Suzanne Shulman, flautist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My five years in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada were a profound influence. Right from the first summer I felt that this was a place I had come home to and never wanted to leave. When they introduced a chamber music program I pivoted to that focus. My flute teachers of course guided my development: Robert Aitken, Marcel Moyse, Christian Lardé, Michel Debost and Jean-Pierre Rampal. The collaborations with other artists have been influential as well, for example recording with Glenn Gould and actor Martha Henry, the years of summer festival programs with clarinettist James Campbell at the Festival of the Sound, and my duo partners pianist Valerie Tryon and harpist Erica Goodman.

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

The freelance life in chamber music provides lots of creative opportunities but it is unpredictable from season to season both in terms of scheduling and income! Work/life balance was a significant challenge when my three children were growing up. And the pandemic highlighted how fragile the performing arts are, how difficult it was/is to find the motivation to keep playing given the uncertainty and risk involved in resuming live concerts unmasked.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Performances I am most proud of include my New York debut at Carnegie Recital Hall with pianist Claude Savard, playing in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with guest violist Cecil Aronowitz for the Mozart D Major Quartet, a recital at the Chopin Institute in Warsaw where Claude and I earned six encores, playing the world premiere of the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Srul Irving Glick (who composed this now popular work for us) with pianist Valerie Tryon in Paris and then on the BBC in London, my first attempt at performing all of the Bach flute sonatas in one afternoon with harpsichordist Douglas Bodle in Toronto, playing with Camerata Canada in Ottawa for the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada, a performance in Toronto of the complete ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ with actor Martha Henry (I actually managed to play all the piccolo parts in this, and for me the piccolo is a nightmare!)

For recordings I am extremely proud of the latest recording with Erica Goodman, ‘Being Golden!’ This album is our second release in nine months, during the pandemic (the first was ‘A Net of Gems’). Given all the practical obstacles of rehearsing together despite living in different cities, learning a new work (the 25 minute suite, ‘The Rings,’ composed for us by Eric Robertson) and recording it despite never having performed this repertoire in concerts was challenging. Managing this in our eighth decade of life feels somewhat miraculous! Erica and I are also proud of being able to contribute to the repertoire for flute and harp. We are continuing this tradition, which began during our 30 years with violist Mark Childs as Trio Lyra. We started with the Debussy ‘Sonate’ but there was not a lot of other repertoire for this combination. We had to beg, borrow, steal/arrange pieces as well as commission composers but we recorded five albums of music together. Other groups are now playing many of these works, which we find very gratifying.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Since most of my studies were in the ‘French school’ of flute playing I would say I am drawn to French composers. Playing with Erica Goodman, who says she ‘plays the harp in French’, certainly facilitates this!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I listen to many other performers, mostly singers, great string players and pianists. I am also an avid reader of fiction, which feeds the imagination.

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

Many concert presenters look at our proposed programmes and indicate preferences. It used to be that they would prefer original pieces to arrangements but that has changed recently. Because it is a privilege to introduce new works to audiences, we always include some music composed for us.

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

I lived in London in the early 1970s, a short walk from the Wigmore Hall where I played several recitals. The wonderful acoustics and its rich and awesome history are so inspiring. Whenever I work with sound engineers for recordings I always say ‘Please just make it sound like the Wigmore Hall!’

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

A strong music education programme in schools is essential. When children are exposed to great music early on they will recognize it with each subsequent hearing. A significant portion of my discography includes albums for children:

‘Sweet Dreams’, lullabies for babies by Trio Lyra.

‘Musical Chairs’, a classical music fantasy for children.

The Classical Kids recordings for which I am the flute soloist: ‘Mr Bach Comes to Call,’ ‘Beethoven Lives Upstairs,’ ‘Mozart’s Magic Fantasy,’ ‘Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery,’ etc.

The ‘Young Flutist’s Anthology’ with pianist Valerie Tryon.

The Mozart Effect recordings ‘From Playtime to Sleepytime’, etc.

