[ Interviews ]

Tara Helen O’Connor On Why the Flute and Why She Loves Norfolk

July 11, 2017

By Janet Reynolds

For flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, her upcoming performance on Friday, July 14, at the Norfolk Festival is a homecoming.  She was a Fellow in 1989, at the beginning of her career, an experience she calls “life changing.”

“The faculty was incredibly generous with their time and expertise,” she says. “We worked really hard, practiced all day. The whole vibe there was so enriching, so warm, so life changing. It really cemented my desire to pursue music as a career at all costs.”

Yale School of Music faculty member and flutist Thomas Nyfenger was O’Connor’s teacher while she was at Norfolk. “I had such wonderful coaching from him,” she says, “and then the whole Faculty was in the dining room and we got to hang out together. My fondest memories are from Norfolk playing chamber music.”

While O’Connor had the opportunity to focus on orchestral playing early in her career, she decided instead to make her livelihood playing chamber music and as a soloist. She turned down a position as principal flute in an orchestra in Europe. “I love the idea of collaborating in the performance of a piece,” she says, noting this is easier to do in a small chamber group. “Not only do you learn how to play, but you learn how to communicate, how to lead, how to follow, how to be a collaborative colleague,” she says. “The way you work together in chamber music is similar to being in a relationship and sharing ideas.”

It was apparently a smart decision. O’Connor is a two-time GRAMMY® nominee and was the first wind player to perform in the CMS 2 program. Today she is a season artist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a regular at music festivals around the world.

O’Connor got interested in music quite early. She says she was around three when she would disappear into her room and compose music. “I had a tiny organ,” she says. “I think they thought I was a pretty weird kid.” O’Connor started piano lessons when she was five.

We can thank O’Connor’s neighbor for the fact that she switched to the flute. “By the time I started flute, I was playing Chopin Nocturnes,” she says, “but I heard that sound and I said, ‘That’s what I want to play.’”

“For me it’s the sound of the instrument,” she explains of the flute’s allure. “When you put the flute to your face, it’s not top blown like an oboe. When you pick up the flute, it disappears. It rests against your face and you blow across the instrument. There’s not a point of contact with the instrument. So I feel it’s a real extension of the human voice. It’s kind of amazing to be able to pick up an instrument and make a sound. That’s a miracle there.”

Everyone who picks up a flute makes a different sound, O’Connor says. “My teacher would always ask how does this note taste. Every note has a specific place in the mouth,” she says. “It shows how malleable the instrument truly is.” Which makes the flute perfect for chamber music, O’Connor says. “In an orchestra you have other concerns — projection, blending with all the others, there’s more than one of you in a section. It’s a different kind of animal.”

“I play differently in an orchestra than I do in chamber music,” O’Connor continues. “You can’t play like a soloist when you’re playing second flute. The color has to match. You have to provide foundation. You have to know your role.”

Chamber music also offers the option of playing with a larger variety of people, O’Connor says. “I’m extremely grateful for every opportunity after every collaboration,” she says, noting the repertoire changes with the people as well. “That’s the most amazing. It’s always different. It evolves every time you work on it with new people.”

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.