Tara Helen O’Connor, flautist

A Music@Menlo Meet the Artist interview

Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival & Institute

July 12 – August 3

Under the artistic direction of David Finckel and Wu Han, Music@Menlo is based in Atherton, California. Each year a carefully-chosen theme forms the basis of the summer festival, comprising concerts, artist-curated recitals, lectures, a training institute, and free public events. “Incredible Decades” is the theme for 2019, tracing 300 years of musical evolution from Bach to the new millennium. For more info, visit: www.musicatmenlo.org

Who or what inspired you to take up the flute, and pursue a career in music? 

I always knew I wanted to be a musician. I knew this from my improvisation days around the age of 3 on a small toy organ my parents had gotten for me. I would spend hours playing in my room. My parents must have thought I was a very strange child. Around the age of 5 my parents enrolled me in private piano lessons which I loved. Quite early during my studies, they took me to a Long Island Philharmonic concert with Alicia de Larrocha as soloist playing a Mozart piano concerto. I remember thinking she was amazing. I loved her playing but I was especially drawn to the flute in the orchestra. I couldn’t take my ears and eyes off of it. Around the same time, my next door neighbor was studying the flute. I would hear her practicing every day, and I loved the sound. So I knew I had to have it.

I picked up the flute as soon as it was offered in school. Already quite advanced on piano, reading music on the flute was easy, so I just needed to learn how to actually play the flute. In high school, I had the opportunity to work with Paula Robison in a master class. At that point, I wasn’t sure how to become a professional flutist and thought maybe I should be a lawyer, but Paula encouraged me and advised me where to go to school, who to study with, etc. Years later I played with her in concerts, and it was such fun. Sometimes it takes a brilliant mentor to advise a confused kid about what to do with their life.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My parents, especially my father, were an important influence on my work ethic. It was he who was always making sure I got my work done at a young age. My mother was instrumental in getting me to rehearsals and lessons along with my devoted father. I have had incredible teachers and mentors and they have all shaped my musical soul. Samuel Baron, Thomas Nyfenger, Robert Dick and Keith Underwood—all incredible flutists—were so inspirational. Life-changing. It truly takes a village to shape the mind and soul of a musician. Bassist Julius Levine, pianist Gilbert Kalish, cellist Timothy Eddy, composer Gyorgy Kurtag and of course my husband, violinist Daniel Phillips, all played important roles in my development as a musician and have been mentors to me. I would also say that now my colleagues are my mentors and play a huge part in my learning process, inspiring me at each rehearsal and concert. Like my great teacher, Samuel Baron, I am a student of life and music, and I feel that I am still growing. This process consumes me and fills my musical soul. It is a beautiful rich existence, and I am grateful every minute.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Often, success is measured by the things you win. Each time I auditioned for something and didn’t win, it was devastating…the kind of soul-crushing blow you feel from which you’ll never recover. We tie a lot of self worth into these contests which is not always healthy. On the flip side, these contests can be incredibly valuable. They focus you in a very specific way, and they always bring you to a higher level of playing. Unfortunately, not everyone can win, and your fate is tied up in the subjective opinion of the person or people who heard you that day which includes how you felt and how focused you were at that exact moment. It was hard for me to see that even though I lost the contest, I was still a greater musician. I think THAT is really important to remember. This is why it is important to push yourself and stretch your limits. Growth isn’t always directly linear, and it doesn’t always bring home that shiny medal. In the end, the losses really have had no impact on my career or my longevity. People still heard me in these competitions and hired me anyway.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I am pretty proud of my solo CD project, The Way Things Go. It’s a CD of works written for me by my friends. Additionally, early on in my career, I recorded these wildly difficult Études by Isang Yun. They wound up on a record with the Berlin Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel conducting, and it was presented to Isang Yun on his 75th birthday.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I play a huge range of repertoire. I love the works of J.S. Bach, and I enjoy the challenge of a brand new work as well as everything between. Since the repertoire I play is so varied all of the time, it keeps my attention and focus.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