Also, playing live concerts to young audiences can have a huge impact. I still remember when a group from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra came to play at my school. Some musicians find playing school shows very taxing but I have always loved them! Kids are super honest in their reactions. They are naturally very curious and ask great questions…and some silly ones of course. Because there is so much competition now from video games and other distractions, it is more important than ever to provide opportunities for them to hear live music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For sheer uniqueness/historical significance I would say it was a private concert that our chamber music group, Camerata Canada, presented at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Havana, Cuba in 1976. We had been invited to accompany then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret on a tour to Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba for the opening of trade and cultural exchanges. That evening in Havana Fidel Castro and later his brother Raúl were there, along with

the Trudeaus and other dignitaries, sitting quite close to the musicians despite all the security. I was playing the Bizet-Borne Carmen variations for flute and piano and was quite worried that Fidel might light up a cigar and I would need to ask him to put it out! He was actually very friendly and interested that my husband was also there to help look after our 6-week old daughter who was asleep upstairs. He wrote a sweet note to her, on some music manuscript paper, which she has framed in her home.

My most memorable RECORDING experience was without question the sessions with Glenn Gould conducting Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’. A few years before I had played with Glenn for a television series called ‘Music in our Time’, with performances of Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, Walton’s ‘Façade,’ Poulenc’s ‘Aubade’ and Copland’s ‘As It Fell Upon a Day’ (this one was coached by him).

In the summer of 1982 I was invited by Glenn’s assistant, Victor diBello, to join a select group of colleagues to record the Wagner chamber version of the Idyll with Glenn conducting. It was an unforgettable and somewhat surreal experience, with the sessions going very late into the night. At the time I had two young daughters at home and was very much a morning person! Watching him derive such enjoyment from this new direction was immensely inspiring. I remember him saying at the end of the session ‘this is the most exhilarating experience of my life.’ He took pride in an unusual approach to this music, a very slow tempo (at almost 25 minutes it is likely the slowest ever recorded) that was challenging for the strings and winds to phrase. He chose a drier pickup sound that would bring out more of the counterpoint. The critical response was very mixed but for me there was so much tenderness in his interpretation and body language it was totally mesmerizing and convincing. The musicians would have walked over hot coals for him. A few weeks later when Victor called to tell me Glenn had a stroke I broke down and cried. It turned out to be his final recording. There were more dates in my diary to record Beethoven’s ‘Coriolan’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ overtures but it was not to be.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me success is feeling grateful for the opportunities I have had, and still enjoying those that I maintain with close and dear musician friends.

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

Many years ago I asked a similar question to Maureen Forrester when we were working on the premiere of Jean Coulthard’s ‘Four Prophetic Songs’ (voice, flute, cello and piano.) She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said ‘I tell them to think NET instead of GROSS.’

I would say to aspiring musicians that they should embrace all the varied opportunities to keep learning new repertoire and to balance their musical development with learning the ‘business’ side of the profession.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Haha, I would be 85 so I would be happy to be alive with my family close by, still making music!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The ability to enjoy living in the moment with no regrets.

What is your most treasured possession?

It is having reasonably good health (and loving relationships) from which flows all the rest.

What is your present state of mind?

Well, the pandemic and climate change have certainly created anxiety about the future. There is a sense of urgency to complete the projects I want to finish, so I am keen to see what the next composer will write for us. As Leonard Cohen said in his ‘Anthem’: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring…’

One of Canada’s foremost flutists, Suzanne Shulman has earned international critical acclaim for solo recitals in renowned venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall and the Chopin Institute in Warsaw. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto where she studied with Robert Aitken. As a three-time Canada Council grant recipient she also trained in Europe with Christian Lardé, Michel Debost, Marcel Moyse and Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Ms. Shulman has appeared as soloist with major Canadian and international orchestras and is a frequent guest at music festivals at home and abroad. She has performed with the Orford, St. Lawrence and Penderecki string quartets, and also with the late Glenn Gould with whom she collaborated on a variety of recording projects available on the Sony Classical label. With more than 30 recordings in her discography Suzanne can be heard on the CBC, Folkways, Crystal, Golden Crest, Centrediscs, Opening Day and Marquis labels. She is the flute soloist on all the award-winning Classical Kids recordings.

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