5 Questions to Brandon Patrick George (flutist)

The online presence of Brandon Patrick George is one of bold colors, virtuosity, and powerful words. A Grammy-nominated flutist, member of Imani Winds, and faculty member at the Curtis Institute, Brandon is an important voice and a formidable force for good, leading discussions on how to create more inclusive communities in classical music. His foundational experiences as a young person shaped by Midwestern roots and a public arts education are reflected in his outreach activities, including his current Concerto Project. In collaboration with participating orchestras, Brandon commissions a new concerto that, in addition to the solo flute part, also features parts for the students Brandon will have mentored over the course of the experience.

Twofold, Brandon’s new album our Sept. 15 on In a Circle Records, is a particularly joyful meeting point of these facets of his career — bridging genres, drawing potent connections, and encouraging conversations between contemporary compositional voices and the classical music canon. The album starts with C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor — its alluring melodies constructed from exacting counterpoint — and ends with the languid, sensuous, and breathy lines of Toru Takemitsu’s Air and Claude Debussy’s Syrinx. In between, Brandon creates dialogues between seemingly disparate time periods and timbres by way of three contemporary works: the studious and quarter-toned hues of Saad Haddad’s Tasalsul I, the frenetic, playful lines in Shawn Okpebholo’s On a Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Reena Esmail’s dreamy fantasia, Zinfandel. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s tiny but effective Diaphonic Suite completes the album. Brandon’s performances illuminate these works in prisma-color through thoughtful phrasing, elegant shifts in timbre, and thrilling precision in technical passages.

I recently got in touch with Brandon to find out more about Twofold, the Concerto Project, and what’s in store for him.

Your innovative approach to mentorship is inspiring, and is hopefully indicative of where the arts world is trending. What is a piece of advice you received from a mentor when you were a young student that stayed with you?

I am very fortunate to have had several mentors who took me under their wing and encouraged me along the way. I also had some negative experiences, but they were learning experiences nonetheless. Each experience taught me about the kind of artist, teacher, and mentor I wanted to be. The road to success is long and bumpy, and it is never-ending. As a young player ultimately plagued with self-doubt, I went through a period of feeling unsure of my abilities and my place in the world. I believe we all go through this. Reflecting on this, some years later, it likely stemmed from something not about the flute or music itself.

At the moment, when I was struggling the most as a young player, Lorna McGhee, principal flutist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, became a trusted mentor and friend of mine. When I was at my lowest and unsure what to do, she told me to believe in myself and project that belief when I play. Lorna challenged me to understand that the world needs beauty and that what I had to say mattered. No one had ever told me this so directly! It completely shifted my mindset when it comes to performance and mentorship. Learning to believe in yourself and project this belief is empowering! This concept is not to be confused with arrogance; it comes from a place of sincere kindness and a desire to speak directly to the souls listening to you perform. It is about valuing yourself, the healing power that your artistry can bring to those who might need it, and the young students who might realize their potential by seeing you on the stage.

This philosophy is at the core of the mentoring that I do. I try to live it every day. Empowering people to believe in themselves and encouraging them to use their gifts to change the world is extraordinarily beautiful. We all possess talents and have a place in the world, and we must use our gifts to uplift one another. What would the world look like if we instilled this philosophy into every child from a young age?

Brandon Patrick George -- Photo by Lauren Desberg

Brandon Patrick George — Photo by Lauren Desberg

Tell us a bit more about your exciting Concerto Project – are there similar mentorship projects that inspired you to create your own, or is this a natural outgrowth of your own experiences?

This year begins a multi-year project to commission new concertos for solo flute, orchestra, and student chamber ensembles. My Community Concerto Project will launch next June with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and a brand-new concerto by Michael Gilbertson. The ensemble featured in this work will be the Albany High School Chorus. Musically speaking, the project was inspired by John Corigliano’s Pied Piper Fantasy for flute and orchestra. In this work, a student flute ensemble joins in the performance, following the soloist throughout the hall, recreating the legend of the Pied Piper through music. It is a masterpiece, though we know that the story of the Pied Piper is rather dark. I thought it would be wonderful to create a new set of concertos based on this model, allowing me to mentor young students, and for orchestras to place commitment to their communities and the creation of new work front and center.

With this project, I am telling a very different story than the original legend of the Pied Piper! As a Black musician, I am often asked what performing arts communities can do to combat inequity. While I’ve willingly spoken about my experiences and offered my perspective, I thought more action was needed and less talk. I believe my response can be heard loud and clear through this initiative. It allows me to visit cities, immerse myself in the community, mentor young artists from underserved communities, and prepare them for a performance with me and their symphony orchestra.

