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James Pellerite: Native American flute is 'music from the heart'

  • Pellerite's Insights
    Pellerite's Insights  James Pellerite discusses the Native American flute during an event in the Wren Chapel Dec. 3.  Photo by Graham Bryant
  • Pellerite Lecture
    Pellerite Lecture  James Pellerite, former principal flutist of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, gives a lecture/recital in the Wren Chapel Dec. 3.  Photo by Graham Bryant
  • Pellerite Performs
    Pellerite Performs  James Pellerite performs a few select pieces in the Wren Chapel Thursday, Dec. 3.  Photo by Graham Bryant
  • Meeting Pellerite
    Meeting Pellerite  James Pellerite speaks with audience members after his performance on Thursday, Dec. 3 in the Wren Chapel.  Photo by Graham Bryant
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The Native American flute’s wistful tones evoke images of moonlit nights on the western plains and remind a listener of the musician’s spiritual connection to his world. But to James Pellerite, former principal flutist of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Native American flute has potential beyond its Western origins — it can be a classical instrument at home in an orchestra.

In a series of lectures and performances at William & Mary last week, Pellerite demonstrated his vision for the Native American flute culminating in a Friday performance of Michael Mauldin’s “Dream of the Child of Light,” and the world premiere of James Aikman’s “Ania’s Song” alongside the William & Mary Symphony Orchestra in Phi Beta Kappa Hall.

{{youtube:medium:left|qp7no_e8huk, Pellerite peforms in the Wren Chapel}}

On Thursday evening, Pellerite presented a lecture and recital on the Native American flute and its potential role as a classical instrument in the chapel of the Wren Building. The chapel’s close setting and acoustics created a haunting atmosphere for the instrument’s unique tones.

Pellerite described the process of falling in love with the Native American flute during a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, as an intersection of musical worldviews.

“Here was somebody who had classical influence all his life who met an instrument that really was nothing except beautiful tradition from an ethnic source,” he said. “The sound of the Native American flute is so spiritually exultant that it resonates within the inspirational beauties of the American West.”

To demonstrate the Native American flute in its traditional musical setting, Pellerite performed a Lakota rain dance that utilized only the flute’s five primary tones.

“Each player has his own concept of how to play the instruments — they’re constantly improvising. There’s no notion of reading disciplined music as such,” Pellerite said. “The instrument was not built to be played in a modern manner.”

But that fact has not stopped Pellerite from harnessing the Native American flute’s full potential. He demonstrated to attendees the various ways in which he has extracted a full range of tones and notes from the instrument.

This careful study of the instrument’s capabilities has allowed Pellerite to perform unexpected and delightful pieces with the flute. Having concluded his review of the Native American flute’s traditional sounds, he regaled the audience with selections from Puccini’s operas, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and even transitioned into modern film scores by playing the main theme from “The Godfather” — “The Godfather Waltz” by Nina Rota.

To accentuate his thesis of the Native American flute’s versatility in a classical setting, Pellerite concluded the Wren lecture and recital with a most unexpected performance of Frank Sinatra’s “No One Ever Tells You.”

The following evening, Pellerite joined the William & Mary Symphony Orchestra for a concert in Phi Beta Kappa Hall featuring the premiere of composer James Aikman’s “Ania’s Song.” Beyond being an excellent performance for attendees from both William & Mary and the wider community, Pellerite’s collaboration provided a unique learning opportunity for the university’s student musicians.

“It is always a privilege to hear a master musician, regardless of the instrument, but this collaboration with James Pellerite on the Native American flute has given a chance to the students and to the community to discover this beautiful instrument and the contemporary pieces it inspired to such acclaimed American composers as Michael Mauldin and James Aikman,” said David Grandis, director of orchestras at William & Mary, who helped coordinate Pellerite’s visit. “Mauldin’s piece celebrates the Dalai Lama and is a proof that contemporary music can still be very accessible and offer gorgeous melodies. Aikman’s short composition is a superb adagio which I’m sure history will remember alongside Barber’s.”

Grandis was especially excited the orchestra’s chance to work with Pellerite particularly as the orchestra prepares for participation in a major national competition.

“To do the premiere of Aikman’s version with Native American flute is also a wonderful opportunity for this orchestra which, I would like to proudly announce, has been selected for the finals of the national competition, The American Prize 2015.”