Interview with flutist Gergely Bodoky

by Laura Chislett

Have you ever sat on a plane for nearly 8 hours then got back on board for another 13 hours? That’s how long it took me to get from Sydney to Rome via Singapore. After that investment of time Australians usually stay for a longish period at their destination before having to do the whole trip again in reverse. I spent four wonderful weeks in Europe last August and September: there were friends to visit who I hadn’t seen in a long time, the statue of Marcus Aurelias to see in Rome, a Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage to do, and the opportunity to interact with some wonderful flute players through the interviews. 

The foundational idea for the series of interviews was to investigate the diversity of roles and careers which independent and creative musicians are making for themselves at the moment in varying societal conditions. 

The interviews are not scholarly in style. They were recorded in cafés in a very relaxed and conversational way. Essentially they are conversations rather than interviews. The order in which they are going to be published reflects the trajectory of my travel around Europe, and then my arrival back home in Sydney.

A big heart-felt thank you to each of the interviewees. You are inspirational.

Laura Chislett

Gergely Bodoky (b. 1973, Budapest) has held the position of Solo Flute in the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin since 1998. He has won multiple prizes in international competitions, such as the ARD and Kobe. Gergely is deeply engaged with historically informed performance practice (HIPP), and also works intensively with the music of our time (Stockhausen, Benjamin, Rihm, Boulez, Saariaho etc). He is a foundational member of the Berlin-based Sheridan Ensemble.

Interview with Gergely Bodoky, 9 September 2022, Berlin

Laura Chislett: Gergely, what were some of the most formative moments for you as a student?

Gergely Bodoky: Because my mother was a pianist my first memories of the flute are when she would rehearse with players like Andras Adorjan and Paul Meisen. I remember when she was rehearsing the Prokoffiev Sonata with Adorjan in Hungary. As this was before 1990 it was easier for him to come to Hungary. They would rehearse for a few days at a time. It was an amazing experience for me sitting there under the piano and listening so closely. The next formative moment was when I got my new flute as a child. It was a very low budget flute, a Yamaha I think but I loved it very much. Especially the mechanics of it fascinated me. Later on I studied for four years at the Munich Musikhochschule with Paul Meisen. It was a unique experience: we had lessons where he would play and then I would play and he would barely say anything, it was just listening and trying to understand how he does it, how he plays the flute. At the end he might say, yeah you’re on the right track, just keep going. To have these lessons week by week, it was just amazing. Next was playing in orchestras and figuring out how that works. It was worth all the work.

When I got my job in Berlin I had just decided to study period instruments. I had always had this in my head. I felt that was a good time to start. Maybe I should have started earlier…I studied first in Leipzig with Benedek Csalog and then in Berlin with Prof. Christoph Huntgeburth. These lessons were also fascinating because I don’t think you can understand Classical and Baroque repertoire without playing period instruments. Maybe Romantic as well. It gives you so much more understanding of the music itself. Understanding because period instruments work really differently to the modern flute so it was really a new world for me.

LC: Do you think that Bach had an understanding of the capabilities and potential of the flutes of his time?

GB: I’m totally convinced of that. In his early life he had to learn many instruments and I’m sure that he had some experience with the flute though we don’t have any evidence of that. There’s the A Minor Partita with this amazing high A. The next time that a composer writes this pitch for the flute it’s Mozart in his symphonies, in the very late symphonies, and of course Beethoven continues and goes to the B flat. Bach uses the high E and A but not the pitches in between in the solo repertoire. The notes in between are much more difficult, whereas the high A can be produced clearly and strongly. J S Bach had to know this, just like when CPE Bach uses the high F in his solo Sonata. It’s a note which is very difficult to produce and its tone is very particular, almost like a pain, and he uses it in a diminished chord, really like something painful. Of course on the modern flute it’s not difficult to produce this note but on a period instrument it’s an effort, whereas the F# is not a problem. CPE Bach uses the high F always at moments where there is tension. And in the St John Passion of JS Bach, in the Aria “Zerfliesse” after the death of Jesus, Bach uses F minor, which is a difficult and strange tonality for the flute. For the oboe da caccia, the other solo instrument in this aria, F minor is much more convenient, but to reach a good balance both instruments have to struggle. This makes a totally unique atmosphere, matching the very special emotion in this aria.

LC: Has your playing of Period Instruments had an effect on your playing of the Concert Flute?

GB: The modern metal flute still works even when the player has some technical problems. But period instruments, they are so fragile and they don’t allow you too many technical problems. Playing Period Instruments has helped me to find all the areas of tension in my body and to get rid of them. Of course playing modern techniques can reveal bad habits too. I remember Nicolet talked about eradicating tension in the body through practising modern techniques.

LC: Gergely, you play the baroque flute with one key, a classical flute with seven keys, and a flute from the time of Brahms. How on earth do you remember all the different fingerings for those instruments?

