Julius Baker was principal flute with the New York Philharmonic for 18 years. He died the night before the Las Vegas 2003 National Flute Association convention. He was 87 years old.
I first heard about Julius Baker through my flute teacher, Karen Leech, as an eighth grade student in Bozeman, Montana. Karen’s education stemmed from the Baker lineage as well as the Moyse lineage, so the Baker influence was prominent in my lessons with Karen. I first remember hearing Baker on the Boulez recording of Daphnis and Chloe with the New York Philharmonic. It was the most beautiful flute playing I had ever heard—something about the loose, free sound that he produced, combined with the most alluring musicality for that solo that I had ever experienced. It made me understand that solo for the first time.
I immediately developed an appetite for ‘the Baker sound’, and began spending a portion of my Sunday afternoons huddled up on the floor in my parent’s bedroom listening to the live broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic—just to hear every note Julius Baker produced. (I was huddled in this particular location, as this was the only place in our house in Montana where the FM reception came in clear for Public Radio, over which these live concerts were broadcast.)
When I was fourteen years old, I finally got to meet Julius Baker in person. He came to Missoula, Montana to give a masterclass, and I was lucky enough to be accepted to perform, thanks to the wonderful Mary Jean Simpson who was the instigator and organizer of these. I was so awed in meeting Baker, and I remember introducing my parents to him, thinking to myself, “do you KNOW whose hand you are touching!”. My parents were politely impressed, but they couldn’t know what I knew about this man and his Holy Tone. Thus, he became a sort of guru for me, a muse from which I gained inspiration every day while learning how to truly play the flute, for years and years. And still to this day.
When I performed for Baker in front of the class, he raised his eyebrows at me and said, “what’s a flute player like you doin’ in a place like this?”, with his usual charm. I didn’t know what he meant, being fourteen, and I replied, “oh, I live in Bozeman, not here.” I don’t remember a thing that he specifically taught me in that class, but what was priceless learning was getting to hear his sound from two feet away, and see how his embouchure was shaped. I never forgot that, and from that time on, I was able to “get the Baker sound” as Karen Leech would request, because I learned how to imitate it.
People from all over the Northwest attended that Masterclass. It was an event of the highest quality that makes an indelible mark on a 14 year old, and it not only increased my own respect for Baker, but also gave me some mysterious, magical taste of what true excellence was. Such excellence, that adults themselves were willing to become students of this master to take part in it. I’d never seen anything like it. It set up something magic about the world of flute, something like, “this is the Way, play ye in it”, and I took it fully into my own soul. It was like a baptism into Real flute playing, and I was hooked.
Years later, my dream was to attend the Curtis Institute, where Baker taught. They only accept one student a year, and so everyone had a one-in-200 chance of getting in. I was about to graduate from high school, and contacted Julie that I was coming back east for the audition. He was again so kind to me at the audition, and said, “you know, I can only take one person. If it isn’t you, you would be the next person in line”. I believed him, though I don’t really know if this was true, or him just being nice. Nevertheless, I lived on those words. He then invited me to come to New York and visit him at Juilliard, and stay at his house in Brewster. I was ecstatic—I, Rhonda Larson, would get to go to Julius Baker’s house?
A few days later I met up with him at Juilliard, and listened to him teach a flute player (though he never said much in the way of teaching—he only demonstrated, instead). Then we drove up to Brewster together. I remember thinking that his driving was nothing in the realm of his flute playing, and I was a bit nervous. He was having to make quick decisions about lanes and turns, and his personality just didn’t really fit this task. Instead, he was someone that was always ultra-relaxed, played flute that way, walked that way, wore his jeans that way, and I assume would have preferred to drive that way. But you can’t drive that way in New York.
We arrived at his house, and I met Ruth, his wife, and two of his children. I learned a lot about “the man” that evening, and was so in-awe of him that it took some getting used to seeing he was simply a human being with household responsibilities and concerns. We had spaghetti that night, and as we were eating, I’ll never forget Ruth saying to him, “dear, you have tomato sauce on your chin.” Julie, in his slow, methodical way, said, “Oh?”, and wiped his chin. Then Ruth said, “no, dear, not that chin, your other chin”. We all burst out laughing, even Julie giggled over it, and it helped to completely put me at ease with them all.
