Nadine Asin

Former Piccoloist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

By Don Bailey
for the New York Flute Club Newsletter
February 1999

This interview took place in Nadine’s beautifully decorated apartment near Lincoln Center several months before her retirement from the Met. As we were setting up, I reminded her of our first meeting in 1978 at the Aspen Music Festival. It was Nadine’s first summer on the music faculty. I was a student of Albert Tipton, but took one lesson with Nadine on the CPE Bach solo sonata. I remember so clearly her comments, which she reiterated throughout the lesson, “VIBRATE on that note! Why did you take the vibrato out of that note?” Sounds pointed, yes? Well, it did make a point, and when I later heard Nadine play in the Festival Tent with the Chamber Orchestra, I understood why she thought that way about vibrato – her sound projected magnificently.

I was born in Washington, DC, and no, I am not an only child. My sister is a research scientist neurophysiologist. My mother was an economist and my father was a demographer – he studied population trends. I’m the only musician.

Why the flute?

I started playing the flute when I was nine years old. My school was offering an instrumental program just as I was about to get braces. I knew I wanted to play an instrument, so my parents and I discussed this with my orthodontist… he made the fateful decision. My first flute was a student Gemeinhardt, and I started taking lessons with a high school student. We played “O sole Mio” as a duet at my first lesson. When I heard her sound, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.

Isn’t that funny? Everybody says that, but looking back, couldn’t it have a been a really horrible tone?

Well, of course it could have been …she was only a high school student who played Johnny Mathis after each lesson, but I was hooked.

Johnny Mathis? Well, that’s certainly an incentive! Did you have a lesson every week?

Yes, I did – I later studied with Mark Thomas, who was also teaching Reneé Siebert at the same time.

Was Mark your major teacher until college?

Basically, yes….until the summer before college. I then took lessons with William Montgomery and would study with him whenever I returned to DC. I was very involved in music as a high school student. I played in every local organization I could, including several university orchestras. When I was 15, I went to Interlochen for two summers, which I adored, and I played in all sorts of competitions. I sought out any opportunity to perform. I was a real music nerd.

I see you made your debut at age 16 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Tell me about that.

Yes, I was the winner of their young artist competition, and I played the Griffes Poem. I played from memory…and I bought my Powell flute (#492) with the prize money. It cost $800! I still play the flute, but I’ve replaced the original headjoint with a Dana Sheridan.

Where did you go to college?

My first year of college was at Northwestern University in Chicago, where I studied with Kujala. I remember he had an incredibly liquid sound, very beautiful.

How supportive were your parents during this time?

They were supportive, but this was pretty much outside their realm of experience. One reason I went to Northwestern that first year was because my father wanted me to get a degree in education. He wanted me to have a way to make a living…. I got my way, though (smiling).

What was your connection to Juilliard?

No connection. I first studied with Arthur Lora, who had been the principal flutist with Toscanini at NBC. Then, when I entered the Master’s program, I studied with Julie.

Do you think going to Juilliard affected your career?

Absolutely! My studies with Julie Baker were a pivotal experience for me. To be that close to that sound! I just had to figure it out! I had to have it ! I practiced a lot in those days. And the other flutists were incredibly talented …competition can have a very healthy effect on the learning experience!

Did you do much freelance work in the city before you landed the Met job?

Yes, luckily I was a busy girl…. Mostly, I was subbing with the Philharmonic, but I do remember one particular gig in which Nancy Allen (the harpist) and I were the centerpiece at a very fancy party. The heat from the chafing dishes was quite extraordinary!

Did you go through a period of auditioning madly and worrying about your future?

Oh absolutely. I think taking an audition is a skill in itself. It was wonderful to study with Julie during that period because he taught that skill – how to practice hard and then strive for a perfect performance. You have to give it your best shot and not take it personally if they say no, so that you can go on, at the same time, being objective about what you need to do better. I do think the key to a successful audition is preparation – giving yourself the time necessary to learn and digest, to study the score and the context of the excerpt and then to make it your own. And that takes a lot of time, to really internalize the music!

I know that the Met’s audition process is pretty unique in that every stage, even the final round, is anonymous. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s the only way to hold an audition. The Met orchestra audition procedure really sets the standard for the business, and as far as I know, it is unique. I’ve been on both sides of the audition process, and I can verify there is absolutely no discussion among the judges at the Met. The decision is made by secret ballot, and it’s based totally on the audition performance. This method removes any possibility of something “funny” happening.

Let’s talk about the DMA. You were the first flutist in Juilliard’s history to be admitted to the Doctor of Musical Arts program. What was your reason for starting this “educational” degree?

Well, I didn’t have a job at the time, and I wanted to continue my studies with Julie. Gustav Reese, the famous Renaissance scholar was the head of the program and I enjoyed researching and writing.

Why didn’t you finish?

I began subbing at the Philharmonic and started to get more and more work as a flutist, which was my goal in the first place, so I withdrew from the program. I don’t mean to lessen the importance of a doctoral degree in music. I have students who I think would be terrific teachers, and I encourage them to complete the DMA so they have the required credentials. I think everyone should do what he/she loves to do and college teaching is a wonderful career. Not everyone has the temperament to sit in an orchestra, for example. I don’t see any type of hierarchy in this profession.

Speaking of sitting in orchestras….. I’m always interested in the differences between symphonic orchestral playing and operatic orchestral playing.

I think playing opera is a different technique than playing in a symphony. First of all, you’re not the main attraction; you’re playing more of a supporting role (of course there are the great Wagner operas with huge stretches of purely orchestral music). As flutists, we’re usually accompanying the higher voices, so a very transparent tone color is necessary from the pit. Also, because of the singers’ use of rubato we can be asked to play more freely, in a rhythmic sense.

