WE TALK WITH MELISSA FARROW ABOUT GROWING UP IN NEW ZEALAND AND HOW SHE CAME TO PLAY THE WOODEN 'TRAVERSO' FLUTE...
How long have you been playing the flute?
I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, in the 1980s. From the age of 7 until around 10 years I would head out every Saturday to music classes at a local Saturday Music School. My first lessons were as part of a class of 20 or so squawking descant recorders. Despite that, I continued to enjoy playing recorder.
As a hopeful little ballerina, I was taken to see Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, but my eyes were drawn down from the stage into the glow of the orchestral pit and the sparkly metal flute. I was transfixed by its beauty and sound and became very keen to learn it. Once I was big enough, at 8 years, I took up the flute and for the first year my lessons were in a group of four. This experience taught me that flautists could be competitive types! I liked a bit of healthy competition though, and thrived in that environment, taking to it quite quickly. This eventually led to private lessons on both flute and recorder.
I loved to participate in chamber music and orchestral opportunities, and there were plenty for kids in Auckland. With some of my friends, we formed various ensembles and took part in a national chamber music contest every year, working with some excellent tutors. Finally, one year my ensemble won the contest, playing Haydn! I was encouraged to enter as many solo instrumental competitions as possible, to develop stamina and overcome nerves. In 1995, at the age of 19 years, I entered the most prestigious competition, the NZ Young Musicians Contest. I got into the Finals playing two large-scale concertos with the NZ Symphony Orchestra. The experience was both terrifying and wonderful, leaving me feeling more self-assured and hopeful about my playing career.
What made you decide to start playing the baroque/classical period flutes?
My recorder teacher made me aware of the baroque flute at the age of 10 while working on some beautiful sonatas of the high baroque period. I was really intrigued when he told me that flutes weren’t always metal and didn’t always use a constant vibrato. I avidly listened to the latest recordings of the Orchestra of the 18th Century. For the first time, I heard astonishing flute playing on various types of wooden traversi, playing Rameau all the way to Beethoven. That was a real turning point for me, and from then on I knew I wanted to play these colourful-sounding and intriguing instruments. It was also fortuitous that the head of music at my high school was a baroque violinist, and in his music class we listened to period performances of pieces we were studying, including Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
I first played a baroque flute when I was 13 years, but because I was still very busy with modern flute, recorder, and schooling I didn’t play it again for a few years. Intent on pursuing a career in music, I decided to leave school in Year 10 and auditioned for both the Munster Music School and The Sydney Conservatorium. I was accepted for both schools, but decided to head to Australia. I focused on modern flute and was encouraged to take recorder, baroque flute, and baroque chamber music as extra units of study. I then went on to study Masters level flute, recorder, and baroque flute at the Amsterdam Conservatorium with Walter van Hauwe and Marten Root. It wasn’t until I returned to Australia that I made the decision about which instrument would have to come first: the period flute was the clear winner, followed by recorder.
Tell us about the flutes you play. How many flutes do you have, who made them, what are they made of, and how does that affect which flute you choose for which repertoire? What’s the difference between a baroque and classical flute - quite often they look the same.
I love my ever-growing collection of flutes! As a professional traverso player I need to play several types of flutes. At the moment, I use six! I’ll tell you why, and how they differ from one another.
The Baroque Flute
Baroque flutes were originally made from boxwood, ebony, or sometimes ivory. They evolved out of the cylindrical Renaissance flute sometime after 1670, possibly in France. These new types of flutes were constructed with a cylindrical head joint and a conical body, tapering towards the end. The early French flutes in low pitch (A=392-400) were quite ornate and made in 3 joints; later models were less ornate in 4 joints with 6 finger holes and one silver or brass key.
One of the characteristics of the baroque flute is its uneven sound quality. This is because some notes are inherently strong and others weaker. The one key (another hole, which could be opened or shut) was designed to facilitate chromatic notes - the lowest note is D and the highest around A or B flat, nearly 3 octaves above middle C. Some flutes in 4 joints were made with the ability to have interchangeable shorter to longer middle joints (called ‘corps de rechange’). This meant that the travelling flute player could accommodate the various pitches that were established at each musical centre.
