Our interview of the month for April features James Kortum, Lecturer in Flute at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and former Principal Flute of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as well as the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
David Leviston: When did you start playing the flute?
James Kortum: I was 10 years old. My elementary school had an introductory band program for six weeks in the summer break. I can still remember the excitement of hearing those first sounds and being a part of the ensemble!
DL: What do you love about the flute?
JK: It has always been about the sound, especially when hearing it soar over an orchestra in full flight. As a young student, there weren’t the recordings nor access to Youtube as there is today, but I remember when the school band director, who was a flutist, loaned me his recording of the legendary William Kincaid of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember when hearing him play the last page of the Faure Fantasie, thinking that there must have been two flute players playing the fast passage work!
DL: Do you play any other instruments?
JK: When I decided that I wanted to study music at University, my flute teacher recommended that I take piano lessons. Most universities at the time required one year of piano, so I studied piano for the final four years of high school. My piano teacher also made her students attend a monthly harmony and aural class, which was very helpful when starting Uni.
DL: Have you had formal training on the flute ie. Conservatorium or University?
JK: Yes, I studied at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois gaining the Bachelor of Music degree.
DL: How important do you think that is for a career in performance?
JK: I feel for any aspiring student wanting to become a performer in this day and age, going to a Conservatorium or University is very important. You do not need a degree to win a job, but the training offered through studying at a music school provides the necessary tuition and experiences to help a student achieve their ambitions.
DL: Do you think music as a career can be potentially all consuming?
JK: Most definitely! Especially for those that are performers, you never stop learning and growing as an artist. My copy of Taffanel et Gaubert is always on my music stand!
DL: How do you maintain a work vs practice balance?
JK: With my current position as Lecturer in Flute at the Sydney Conservatorium, some days I find it difficult to fit in as much practice as I may want, especially with long days of teaching. When preparing for a recital or concert, I go into the Con early and do my practice before I start my teaching day.
DL: How do you maintain a work/life balance?
JK: That is a good question and something I often grapple with, especially when I feel the scales are tipping too far to one side! For nearly thirty years I have been studying yoga, which has been good for me especially when things start to get out of balance. At other times I take the recommendation of author, Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, when feeling out of balance to give yourself an ‘artist date’ at least once a week. For me, I might have an hour float tank session, attend a yoga class or go to a movie. We must not forget to nurture ourselves.
DL: How important is the type of flute you play on? Silver, gold, wood, system?
JK: Of the many flutes that I have owned, except for my current flute which is a 14K gold with silver keys Haynes flute, they have all been silver. In choosing a flute, it is the resonance of the tone that gives it its unique voice that influences my decision in purchasing a flute.
DL: You have had a number of different instruments. Did you change because you wanted something different or better?
JK: I cannot tell you the times I went to the shop for a service and walked out with a new flute! Over my career some changes of instrument came about with the advancements in the design of flutes, such as the improvements to the scale. Each flute will have its unique quality and throughout my career I have been on the lookout for an instrument that would give me a different sound or response. Also, over the years my playing has changed, as does the type of playing I do. I’ve lost count how many flutes I have owned, but one thing that is interesting is whichever flute I was playing at the time, when hearing recordings of myself I still have my voice.
DL: How much do you think the player impacts the result and how much difference does the instrument make?
JK: The player definitely impacts the sound of the flute. A different player can make a flute sound completely different. There are so many good flutes out there, but choice of flute is how the flute sings from the inside out.
DL: How important have teachers been for you in your own learning?
JK: Crucial! I have been very lucky in having two wonderful and dedicated teachers in my formative years. I came from a small town in the state of Indiana and my first teacher, Philip Sieburg, recently retired from a stellar professional career and moved to a neighbouring town close to where I lived. I studied with him from the very beginning through my high school years. When I went to DePaul University, I had the good fortune in gaining a place in Donald Peck’s flute studio. Mr. Peck was the long serving Principal Flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Both Mr. Sieburg and Mr. Peck had their unique teaching style, but I credit my work with both of them in helping me have my life and career in music.
DL: How important is the teaching of others for you as a process?
JK: Teaching has always been very important to me. I started teaching when I was in high school and haven’t stopped! The more I teach the more I realise the importance that you have to own what you teach.
DL: When did you and Andrew Macleod start the Complete Flute courses?
JK: The first Complete Flute course was in 2014. For a couple years before that, Andrew and I often said we should offer a flute course. Unlike the northern hemisphere where there are so many courses, there are not so many such courses here in Australia. The early courses were for performers and in 2016 we started a course for teachers with colleague Tina Marsden, which is now in its third year. Apart from all the flute topics we cover, we also offer sessions such as Alexander Technique, Fledenkrais, yoga and meditation and have invited special guest flutists to join our courses, such as Margaret Crawford, Mardi McSullea, Alison Mitchell and for our Five Day residential course in September this year, we will be welcoming Leone Buyse from Rice University in Houston. The opportunity to meet, work and share with flutists from around the country and world has been so rewarding.
DL: What is your favourite piece of music?
JK: I would have to say, it is whatever I am working on at the moment. The flute has such a rich and varied repertoire. At present, I am part of the ‘Bach Project’ at the Conservatorium and preparing J. S. Bach’s Sonatas in B minor, Eb major and A major. I have performed the Eb Major Sonata, but never the other two, so it is good to get the opportunity to know and perform them.
DL: What is it about this music that you like?
JK: I find performing Bach quite challenging, but so rewarding. With each read through I discover a new inflection in tone or phrase and relish the conversation with the keyboard. Out of the complexity my aim is to project the simplicity and purity of the music.
DL: What is it like playing Principal Flute in a big symphony orchestra?
JK: I was very fortunate in being Principal Flute with both the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and then the Sydney Elizabethan Trust Orchestra (now the Opera Australia Orchestra). My time in both orchestras was very special, especially getting to play not only the major symphonic repertoire, but repertoire from the opera and ballet. As Principal Flute, you obviously get to play the major solos, but the other joy was the musical collaboration with my colleagues.
DL: How important for you musically is collaborating with other musicians?
JK: Making music is all about collaboration. Whether you are playing in an orchestra, chamber group or in partnership with a pianist or other instrumentalists, you must play as one and serve the music. Apart from the musical collaboration there must also be a professional respect and support between you and your colleagues. Beyond my formal training, it was such collaborations with colleagues that continued my growth as a musician.
DL: What has been the highest point of your career?
JK: If I had to pick one highlight out of the many that I have had, it was in my first season of playing with Opera Australia, getting to play the famous “Mad” scene for flute and soprano from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with Dame Joan Sutherland. This is something I will never forget.
DL: What advice do you have for someone wanting to pursue a career in music performance?
JK: As a musician we are so lucky to pursue our passion. Advice I was given as a young flutist was to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. You learn something from every experience. Through your musical journey there will be highs and lows. From my personal journey it was the experiences that did not go as I would have wanted that actually made me stop and reflect on what I did want. Coming to that realization gave me the drive to follow my dreams. Be open to the unexpected doors that may open on your journey. In a graduation address given by cellist Lynn Harrell to the 1994 class at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he said, “as a scout to report back on what it looks like down the road ahead, my report is that the journey at the beginning and the journey at the end are no different. Music is one, continuous journey, and it never ends. Keep going”.
DL: Has the flute been good to you?
JK: Yes, the flute brought me to Australia!