The repertoire I play each season is chosen in a variety of ways. Some of it is dictated by the presenting organization. I love this because I get to do really interesting projects with great artists. My solo recital works are chosen based on what I’m learning and what I want to learn and play. Balancing the repertoire and the programming is the fun part.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I love playing in Alice Tully Hall. It feels like home in part because I live in New York City, and I have been playing there for years. It’s a wonderful hall with great acoustics. I also love the audience. I have other favorite places to play in the summertime and these venues include, but are not limited to, the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC; St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe, NM; and Reed College in Portland, OR, just to name a few. What makes these places great are also the wonderful people who attend the concerts. You get to know them pretty well, and they become part of your extended family. I particularly love coming to Music@Menlo. The community is so vibrant, and the campus at the Menlo School bustles with the activity of the talented students and faculty. We play together, break together, and eat together. It’s a complete immersion into the art of music. Everyone helps each other and the performances are utterly exhilarating. Music@Menlo is like food for the musical soul. You leave a better musician, enriched and fulfilled.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have so many people I admire. Off of the top of my head a few names jump out: Jessye Norman, Richard Goode, Jeremy Denk, Daniel Phillips, Dawn Upshaw, my wonderful colleagues at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. My list gets bigger everyday.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

This one is so hard to choose. I have so many favorites for different reasons. I loved playing Bach Triple Concerto with Jaime Laredo and Peter Serkin at Geffen Hall and in Symphony Hall in Boston. That for me was a thrilling experience. I also really loved playing with Dawn Upshaw in Paris and London. My most disgusting concert experience was during an outdoor flute quartet concert where I inhaled during a rest and choked on a bug. Unfortunately, I had to keep on playing. That was really hard and definitely pretty gross. However, one of the most memorable and life changing experiences for me was the Live from Lincoln Center trip to Shaker Village with David Finckel and Wu Han and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They organized this huge program and filming project with Live from Lincoln Center which is usually filmed at Lincoln Center, not on location. The crew came with us to Kentucky and followed us around for days, filming and taping our activities, rehearsals and concerts.  Along with a number of other works, David and Wu Han had the brilliant idea of programming Appalachian Spring which we filmed and recorded in a tobacco barn in Shaker Village, Kentucky. Playing the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” from Copland’s Appalachian Spring in Appalachia was a life-changing experience, one that I still treasure and will never forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

Success for me isn’t measured by the things that I have or do. It is more spiritual than that. I look back on the wonderful colleagues and friends with whom I have played concerts, and I am filled with warmth and gratitude for the incredible opportunities I have had. I don’t think I will ever get to the point were I will think I’m successful. I just want to continue to learn, to get better so that I can do the projects that fuel my heart and soul. Your musical experiences are like a tapestry that you weave throughout your life. There is always time later to look at it and reflect on what you have accomplished.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Be a good colleague. Be kind and supportive. What we do is hard, and you want to inspire those around you to always play better. No back-stabbing. Ever. That always comes back to you! Be prepared, and this means practicing your part so well that you know it cold. You need to be at the top of your game. Always study the score, cue your parts before the first rehearsal. This way, you can get to the music making with your colleagues right away. Be creative and engaged in the process.

The young musicians of today need to be ready to do a variety of things. I felt this too when I entered the field, but it seems that now there is even more to do. Not only are you required to play your instrument perfectly, you also need to be tech savvy—not just on YouTube and social media, but to have the ability to collaborate across a variety of media.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? What is your most treasured possession?

These questions are hard, but I would like to share this thought which kind of incorporates the two: I’m a really busy performer and teacher. My flute is in my hands sometimes for 10-14 hours a day. I could be teaching, demonstrating, rehearsing or practicing. My home time with my husband and two miniature Dachshunds, Ava and Chloé, is extremely precious to me. I love sitting around with them in front of the TV with a warm cup of tea. After a long day of work, I can think of no other place I would rather be.




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