Aha! You mean they don’t count? Poor singers, they have to live with such jokes from us…

Well, it is true that singers use rhythm in a more flexible way than instrumentalists do.

I would think the piccolo part is extremely difficult to keep in balance, yes?

Yes, it’s tough. The pit is very shallow and long, and I’m very near the conductor. When it says FF in the part, that means you play MP, and it goes down from there.

For years, you had two orchestra jobs -you also played principal in the American Symphony Orchestra from 1982-1996. How were you able to do both?

That was quite a juggle. The ASO had rehearsals Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with a Sunday concert. Ultimately I resigned from the American Symphony because the scheduling just became too problematic. I did love it though…the concerts were held in Carnegie, and it is always a great thrill to perform on that stage.

How many performances do you play each week with the Met?

There are seven shows per week; we each play four.

Do you enjoy solo performances?

I adore solo performance. It is such a different sensation from orchestral playing. One is able to personalize it in a way that is more difficult to do sitting in the midst of a large orchestra. I took a year’s leave from the Met last season and had a blast performing in recital with Rita Sloan, a marvelous pianist I have worked with a lot over the years at the Aspen Festival.

I see you’ve premiered several commissioned works.

Yes, most recently my husband commissioned Augusta Reed Thomas to write a concerto. She called it Enchanted Orbits. Augusta is in her mid-thirties and is Composer in Residence in Chicago; she also teaches at Eastman. “Orbits” is a piece about 15 minutes long in three movements. It’s jazzy in a very contemporary way with the flute part scampering over rhythmic tutti writing in the orchestra. I performed its premiere with the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay in Los Angeles. And on February 28, I’ll be performing a piece written for me by my friend, the composer David Schiff. It’s a wonderful solo work with influences of Elliot Carter, with just a touch of Steve Reich.

Let’s talk more about Aspen. You attended first as a student, then returned as faculty in 1978, the summer I met you. Are you still there?

I’m still there. When Albert Tipton retired in 1990, I moved from the Chamber Symphony, which I had played in since 1978, to the Festival Orchestra. Besides orchestral playing, I play chamber music and teach great students from all over the world. I served on the board for eight years, which was a great opportunity for me to learn about the non-musical aspects of running a musical organization. It was very impressive to me how committed the board was (and is) to keeping the show running!

How does Aspen today compare to 1978?

The Music Festival has changed a lot in twenty years. We have a stunning new chamber music hall (Harris Hall); it’s absolutely world class. Unlike the tent, you can’t hear the dogs barking during the slow movements and you don’t get wet when it rains. The festival is still nine weeks long. There is at least one concert every day in addition to numerous public master classes, open rehearsals, and a full array of student classes. It really is an incredible experience for the students; they leave after nine weeks sated by all they have heard and performed.

You also teach in Japan. How does that fit in with everything?

Aspen has a “sister” festival in Nagano, Japan, which begins after the Colorado festival ends in August. For the last ten summers, a few of us have traveled to Nagano to teach a week of master classes. At the end of the week there is a faculty chamber music concert. Then the fun really begins – we hit the road to visit wonderful small towns, where our concert might be the only one for the entire year. I feel so fortunate to be able to visit these remote parts of the country.

Do you think the Japanese concept of flute sound is different from ours?

Hmm, that’s a good question. Actually, a lot of their flute players go to Europe, specifically Germany, to study.

Maybe the division of national styles is diminishing due to the global “merging of ideas.”

Yes, I would agree that contemporary culture has an homogenizing effect. However it’s amazing to me that there are basically two questions we flutists ask of one another – the first is “what do you play?”, and after that, “who was your teacher?” This denotes a legacy. It tells me a tremendous amount about how you play……

About your teaching… What’s your idea of a good lesson?

That really depends on the student and where she/he is in their own flutistic/musical development. Certainly it is important to have a healthy foundation, and what goes into creating a beautiful sound is it for me. A perfectly used airstream will give you great intonation, a supple technique; it really is the basis of great flute playing. In turn, your sound becomes your signature, your individual color palette. I would say my teaching methods are an amalgamation of what I have learned from others and what I have discovered for myself. And teaching constantly challenges you, the teacher, to rethink your ideas.

What do you expect your students to cover before they graduate college under your guidance?

I have compiled for my students lists of the repertoire I want them to know by the time they complete their studies with me. These include etudes, concerti, sonatas, chamber music…most of it is fairly standard stuff, but I think the scope of it is comprehensive.

What do you do for a daily warm-up?

Performing and practicing are two difficult realms. When I’m performing in the orchestra, I’m very conscious of trying to incorporate what I’ve been thinking about in my practice time. My warm-up includes slow soft scales to get in touch with the hands, embouchure and the air stream.

Now, your upcoming concert at CAMI…

Carol Wincenc and I will be performing a duo-recital. She and I were buddies at school and have remained friends. Last year we were having lunch and we came up with the idea for the recital.

What do you feel is the performer’s responsibility to the audience?

Hmm, that is a complicated question. I suppose, primarily to represent the composer’s intention as purely as possible. However, it is true that classical music’s performance idiom is changing. Who will our audience be in 25 or 50 years? And, who directs the change in performance practice – the performers or the audience?

What kind of flute do you play?

I play a David Williams flute, with a kind of mix-and-match look. It has a white gold headjoint, a rose gold body, a rose gold lip, and silver keys, and I have my Powell # 492 sitting in the closet. I’ve played David’s flute for the past two years.



Wood or silver?

(Smiling) Please! Wood.

Can you imagine your life in any other profession?

I think I would always be in something arts-related. I’ve always loved art history.

Any regrets?

(Having the last laugh…) I’m sorry if I was tough on you at your lesson!