January 18, 2017
The Magic Flute: an interview with Adam Kuenzel
We Minnesotans are hearty folk who take our traditions seriously. Not the bitter winds, nor the darkness of winter nights can stop us from throwing on our jackets and crunching our way across an icy parking lot to partake in one of the most iconic American rites of passage for young musicians.
The first concert.
As parents, we have listened to months of squeaks and squawks, shrills and bangs wafting through our homes from what we suppose are bona fide instruments, but can’t be sure. First came the piece of paper, crinkled from excited little hands, asking to play an instrument. Later, we see our children red-faced and wide-eyed, delicate eyebrows stitched to the middle of their foreheads begging us to watch while they squeak and squawk, shrill and bang out their first notes with great pride and expectation.
As supporters of our young musicians, we will huddle together in cramped auditoriums and gyms, waving to our kids as they walk out carrying their instruments with the stoic glory of Trojan soldiers. Though this first performance might leave us grimacing through our smiles, somewhere between Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Let’s Go Band we may have a brief fantastical moment and think: this concert could be their first step to a life of music. Suddenly, we see our children on-stage in sophisticated composure, playing with a full ensemble in honeyed song, their musical aspirations attained.
And for many, many fledging musicians, this will be true. That a lifetime of music started out simply—in a cramped auditorium or gym squeaking and squawking, shrilling and banging their first notes for a crowd who listened with great pride and expectation.
What starts out as a childish delight and curiosity will end—for the chosen few—in a lifetime of pursuing music with a world class orchestra. It is far too easy to see these bookends as finite. The struggling beginner cannot comprehend the mastery of an instrument. It’s tough to visualize the professional on stage ever having struggled for his or her skill. But it is this persistent in-between that is the magic that turns years of study, auditions, and lots of failure from a novice into a professional.
I recently interviewed Adam Kuenzel, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal flute, to talk about his background, tips for young musicians, a preview of his performance at a Chamber Music in the Target Atrium concert on January 22, and what keeps the music magical for him.
Q. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Let’s start with the beginning: how old were you when you started playing the flute, and what was it that intrigued you about this instrument?
A: I was about nine years old when I started on the flute. My recollection is that I first heard it at a school assembly. I was fascinated by the way it looked.
Q. Did your family have much of a musical background?
A. No one else in my family played an instrument. Unless you include my dad who had played trombone in high school and in a service band on Okinawa. A funny “family” coincidence is that lots of people thought I was related to Eric Kunzel, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops.
Q. Like many people, probably, I view flute as stereotypically more of a feminine instrument than a masculine one. In my elementary and high school years everywhere I looked it was only girls that played the flute. Did you find it alienating in your youth to be a male flutist?
A. Isn't it strange? Yep. I play a girls' instrument, oh well. Luckily, I'd been taking private lessons for three years before I attended a school with a band program. By then I was pretty good and wasn't affected much by the fact that hardly any boys played flute.
Q. It’s cold and flu season. As a flutist, when your respiratory system isn’t working, your playing suffers. I know that was one of my biggest fears before a performance: coming down with a cold/cough. Any tricks you do to prevent this? Or do you just pray to the Performance Gods?
A. This past summer I played a recital with a sore throat and chest congestion. My main concern was that I might have a coughing fit after inhaling too rapidly. The solution was simply to take a dose of cough suppressant and then explain to the audience beforehand that I had to perform this particular concert seated because the medication was making me kind of drowsy and dizzy. The adrenaline that kicks in during a solo performance offsets some of the effects of respiratory illness, too.
Q. As an audience member, I feel moved every time I hear the Minnesota Orchestra perform. Is it challenging to feel inspired as a performer? What keeps music “fresh” for you?
A. It is a challenge to feel inspired sometimes. But being a professional requires one to deliver a quality of performance that inspires the listener regardless of other concerns or distractions that vie for my attention. Recently, I realized how inspiring it is for me to mingle with the audience in the lobby beforehand. As an orchestra we intuitively seized on this strategy during the lockout which ended three years ago. My colleagues and I still regularly "meet and greet" our audience before or after a concert. Ar first, it was out of a sense of duty and it took a while before I felt comfortable introducing myself to our audience members. But there is a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement among them that I get to share. That’s what helps get me "psyched up" for a performance.
Q. What is the most challenging part about the Bach A-minor Partita that you’re playing on the January 22 chamber music concert? What is the most loved?
A. Overall, the main challenge is to make a convincing statement playing only a single line of music. In particular the first movement or dance, I should say, is a real puzzle. Not a single rest in the entire piece! Unless you count the 16th rest at the beginning. Ha-ha! Very funny Herr Bach. I'm working with the concept that this was some sort of riddle on his part. Obviously a wind player needs to breathe. But how to pace those quick breaths and keep the flow of the line intact is the answer. (Click here for January 22 tickets and details.)
Q. Being a professional musician is highly competitive. What advice would you give young musicians who have their heart set to play in an orchestra someday?
A. Seek out any opportunity you can and see how you stack up against other players. Start jumping through the hoops early. Success doesn't come suddenly but by a persistent effort. I don't know how many contests, summer festivals, master classes, etc., I'd taken before I felt ready to compete for a paid position (a lot). And then, of course, all of the auditions I didn't win could fill an entire page. I like a quote from Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond. When asked what it was like to be a rising star in the professional cycling world he said, "It doesn't get easier, you just go faster.” Be idealistic but also realistic at the same time.
Q. What do you enjoy doing that is not musical?
A. I enjoy being active outdoors. Cross-country skiing, cycling, running, swimming, etc. I have a dog, Leo, who is very type A and requires lots of attention.