First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2015
Katherine Bryan’s new album, Silver Bow, begins in a gentle lull: that lush, hazy thicket of strings, that bucolic, bygone Englishness setting the scene for Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. But across this particular idyll there is steely intent writ large. Out out of the muted strings comes the lark: flitting and spinning and soaring as usual, but it isn’t the lissom violin Vaughan Williams wrote for.
Bryan is principal flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a post she has held since the age of 21. Anyone who has attended an RSNO concert in the intervening 12 years since her appointment will instantly recognise the bold, clear tone. Bryan is an unfussy, forthright player — the kind of generously expressive flautist who can one minute spin a soaring phrase over the top of a symphony orchestra and the next minute seduce with a hushed, voluptuous low range.
All of which makes her a compelling soloist as well as one of the RSNO’s prize principals — and that’s what Silver Bow is about. Her third solo release is a collection of violin showpieces that she has transcribed for flute. There is more soaring tunefulness where the Vaughan Williams came from: Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, the Romance from Shostakovich’s Gadfly Suite, Fritz Kreisler’s Liebsleid. Then there are the fireworks: Saint-Saens’s Introduction et rondo capriccioso; Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, even the ultimate violin circus act that is Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.
Why pinch the repertoire of another instrument? “Because,” Bryan tells me, “the flute is not properly recognised as a solo instrument and I want to change that. I think it’s overlooked. Possibly because of the repertoire, possibly the way the instrument is often played. People say to me, ‘flute? Aw, how lovely’.” She grimaces.
Admittedly, the glamorous shots on the album cover could contribute to the whole loveliness thing, but don’t be misled by the posh frock and heels. Bryan might as well be wearing jeans and a biker jacket; there’s nothing girly about her playing. Just listen to the fire and tenacity of that Paganini Caprice. There is nothing girly about Bryan’s gung-ho ambition, either. “I want to be a soloist,” she says. “And I want to play like a violinist, with real attack. I don’t tend to ever think that I’m playing a flute; I refuse to get bogged down by technical limitations of the instrument. If if I want inspiration, I’ll listen to a violinist or singer. I must have listened to The Lark Ascending a million times — I always loved it, but I always sat there wondering if I could do it myself.”
Violinist have the luxury of physical gesture, she explains. “The audience can see the movement of the bow and the vibrato that makes the expression. With the flute you don’t see the phrasing or the vibrato, but I love the feeling of embodying the music and I try to play that way.” It’s true that she’s a mover: in the orchestra she makes the most of the small space around her chair, and the way she visibly offers a phrase into the hall means the eye as well as the ear are often drawn in her direction.“I’m always careful not to move so much that I interrupt the way I breathe, and in the orchestra I’m conscious to be upright and project the sound into the space. But sure, performance is a visual thing and I like to move. I’ve been moving since I was eight!”
She has been on stage for nearly as long. Her first concerto appearance was at the age of 15 with Daniel Harding and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; a couple of years later she took up a place at the Juilliard School in New York, all sights set on a solo career. Then at 19 she applied for the RSNO job. She was in her second year of college and her father saw the post advertised back in the UK. “He asked if I had ever thought of going for an orchestral job. I was up for anything, and it just spiralled from there…”
The turning point was the first time she did a week of concerts with the orchestra. She had never played with a professional orchestra, and the experience changed everything. “It was like being thrown onto another planet,” she says. “I’ll never forget the programme: Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, one of the hardest flute parts in the entire repertoire but I had never even studied the excerpts so I had no idea. Lazarev was conducting. I loved it. I was hugely lucky that the woodwind section was so supportive. I mean, a 20 year old walks through the door trialling for principal… they could have crucified me. Flying over from New York I thought I would just get some good experience in the process. But flying back? I absolutely wanted that job.”
It didn’t take her long to get it: after just five weeks of trialling the orchestra snapped her up. She never finished her fourth year at Juilliard, though the college told her she could come back at any time to complete her degree. “Maybe in ten or 20 years I’ll rock up and get my Manhattan fix,” she jokes, but she does wonder what might have happened had she stayed. “Would I be in the States? Maybe another orchestra? Of course I’m aware of other jobs that come up…” But she says she’s committed to the RSNO and the lifestyle she has in Scotland, living north of the Campsies with her husband and her dog and juggling a busy teaching schedule between the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.
Meanwhile the orchestra doesn’t waste the chance to give her plenty of solo work. She opened last season with the flute concerto by Christopher Rouse and has commissioned a new concerto by Martin Suckling to be premiered with next season. She’s also already planning her next album, too: more violin transcriptions, this time Mendelssohn’s E-minor Concerto and a couple of Mozart concertos. Incidentally, she doesn’t consider all violin repertoire fair game for the flute. “I don’t think the Sibelius concerto works, for example,” she says, then pauses. “Though I’m not for a minute suggesting the flute can’t do dark and gritty…”
Silver Bow is out on Linn on September 18. The album launch is at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, on 24 September. Katherine Bryan and the RSNO perform Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending at Edin Court, Inverness, on 17 October.