits Mr. Allakhverdyan.  “We had to take a major pay cut,” recalls Mr. Bouriakov.  “Things were not good at all.”

By that time, the LA Phil  under then-President Deborah Borda had solidified its reputation for combining artistic daring, financial stability, and healthy relations with the musicians.  “[She] made this orchestra such a financially secure and successful organization so that people are even more attracted to this orchestra,” explains Mr. Bouriakov.  “Having security always helps,” Mr. Allakhverdyan concurred.  “That played quite a bit of a role, especially knowing the LA Phil is much more secure.”  Open auditions were more popular than ever.

Mr. Beaudiment’s sad farewell from Los Angeles  in 2015 led to an unexpected opportunity, though the brevity of his tenure and that of the other Principal Flutes  before him may have raised a concerns with some of the candidates.  This was not the case for Mr. Bouriakov. “It didn’t really effect my desire to audition.  I wanted this job.  I know Mathieu and Julien pretty well, and I talked to them.  I knew why they left and it was not for the same reason, so I was not worried.  It was just bad luck for the orchestra to lose people in rapid succession.  The reasons weren’t related.”

He won the audition outright without even being asked to do a trial week before receiving the job offer, and was granted tenure quickly.

Within another year, it was Mr. Allakhverdyan’s turn.  Michele Zukovsky retired after a legendary 54-year career and, to many people’s surprise, Burt Hara — the lauded former Principal Clarinet of both Minnesota Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra — decided not to pursue the 1st chair in the LA Phil.

“Boris joked with me, ‘Okay, here’s the plan:  you get the job there first, and then I’ll get the job,’ and then we laughed about it.  But then it actually worked out,” said a smiling Mr. Bouriakov before making sure to clarify that everything was on the up-and-up.  “Of course, I had nothing to do with his audition.  I was not on the committee yet — his audition was in October and I didn’t start until November of that year — but he didn’t need my help.”

What probably did help Mr. Allakhverdyan was that he was not completely unfamiliar with the orchestra.

“I played with the LA Phil for one week back when I was still with the Kansas City Symphony,” he says.  “It was for Where the Wild Things Are by Oliver Knussen.  Monica Kaenzig [the LA Phil 2nd/E-flat clarinet at the time] had called in sick, so they asked me to play the E-flat part.  I played in Walt Disney Concert Hall and Gustavo was conducting, so I had some idea of what it was like.  Of course, one week isn’t enough to make a judgement, but it was better than nothing.  Michele was playing first and David [Howard] was playing bass.  It was a lot of fun, I had a great time.  I’m so happy to have played with Michele — by the way:  I’ve seen her a few times; she’s doing great!.”

After the audition, he and another clarinetist were offered trial weeks, after which Mr. Allakhverdyan was offered the job.  He was awarded tenure soon after.

All three musicians cited two other L.A. traits as being a non-trivial part of their decision:  the food and the weather.  “You can’t beat the variety and quality of the food in this town,” says Mr. Crockett as we enjoy falafel and compare notes on our favorite spots in DTLA’s Grand Central Market.

Mr. Bouriakov compared his new job to a similar one at the Chicago Symphony, which had Principal Flute auditions just a few weeks after the LA Phil.  “Of course, I applied to both.  But this audition came first and this was the job I wanted more as well because of many reasons, weather being a big one.  You know about it, but you don’t truly appreciate it until you’ve been here. ”

“I remember when I came here for two weeks in August at the Bowl before my tenure officially started, and I woke up at 8am and it was sunny. It was crazy. I called my wife, and I said ‘Can you believe it’s 8 in the morning, and I’m wearing sunglasses?!’  That’s something you don’t do in New Jersey.  And after three or four mornings of that, she says, ‘OK, I get it, it’s sunny there.’  Now, after living here, it’s still amazing.  You’re in a different mood.  And the food is amazing.”

Mr. Allakhverdyan gives nearly identical praise.  “I like it a lot in LA.  I live Downtown, so I can walk to Disney Hall, and I can walk to all these other great places.  The weather is awesome and the food is amazing.”

Los Angeles’s rich ethnic diversity also made a difference.  “The fact that there is a large Armenian community also helped,” says Mr Allakhverdyan.  “The ability to eat Armenian food, go to an Armenian church – not as important, perhaps, as having the chance to play with Whitney and Denis or to have financial stability or live in LA in general, but it still made a difference.  Even in New York, it can be hard to find Armenian food.”  Mr. Bouriakov had a similar motivation, stating, “My wife is Korean, so the community here and their support made a difference.”

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Now that they’re all in one place, they’re like brothers.

“The fit that I have with Denis and Boris is not just because we all worked at the Met,” emphasizes Mr. Crockett.  “First of all, I never worked with Boris there but now we’re finishing each other’s sentences.  It’s uncanny.  And Denis too.  We only played together and overlapped for about two or three years at the Met, and he’s always perfectly lovely and a great, great player.”

