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Published: Thursday, 4/26/2001

Flutist leads a fight for perfect pitch

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Mozart, word has it, never thought much of the flute.

The problem was with the instrument's pitch. Flutists, he noted, never seemed to play in tune.

Indeed, Mozart probably would not be too pleased with today's situation. Flutist William Bennett is not.

Mr. Bennett, who has been principal flutist for some of the world's greatest orchestras, including the London Symphony and the English Chamber Orchestra, has led a battle against bad intonation.

Intonation will be one of many topics Mr. Bennett confronts today when he presents an afternoon master class and evening recital in Toledo.

"I don't see why we can't play in tune," said Mr. Bennett this the week by phone from Harrisburg, Pa.

But the problem, unfortunately, is bigger than slipshod musicians. It is also about the flutes themselves. Most of them are made poorly, Mr. Bennett says.

That's a problem.

As his career developed, Mr. Bennett says getting a properly calibrated flute became a necessity.

"The flutes we had in the early 1950s were hopelessly out of tune. They didn't work. I had to go about making the flute better," he says.

So he did. First he went back to the flutes of the mid-19th century. He liked those instruments because of the way the makers worked their silver. It seems to have been hammered to a greater density then than now. And that, or so some flutists believe, makes the instruments sound better.

This density issue isn't quite on the level of the secrets of Stradivarius's violin varnish, but, says Mr. Bennett, today we are not quite sure how they did it. Skipping the technical jargon, Mr. Bennett simply notes that "the old stuff was whacked harder together."

For Mr. Bennett, having the right materials was a start, but pitch was still a problem.

In fact, because the pitch to which orchestras tune has gone up significantly over the past 150 years, intonation is a bigger problem now for the old flutes than it was when they were first built. By today's standards, the old flutes are out of tune automatically. They play flat.

Undeterred, Mr. Bennett did some calculations. Then, with the appropriate dabbling, drilling, and soldering, he began moving the tone holes to put them in the correct place for modern performance.

The experiment worked.

"My system means you can play more bravely all over the flute," he says.

Still, Mr. Bennett is not one to take chances. Just to be sure that he has the instrument to match the pitch of the day, Mr. Bennett tours with five flutes.

"I'm mad," he says. "But when you do a recital tour, in some places the piano is flat, in another the piano is sharp. A lot of flute players just blow the instrument and are content to play sharp all the time."

Not Mr. Bennett.

Flutist William Bennett will give a masterclass from 1 to 4 this afternoon at Symphony Space, 1838 Parkwood Ave. Mr. Bennett and pianist Clifford Benson will perform music of Mozart, Handel, Martinu, Villa-Lobos, and others at 7 tonight at Corpus Christi Church, 2955 Dorr St. Tickets for the master class are $25, $20 for students. Tickets for the recital are $15, $10 for students. Information: 243-7589.



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