The Transition to Classical Flute
To meet the demands of music written in the 18th Century, the flute had to undergo many changes in design. The first baroque flutes to be played for the court had a small embouchure (mouth hole) and finger holes and a wide bore, which created a softer, sweeter instrument with full lower notes and usually weaker high notes. By mid-century, flutes had a larger embouchure, finger holes and a narrower bore, which evened out the registers allowing it to play more robustly in all keys and hit high notes with greater ease. By this stage each instrument of the wind section of an orchestra was expected to blend as well as shine with virtuosity, often playing high above the strings. This would not have been possible on an earlier model flute.
1. J. Denner, c.1710 is the first flute I purchased and is made from ebony. The dense characteristics of this wood help create a rich dark tone colour. It is suitable for early French and German music in A=392, with another corps de rechange (middle joint) for music in A=415. It is a sweet flute with a more sonorous low register and weak high notes. It has a very small embouchure hole and finger holes, so the sound is smaller and more delicate, and the range more limited.
2. C. Palanca, c.1750 is the flute I use most often. In contrast to the Denner, the Palanca is designed to play beautifully and strongly throughout its wider range. The design utilises a larger embouchure and finger holes, and a slightly narrower bore. This flute is made from grenadilla, which has similar structural and tonal properties to ebony. It is a good general flute for Baroque music and can handle repertoire up to early Haydn. This flute plays only at the lower pitch of A=415, so I do not use it when playing with AHE which uses a lower pitch.
3. Castel c1730 is in A=440, which is the standard of pitch that Venetian instruments were tuned to, around 1720. It is made of boxwood, is very sweet and bright sounding, and is ideal for playing works by Vivaldi. I use this flute mostly for teaching, as it is at the same pitch as modern instruments.
My Classical Flutes, which I use for AHE
4. C.A. Grenser, c.1780 is a single-keyed flute made from unstained boxwood. It has a distinctive light yellow appearance and has been nicknamed “Blondie”! It possesses a sweet sound, plays very easily in the high register, and is full throughout. I used this flute in the CPE Bach concerto in 2016, and I often use it for Mozart quartets also.
5. H. Grenser, c.1810 is made from grenadilla. Its more complex 8-keyed mechanism allows for full equality on every note and enables me to play more easily in any key. The way the flute is constructed allows one to use either the baroque forked fingerings or the keyed fingerings, providing a great choice of tone-colours and dynamic range. It can play fully in all registers, so is perfect for larger orchestral music, and the more advanced key system allows it to play repertoire up to the early Romantic period.
6. W. Liebel c 1830 is 9-keyed and made from grenadilla. This was the favoured flute of the famous romantic flautist Furstenau. It plays very fully and for the first time the flute design has a metal-lined head, which gives a stronger and brighter sound quality. It has a large number of keys and its range is extended to low B. The Liebel has literally hundreds of different fingering possibilities, allowing for a great range of tonal and expressive colours.
What do you like to do when you are not playing the flute?
As you can probably imagine, playing all these instruments takes up plenty of my time! Besides the physical aspect of playing this wonderful music in an ‘historically informed’ way, I’m always reading books and articles to gather a greater perspective on the music that I love. I particularly enjoy reading about the historical, political, and social events that relate to the music I’m working on at the time. This in turn shapes my perspective and increases my interest in the music itself.
When I’m doing neither of these activities, I am spending as much time as I can with my girls, who are now 13 and 16 years, and hanging out with my husband Ollie, and third ‘child’, our dog Oscar.
I love teaching students who want to learn. This is partly why I have mainly adult students, who are often enthusiastic and enjoyable to teach.
Yoga has been an important part of my life for the past few years. I believe stretching is vital for musicians to keep the body flexible and strong. Without it, too much physical tension builds up which can result in injuries. More recently, I’ve added going to the gym at least three times a week, which I really enjoy. If I had my way I’d be bush walking every weekend!
In any remaining spare time I love to read about most things historical, and thanks to Ollie’s keen interest in film I’m now an avid watcher of films.
Who is your favourite composer and why?
For me, Rameau and CPE Bach come first equal, followed by Mozart and Beethoven. They all thought outside of the square, wrote very beautiful melodies, and experimented with some wild harmonies. When playing or listening to their music, I become immersed in the journey their music takes me on.
Can you tell us about a particularly memorable musical experience and why it affected you so much?
This would have to be in 1991 when Mum and I headed to Sydney from Auckland to attend two concerts by the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. I was ridiculously excited to see them live and couldn’t believe how exquisite their sound was. It was then, as a 15 year old, that I knew what I wanted to do with my life - play in a period instrument orchestra.
Australian Haydn Ensemble