Ransom Wilson: dedicated to his art, not to stardom
Soloists and conductors grab the limelight in the music world. But stardom doesn't always equal ecellence. And musicians who know this may find themselves making unexpected decisions.
Ransom Wilson is one such. He's certainly a star: One of the most acclaimed flutists of his generation, he has performed in major concert halls around the world and released an impressive list of recordings. (The latest, Angel DS- 37340, contains modern works ranging from Claude Debussy to Steve Reich.)
But stardom isn't the goal of his career, he says. It's a fringe benefit. Although he enjoys it, he says it can get in the way of "sharing music with other people."
To reassert this primary purpose -- the "staring" he loves most in music -- he has made a couple of unusual career moves. After establishing himself as a leading soloist, he took up a baton and started conducting as well, founding his own chamber orchestra called Solisti New York.
Then, in a more controversial gesture, he moved beyond the standard flute repertoire and declared himself a champion of today's most debated musical style: the cyclical, repetitive approach of such radical composers as Reich and Philip Glass.
Either of these decisions might seem a route to stardom, or at least heightened public attention, rather than sharing. But listening to Wilson discuss them, as I did over a leisurely lunch, is to sense a quiet dedication to the basic issues of his art. Star or no star, he has a good-natured way of keeping things in perspective, even when that means putting down his own vested interests.
Take the flute, for instance. He fell in love with it the first time he encountered one as a child -- "the sound, the way you could feel the air inside, were irresistible," he recalls. He studied arduously for years, practicing hours a day because there was nothing he'd rather do. And it paid off richly when he made his debut in New York at age 25, with mentor Jean-Pierre Rampal as guest artist. He was launched in a major way.
Yet he harbors no illusions about his chosen instrument. "It's kine of lightweight," he volunteers. "There's an instinctive spirituality in people that great music touches directly, but the flute doesn't have that kind of depth" -- partly because of its own nature, partly because of the limited literature for it.
That's one reason he turned to conducting. Another was more personal.
"I spent so much time in the practice room when I was younger," he confesses, "that I became a real loner. I don't think it was very healthy for me. And being a soloist puts you in a loner position, too. But conducting is different, and I've found it a great vehicle for personal growth."
Discussing these matters, Wilson projects an image far removed from the reputed self-importance of many soloists and conductors. He seems almost apologetic about aspects of soloing, and his attitude toward conducting suggests more than ego at work.
"Being a soloist is a rather selfish act, really," he says. "It's wonderful being able to commune with an entire audience in that way, but it always makes me feel a little guilty, like I really shouldn't be showing off like this. I love it, of course -- I indulge in it.But I always wonder . . . ."
Seeking an antidote to that sense of guilt, he discovered conducting. "It doesn't make me feel that way at all," he says. "You see a lot of conductors who are autocrats and yell at people. But my feeling is more of communing with the musicians, of sharing something with them.
"I feel very much like I'm not in the spotlight," he adds. "I feel I'm helping each musician to experience the piece and perform it to the best of the composer's intentions, and to enjoy doing it. The atmosphere is very friendly and helpful to each other. I feel like I'm in a big extended family, and it's a great feeling."
It's also a feeling that takes work. Wilson approaches conducting with the same vigor he brings to his flute -- studying scores as well as mastering the physical moves. "I make lots of mistakes," he owns, "but even on the days when I feel overwhelmed by the amount of music I have to learn, I still feel I have a personal connection with the experience of making music with other musicians -- something you can't experience as a soloist. I also think I've learned a great deal about human nature from doing this, and that's still going on."
Wilson's remarks point up an ironic side to musical stardom -- a sense that the soloist isn't really part of things the way orchestra members are. When he shows up to prepare a concert, he gets friendly with the flute section and socializes with the players. "But when concert time comes," he says almost wistfully, "there's them and there's me. On a human level, that's not fulfilling. . . . I'll continue to enjoy being a soloist as long as people want me to be one. But the real thrill -- in every experience -- is to share things."
One thing Wilson is eager to share is his love for some of today's most radical music. He knows that the repetitious, sometimes droning sounds of Reich and Glass are disliked by many listeners and musicians. But his affection for these pieces is so strong that he is determined to explore them fully. He also feels that detractors, such as renowned composer Elliott Carter, have missed the point.
Instead of criticizing, Wilson thinks the skeptics should examine how this music explores rhythmic development in new ways, and how it draws from Eastern sources. Above all, he says, there's the idea of "formal building through repetition, in a way that's completely new in Western music. Tchaikovsky used repetition a lot, but you'd never confuse him with Reich!"
He also likes the diverse audiences this music pulls in. "There are died-in-the-wool classical enthusiasts, punk people, jazz people," he observes. "There could even be easy-listening people. It seems to be a very wide mixture."
As one might expect, Wilson considers this a major attraction of the music. "It somehow has the effect of putting an entire audience on the same wavelength, " he says, recalling how a Metropolitan Opera House crowd literally shrieked with delight during a rare performance of "Einstein on the Beach," by Glass and Robert Wilson. "That it can do this, while looking so simple on the page, is astounding. Or not so astounding, because Beethoven's scores look rather mundane -- you don't have any idea from looking at them that they're going to affect you the way they do."
Despite his love for some of today's most unconventional work, Wilson's musical background is not unusual. "I've always loved strictly classical things ," he says. I love Mozart, not only because he was a genius, but because it's perfected music. It's clean, abstract -- music completely for music's sake, with astounding technical perfection and economy. I also love Richard Strauss and Ravel and Debussy, big lush things."
But, he says, this all fits with his newer enthusiasms. "Pieces by Reich and Glass, and just about all of John Adams, satisfy me on all counts," he remarks."If you listen to early Reich, the techniques are very clear. But in the future I think there'll be so much sophistication with those techniques that you won't even notice them anymore."