Meet the Artist – Alena Walentin, flautist

Who or what inspired you to take up flute and pursue a career in music?

Thinking back to how I’ve started flute and came to the UK, I think of the phrase “it was meant to be”.

According to my parents, every time I heard music, I would start singing, so I’ve been singing since I was a few months old. Because of my singing and love of music, my parents thought that this is something that I wanted to do or would wish to do when I grew up. So it is my parents who really made it happen, for which I will be forever grateful .

One day my mom was on the tube and heard a young girl quietly singing (she was just sitting preparing solfeggio homework). She was singing so beautifully that my mom approached mother of that girl asking where she was studying. They gave us an address of that school and few days later my mom and I went to that school and apparently as soon as I’ve entered the door to the school I said “I will be studying here”. That turned out to be one of three finest music schools in whole Russia – called Gnessin Special Music School.

Even though I was only six years old and it was a 3 hour commute to that school every day, I was so determined to study there. First I started on piano, but as the school was a special music school (similar to The Purcell School or Chetham’s School of Music in UK), my piano teacher demanded that we bought piano so that I could practice at home. As we didn’t have money for piano, I was transferred to a recorder, which was the cheapest instrument at the time. The system in the school was that you played recorder first and then when you were 10 or 12 years old, you transferred to other woodwind instrument. When the time came for me to choose which instrument I wanted to play, I couldn’t make up my mind.

One day I got a CD from a friend. The person who gave it to me didn’t know who was playing or what they were playing, as they’d got a copy of it from someone else who also didn’t know who was playing on CD. I put that mysterious CD into the CD player and almost stopped breathing when I heard it. It was the first time that I’d heard such a deep, mesmerising and enchanting sound of the flute. It was just a simple charming French suite, but the musicianship and this amazing sound had a great impact on me. I remember saying then “if a flute can sound like this – I would like to play the flute”.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

So here my story continues. A couple of years later, I went to a competition in Romania, where I became friends with two flute players – one from Israel, other from South Korea. One day I received a letter from my Korean friend with a list of summer schools that she recommended for me to attend. My English wasn’t that great then, so looking at the websites of the summer schools, trying to choose, I am not sure how I’ve made my choice – probably again that magical “meant to be”.

The summer school took place in Surrey with flautist William Bennett. It changed my life and opened my eyes to a whole new world of flute playing. The level playing was so high and William Bennett’s teaching so musical and inspiring, that the whole experience of summer school made me suddenly want to practice rather than having to practice. I realised straight away that William Bennett (also known as “Wibb”) was THE teacher I wanted to study with and I was very happy to hear that he liked my playing and suggested I audition for the Royal Academy of Music. I was very lucky to get a full scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music and so I was able to come London and study.

One day (I think that was my 2nd year at RAM), I brought the Godard Suite to Wibb for a lesson. He said: “before we start the lesson, listen to this recording”. He put the recording on his Gramophone. It was that very recording that I’ve heard when I was 11 and that made me take up the flute. I asked: “WHO is playing?!” And Wibb replied: “Me. Why?”

I feel that was meant to be….. Wibb continues to be my endless inspiration.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

About 4-5 years ago I did recital in New York. It was in the summer and I’d bought dress half a year before that, but hadn’t tried it on until 20 min before recital. That is when I discovered that I’d lost a lot of weight in those months! Having discovered that, I was really worried, as the dress was basically falling down! Running up and down the concert venue, I manically tried to find a sewing kit somewhere to try to fix it and I managed to do it! But I walked on stage after 20 minutes of sewing and running. And with jet lag. Nevertheless, the concert seemed to be a success, as it has led to some fantastic engagements, including an invitation to play at the Gala concert of the British Flute Society, sharing the recital with the famous flute player Emmanuel Pahud.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I would leave this for the audience to decide. This is not the easiest question for me to answer, as I do love performing different styles of music and our profession tends to make us often perform what we are told to perform. And we try to do our best with every piece we play. I enjoy romantic and impressionistic music the most.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I keep discovering many different interesting pieces. I do have favourite pieces that I play often, but I am always open to new repertoire. I am also trying to broaden the standard flute repertoire, arranging for flute some of the best pieces there are that can work on flute as well.

I also like performing new music from the 20th century and contemporary composers, including music of those composers who write for and dedicate their pieces to me.

I also choose repertoire depending on what the audience in a particular place or venue might like as well as the acoustics of the venue.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

For me it is definitely the Wigmore Hall. It is an absolute perfect space for solo and small chamber music. Perfect size, perfect acoustics, wonderful atmosphere. Every time I play there, I just want to go back there immediately!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Impossible to name. There are so many musicians that I so deeply respect for their amazing musicianship and I am lucky to be working with some of them!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was around 14, I played my first concerto with orchestra. It was in a fantastic hall and with amazing Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. But I have got very ill a day before and on the day of the concert I had fever of 39.5°C which is scary. Nevertheless, I still went and played and got a standing ovation, which was amazing. But I remember getting to the cadenza and having a complete memory blank – I couldn’t remember at all how it went! But luckily I have quite good improvisation skills, so made up the cadenza right there on the spot.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

It should always be about the music.

Sometimes people practice so hard to get all the notes right. And they do, but the audience feels nothing. Why is that? It is because it is not just about the notes, but what is between the notes that matters. And how we can pass the beauty of that music to the audience to make them feel all the emotions that there are in the music that we play. We need to create and convey stories through music. Life becomes much brighter and more colourful when one lets music into their heart and I feel so lucky to be a musician to let these wonderful miracles happen.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think a perfect balance between work and family. I know I wouldn’t be happy if I spent all my time working, but I also wouldn’t have been happy if I didn’t have my work, as I do love being musician. But with this perfect balance, I would always want to give my absolute 100% to both.

Alena Lugovkina performs music by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Myaskovsky with pianist Pavel Timofeyesky at Russian Culture House, Kensington, London on Friday 5 April.

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(Photo: Nick Rutter)