All over Beethoven

20:21, Jun 11 2014
Bridget Douglas
RARE GIFT: ‘‘For me, as a flute player, Beethoven’s symphonic music is wonderful, beautiful gems of solos and then part of the texture,’’ says New Zealand Symphony Orchestra principal flautist Bridget Douglas.

Nervous, says Bridget Douglas, is not exactly the right word to describe how she feels about her part in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Beethoven festival in which all nine of the composer's symphonies will be played in a row, in Wellington and again in Auckland.

"No, not nervous - excited and apprehensive," says Douglas, the orchestra's principal flautist.

"I feel like we can pull it off but we want to make it the best we can, memorable and special. Anyone can play Beethoven but we want to take it beyond that. They're such masterpieces you want to bring them to life and show Beethoven's music and life journey through the symphonies."

Douglas, like other members of the orchestra, has played Beethoven symphonies individually many times before, but never one after the other, a total of almost six hours of symphonic music, honed with almost two solid weeks of rehearsal. Douglas believes hundreds of people have booked in both Auckland and Wellington to see all nine.

"People are excited about this, and in the orchestra world it's wonderful for the players, like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and at the same time quite daunting. For me, as a flute player, Beethoven's symphonic music is wonderful, beautiful gems of solos and then part of the texture.

"He wrote nothing for flute outside the symphonies, so generally this is my chance to connect with a great composer, and same for the wind and brass."


The conductor for the ambitious Beethoven lineup is the NZSO's music director, Pietari Inkinen, who conducted Wagner's epic, 15-hour, Der Ring des Nibelungen for Opera Australia last year. He anticipates momentum building with each symphony.

Every conductor wants to put their own stamp on the music, says Douglas, "and Pietari's always sure, never a namby-pambiest".

"I see him looking back to the world's legendary Beethoven conductors, like Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber, but a whole lot of them, like Herbert von Karajan. I can see he's got that impression, at the same time bringing a freshness to the way we play, challenging us not to go on auto-pilot, especially with the fifth.

"That's probably one of the most famous pieces in the world with its opening four or five notes. When you've played it over and over you might play the way you've always done it. With Beethoven there's a tension in the music and if you're too comfortable I think you lose the point.

"There was so much frustration in Beethoven's life. He started losing his hearing during the second symphony, very early in his symphonic writing and was profoundly deaf by number nine.

"He was an absolute genius, up with Mozart in a completely different way. How can you start to guess at his processes? He was ground-breaking in his time and there's nothing cliched or hackneyed about them today. You feel something when you play them."

And, even though that means listening to them over and over, she says, "they still have an incredible effect. All famous classical pieces in music are famous for a reason".

With the rest of the orchestra, Douglas has been rehearsing from 9.30am to 3.30pm each day.That might sound, she says, like a short day's work, "but it's quite intense. If we tried to plan for more, I don't think anything good would come of it. It's a full week-and-a-half of intense rehearsal. Even though we've played these pieces before we haven't played them with Pietari".

It's one thing, she says, to focus on the music as an individual, "but we have to come together to see how everything fits together and figure out what should be background and foreground. You physically have to look at each other as much as possible to get the feeling of ensemble".

If anyone can sail through a Beethoven marathon, it's Douglas.

Her whole life is lived at top speed. She is a working mother with two small daughters.

"It's important for anyone to have a balance in life.

"My family is a great reality check. It's a whole other world," she says.

But she also performs as a member of the contemporary music ensemble Stroma and the woodwind quartet Zephyr, is half of the piano/flute duo Flight and plays with other "pop-up" groups from the NZSO.

"For me to be a well-rounded, happy musician, I can't do just one type of music. I need that variety."


New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven: The Symphonies, Michael Fowler Centre. Tomorrow, 6.30pm, Symphonies 1, 2 and 3; Friday, 6.30pm, 4 and 5; Saturday, 7.30pm, 6 and 7, Sunday, 3pm, 8 and 9. -

She also teaches music and mentors students.

Douglas, 43, joined the NZSO 17 years ago as associate principal flautist and became principal in 2000.

The Dominion Post