I stayed overnight at their house, and the next day Julie showed me his barn studio. I was soaking in everything like a sponge-words and visuals—the life of this great man, so I would remember it all when I was back into my own life. In his basement, there were stacks and stacks of cassette tapes laying around, all from recitals he had played. I thought how great it would be to hear any one of them. By now, I’d fallen in love with, and worn out, his commercial recording of the Debussy trio, and the Roussel. I was stunned at the way he could play, particularly the SOUND more than anything else. But he had surprisingly few commercial solo recordings available, so I saw these tapes as scarce and rare treasure. I’ve always felt that hearing Baker recordings was like hearing the “secret” of how to play. Like codes to be deciphered were his recordings to my flute-playing investigative mind.
I didn’t make it into Curtis that year. Two more years in a row, I came back to audition for it again. It was still my dream, even though I was now in my second year of college at the University of Idaho with a great flute teacher, Richard Hahn. The last time I went to audition, I had no money at all. I refinished pianos to make the money to fly back to Philadelphia, but returned on a Greyhound bus. This is so symbolic as to how it all felt, too. My meals there consisted of yogurt, and peanut butter sandwiches. It took three entire days to get back to Idaho on the bus, which allowed me the reflection time to think about whether I would get in or not, and replay all the events in my head like some great magical, mystical play. This time at the audition Baker said to me, “you know, Rhonda, you are such a terrific gal with such a great personality like no one I know. I think moving to the city would ruin you. I think you should stay right where you are.” I protested that this wouldn’t be the case. I remember thinking, “don’t think you are doing me any favor by not picking me!” But in all those three days home, I was quite sure he was not going to choose me to attend Curtis. I was accepted to Juilliard, but I didn’t want Juilliard. It was the combination of Baker and Curtis that I had my hopes on, and nothing else would do. Alas, I did not, in fact, get selected that final time I auditioned for Curtis.
Certainly by my junior year in college, when I won the National Flute Association Young Artist Competition, I was able to truly see what Baker had done for me. I never really knew how deeply he thought about what he had said to me, and whether he really knew what favor he was implementing for me, but he was the one whose decision had a profound effect on my life in allowing me to stay with complete freedom in the small rural town of Moscow, Idaho. That is, I was free to grow at my own pace there, without outside vehement competition (as Curtis would have been), so I had to develop all of my drive from the inside, instead of trying to be better than the guy practicing next to me. I had to compare myself with the standards of recordings, such as Baker’s and Galway’s, as this was all there was to compare myself to on a larger scale. In short, it meant I had to truly develop from the inside out, not the outside in. I lived in a town that was similar to the town I grew up in, where everyone was friendly and unguarded, free to look a passerby on the sidewalk in the eye, free to ditch as many classes as I wanted so I could spend the time practicing, free to continue my love affair with Nature-the woods, bike-riding, hiking. None of this would have been possible at Curtis. Additionally, I would have been struggling to rent an apartment, let alone eat, which was less of a struggle in Idaho than it would have been in the higher economy of Philadelphia. And street smarts? I had none. Baker was right, I truly think that at that time in my life, the city would have inexorably changed me, shut me down. I didn’t have the “distance” to see this at the time, but there is a wide-eyed innocence to people from rural areas, particularly in the West, and internal development would have been abruptly interrupted by moving to a city and a way of life I had no idea about except from the media.
And so it was that Julius Baker had a many-layered profound effect upon my life. The last time I really got to see him was at the New York National Flute Association convention in 1997, where I performed with my group on a Gala Concert. During the soundcheck, someone was trying to get in the door, and the “guards” came up to me and said, “someone is saying that they are allowed to come in and see you before the show. Should I let them in?” I couldn’t imagine who it could be, but said, “sure, no problem”. They went to the door, and much to my surprise, in walks Julius Baker–shuffling in his characteristic way down the isle, pants bagging low as usual, until he reached the stage where I was. I felt so honored that it was him, the Man with the Holy Tone. (Or is that Wholly Tone?) After a quick exchange, we had to finish our soundcheck, so he sat in the front row and waited for the doors to formally open, and the concert to begin. When our portion of the performance was over, there was a slight audience break to change the set-up for the next group, and Baker rushed up to me (imagine a non-rushing man rushing), and grabbed my hand and said, “Rhonda, I had no idea. I didn’t know you could do that. I’ve never heard any of that before. I had no idea”. It was the best compliment a girl from Montana could ever possibly receive from a man who was instrumental in shaping her life, unwittingly or not, for the better.
I miss you, Julius Baker. If you don’t mind, I’m going to continue to learn from you until my abilities to learn have long expired. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for defining and embodying what is a true, genuine American Flutist. I thank you for magically pollinating so many individuals as you have done, who will go on to perpetuate the blossoming of your contributions to Flutekind. Thank you. And may I continue to thank you in my playing, too. May you hear the music wafting through the ethers.
—-Rhonda, February, 2004