I’m a proud product of K-12 public education. Between the ages of 12 and 18, I received six years of private flute instruction because of my public arts magnet school. I take the role I can play in supporting music education in underserved communities very seriously. The work that the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel have done to serve the L.A. community with YOLA [Youth Orchestra Los Angeles] is powerful. Before joining Imani Winds, a group that has placed equal value on mentorship, commissioning, and virtuosic performances for over 25 years, I played many weeks in the L.A. Phil flute section as a guest in 2018. I had the great honor of encountering the phenomenal talent in the YOLA program and witnessing the sheer joy that the Philharmonic and Maestro Dudamel spark in young Angelenos. That experience has never left me, helping me to see the true impact we can have as musicians. My concerto initiative represents who I am as a flutist, mentor, and citizen who believes in the power of music to transform communities.

Having leaders who understand that what we do is a service to communities — and that those communities need to see and hear themselves — is vital.

Talk us through your album’s earliest moments, when it was still just a sparkle in your imagination: was this repertoire you were already actively performing, or did you go searching for repertoire to match an album concept?

I spent a lot of time playing alone during 2020 during lockdown, unable to make music with others until 2021. C.P.E. Bach’s solo sonata was a source of comfort during that period. In early 2022, I discovered that Saad Haddad, a brilliant composer whose work I had followed for quite some time, had composed work based on the Bach solo sonata, but that incorporated scales and techniques found in Arabic music.

The compositions by Bach, Debussy, Takemitsu, and Seeger are all works that I have performed for many years. The time to discover new music and reflect on the connections between all of the works happened during lockdown, and slowly became a concept for an album once I realized the story that they collectively tell when paired together.

Exclusive stream: Tasalsul I by Saad Haddad

Upon learning Saad’s Tasalsul 1, I became completely fascinated with how composers respond to earlier compositions, and the concept of pairing works together based on influences and backgrounds, showing the diversity in commonality in compositional voices, and reflecting the interconnectedness we all share as humans. Saad’s masterful way of blending musical traditions from the East and West made me think of others who have done this. The great Tōru Takemitsu did this in the 20th century, bringing sounds of his homeland of Japan into his classical compositions. Reena Esmail seamlessly weaves the Hindustani musical traditions of India into her stunning works, and so I thought that pairing her work with Takemitsu would be perfect. Takemitsu also admired French music, and you can hear hints of this in his composition Air, so I naturally paired it with Debussy’s Syrinx.

I am a big fan of Ruth Crawford Seeger, and have played her music for years. Her Diaphonic Suite is written in what she called “verse form,” where the writing is both like a musical rhyme and a dialogue. Interestingly, Shawn Okpebholo’s work for solo flute is also a musical dialogue, representing a conversation between a grandfather and grandson in a painting that he saw. These two composers, writing musical dialogues for the flute, and both having lived and composed in Chicago close to 100 years apart, completed the album of pairings.

Cover art for Brandon Patrick George's "Twofold" -- Photo by Lauren Desberg

Cover art for Brandon Patrick George’s “Twofold” — Photo by Lauren Desberg

You have taken an active role in conversations about diversity and inclusion in all aspects of classical music: its creation, performance, and consumption. Where have you seen the most progress in the past five years?

I find it really encouraging to see the steps that institutions, big and small, have taken to be more inclusive. Having leaders who understand that what we do is a service to communities — and that those communities need to see and hear themselves — is vital. I think that what Lincoln Center is doing to break down barriers and include performing arts events that reflect the entire demographic of our city is powerful. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s recordings of Florence Price’s music, and expanding the canon to include her masterpieces, has been heartening. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is someone who understands what should be happening on and off the stage to make meaningful change, especially by reaching out to inner-city school children and encouraging music as a tool of empowerment.

Chamber Music Pittsburgh and their fearless director Kristen Linfante is having me for a performance with my duo partner Aaron Diehl to open its 62nd season this month. The program is all Black composers and will be the first time quite a few of these works have been heard on the concert stage. Chamber Music Pittsburgh has also created residencies for artists to develop meaningful collaborations within the community through outreach and education. There are others doing creative work, but these are a few that really stand out.

As a change agent, are there any specific positive developments you see on the horizon over the next several years?

Seeing women and people of color in leadership roles is very important to me. The work that organizations are doing to ensure that historically underrepresented demographics are in leadership roles and shaping artistic programming and outreach gives me hope for the future. Whether or not conservative classical music enthusiasts want to accept it, this art form doesn’t have legs in our world without leaders who serve and represent all of us, not just a small percentage of die-hard fans. Embracing this ensures that the art form that we love so much endures long after we are gone, and that we have the maximum impact in our lifetime. Music has the power to heal and unify people. Choosing to exclude and cater to one demographic is minimizing the power that this extraordinary art for possesses. Appointing people from diverse communities creates a sense of hope and excitement in me. I look forward to seeing what the field looks like 10 years from now. Change is good!


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