“I think our woodwinds our tough to beat,” says Mr. Bouriakov confidently but not arrogantly, “and our brass too.  Our combined winds are the best of any orchestra I’ve played in.  Both Tom [Hooten] and Andrew [Bain] are amazing players.  I was blown away the first time I heard them live, and I’m so happy to play with them.”   He mentions that he and his follow principals are hoping/planning to eventually form an LA Phil wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn) once the new Principal Oboe is hired.  “Andrew  is already booking us in Australia for 2019,” he says with a smile.

He goes on to give praise to the entire flute section:  Elise Shope Henry, Sarah Jackson, and in particular, Catherine Karoly. “I think it’s not fun for her if she only played concertos.  Cathy’s title is Associate Principal, so she should be able to play symphonies and big pieces too.  And she’s a great player.  We’re lucky to have her in the section.  She’ll even volunteer to play second flute sometimes so that Elise can have a week off.  She’s a great colleague that way.”

Mr. Allakhverdyan has similar thoughts.  “Knowing that Whitney and Denis were here made a big difference in me wanting to take this audition.  Because they’re great players and also great guys.  Burt is great — a fantastic player and a great colleague.  The entire section is great, and not just as musicians, but as people as well.”

I find it interesting that he frequently mentions being both a great player and a great colleague separately, and he responds that the two do not always go hand-in-hand. “Being a great colleague is as important as being a great musician.  You need the balance, because if you’re a great player but a horrible person, it rarely works out.”

Not surprisingly, the discussion with each of them eventually turns to the orchestra’s search for a new Principal Oboe.

“We are excited about it,” Mr. Bouriakov beams.  “We are anticipating to have lots of great players try out.  In an audition, you may have a sound in mind that you want, but you choose from what you hear.  Sometimes, you hear better things than you imagine.”

So what is their approach?  Looking for someone with whom they can have a strong rapport is to be expected.  Finding an able leader for the section to handle both on- and off-stage responsibilities is important.  Above all, of course, is choosing a player who is a stellar musician as manifested in both their technical ability and their artistry.

Mr. Bouriakov explains that what they’re looking for — what they’re listening for — is “more the particular player and their sound, their phrasing, how they use their vibrato, and things like that.”  In short, they’re looking for someone with personality in their musicianship.  “For me personally, that’s what I love,” he summarizes.

That said, great musicianship means different things to different people, and the casual listener would expect that a principal’s ability at playing solos and famous excerpts would be the most critical aspect of their skillset; that isn’t necessarily the case.  There are equally important, if less noticed and underappreciated, parts to someone’s playing that hinge on their ability to weave themselves into the broader tapestry of the orchestra’s sound.  Mr. Crockett makes a point in trying to describe it, using his two current colleagues and another prominent principal flute player as examples.

“What’s great about Denis and Boris is not only how great their solo playing is, which is obvious, but also how well they support other players in the orchestra,” he explains.  “Listen to or watch a recording of Berlin, and you’ll see Emmanuel Pahud just lay down a foundation while another player solos.  He’s right there,” holding his hands horizontally, one palm close to the other without actually touching.  “It’s not just about playing in tune or with the right dynamics, but finding the right tone and timbre so that it blends in a way that adds richness and color to the overall sound.  Your ears perk up and say, ‘Whoa, what was that?’  Subtle things, but important.”

Regardless of who gets the job, Mr. Allakhverdyan makes a prediction:  “The sound of the woodwinds is going to change from what we’ve had before.”

That’s perfectly natural, says Mr. Crockett, given both the evolution in principal woodwind players and the orchestra’s trend over the past few years to hire first chair players who are willing to assert their musical ideas more definitively perhaps than others in the past.  He juxtaposes his current situation at the LA Phil with his previous one in New York.

“The Met is a machine in motion, and when I was there, there were these long-time principals in place so there’s not as much talking about what we were going to do and how we approached things.  That’s stuff we need to do here.  We’re in the position of developing a culture as opposed to other places where you’re adhering to a culture.  In some ways it’s a very good thing, and in others it’s challenging.  It’s a lot like LA in that it is still discovering what it is and is evolving what it means to be a city.  It’s exciting.”

And as that evolution happens, classical music fans in Los Angeles will continue to enjoy seeing and hearing it happen.  And if the new Principal Oboe is of the same quality and personality as these three gentlemen, we’re all in for a treat.

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Photo credits:

  • Whitney Crockett, Boris Allakhverdyan, and Denis Bouriakov at the Hollywood Bowl:  CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
  • Portraits of Whitney Crockett and Boris Allakhverdyan:  Mathew Imaging/Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Denis Bouriakov:  courtesy of the artist’s webpage
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