GB: All flutes until the Boehm system were based on the 1 keyed Baroque flute. So if you use the Baroque fingerings on the other flutes they still function. It’s just that you have many more possibilities with the extra keys so you really have to make choices about which fingering to use for special notes (and it’s necessary to practice your chosen fingerings).

LC: what do you see as the role of music performance in Berlin at the moment?

GB: Berlin is a special city because it was a divided city. The wall came down in ’89 and then Berlin became the capital again in 1990. In the past, because of its divided status, it had not much industry and almost nothing except culture, so there was a large audience for culture in Berlin. Berliners have grown up with this, they expect this, so I can still feel that for some people culture is really important, because for them culture was the only thing which was really working in the city. And it continues like this, not with the same intensity as in the ‘90s, but it’s still there and our goal is to keep this alive. The diversity of styles that you can hear in Berlin is amazing. There is a space for everything in Berlin. 

LC: Do you feel supported by the city of Berlin in terms of financial support for the orchestra and for independent smaller groups?

GB: Since I am in the very lucky situation of having a position in the orchestra I have to say yes we feel very supported in Berlin, not just by the city of Berlin but also by the federal government. After the wall came down everything was doubled to three opera orchestras, two radio orchestras, and two concert orchestras, and all these orchestras are still there. Of course we could have more support but even in these Corona years there was very good support. Concerning smaller groups I have only a limited experience of that, and while there is support it’s not very easy to access. Actually the new government wanted to increase funding to independent groups which would be also great. In the Corona years it wasn’t easy to be an independent musician because of all the bureaucratic stuff to access the financial support. So what I hear from friends is that it wasn’t so easy for them. 

LC: do you have suggestions to younger players who want to stand out?

GB: I think of course that a very good education like at a Musikhochschule is very important and to learn the flute from beginning to the end is very important. After that I think it’s more than ever important to find something that you like and to concentrate your activities in this direction because I think the future will be much more individual. I’m not sure how much longer orchestra jobs and training will continue. It’s getting tighter everywhere of course. In Germany we will be the last but still. So when you find something that is important to you, try to make something very special out of it.

LC: What do you love about your concert flute?

GB: My modern flute is a Brannen- Cooper and I have a Sheridan headjoint which I like very much but there was a moment when I decided to make a headjoint from wood. I’ve been playing this for two years now and I like it very much. It gives me lots of freedom which I hadn’t experienced on metal flutes. But perhaps that’s because I’m playing wooden flutes so often and I like to transport some aspects of that playing to my modern flute playing.

LC: Could you tell me about the process of making your own wooden headjoint? 

GB: It was a long journey. I was always interested in how instruments work, how they are built. When I was studying period instruments I got to know a very nice traverso flute maker, Stefan Beck and we became friends. Then one day he asked me why I don’t try to make my own traverso flute with his help. We started the project. It took about one month or longer, because I had to make drawings etc. I finally built my own traverse flute which I still play all the time. 

I have a wooden Boehm flute which I don’t play so much because I don’t like it. So I thought I could make a headjoint for it. I took two headjoints which I like very much and I measured the conical dimensions inside the headjoint because it’s clear that this is very crucial. Then we had to make a borer with these exact dimensions. After I made a couple of headjoints the third headjoint turned out so well that I fitted it to my gold flute and I started to play it. But it was difficult to play. I played it for a while and then I left it. Two years later I heard it in a recording with the orchestra and I really liked it. It turned out that the wood needs a lot of time to play in. It’s the headjoint that I play on in orchestra right now and it gives me a lot of freedom.

LC: And finally, what are the essential skills for good communication as a musician? 

GB: Sure you have to connect with the audience. You can do this is various ways. I like to say a few words about the reason why I’m playing this way, to help the audience to follow your thoughts. If it works only through your instrument, great, but sometimes it can help to assist the audience to listen better. And of course communication between musicians is the most important thing I think. In the orchestra it’s maybe even more important than your instrumental skills because you are playing the music together and if you only play your own instrumental part without considering the full score that doesn’t help the final result. So you have to communicate either verbally or nonverbally, together with the conductor of course. If you are playing in small groups you have to learn how to sell your music through communication. This is something that I’m not very experienced in, but yeah, I’m sure I would love to do it better.

Laura Chislett

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Australian flute player Laura Chislett has established herself on the international stage as a performer, educator and recording artist across a wide range of musical styles. Her recordings, on ten different labels and multiple streaming platforms, range from Bach and Boulanger, to Ferneyhough and Dench.

It’s perhaps in the extraordinary solo flute repertoire of the 20th Century onwards that Laura has especially made her mark, forging her way through daring sonic journeys and seeking to extend the expressive capabilities of the flute. She has long been a champion of Australian music, and music by female composers.

Laura has become known for her inspiring and rigorous performances, described as the “Rolls Royce versions” by the legendary composer Horatiu Radulescu.

Laura Chislett