Switching Seats: An Interview with Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson

by William Short, principal bassoonist

“First chair or bust,” in four short words, sums up the philosophy of every talented, ambitious young musician. From early musical studies through graduation from college, everyone clamors to be the best, the manifestation of which is sitting in the “hot seat” - the principal position. However, everything changes when one actually enters the music profession. In a professional orchestra, every position is highly specialized and requires a unique set of skills. When one looks down into the pit, one sees musicians who each auditioned for the specific seat they occupy, and whose job expectations reflect the unique challenges of that particular position.

In the MET Orchestra, we are lucky to count among our ranks one individual who is more attuned than most to these subtleties. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson won the second flute position in the MET Orchestra in 2004 and subsequently won the principal flute position in 2008. Interested in hearing his take on the different challenges these positions entailed, I sat down with him during the last days of our 2013-14 season - and learned a great deal about what it means to be an orchestral musician in the process.

Stefan Casual.jpg

Prior to winning the second flute position in the MET Orchestra, Stefán was a freelance flutist and held down a part-time job at the Flute Center of New York, a flute repair shop and dealership. Once he won the second flute position in the MET Orchestra, he suddenly found himself fulfilling a lifelong dream. There was, however, an adjustment period. He describes learning to play in the ensemble and exploring different sounds to find what would fit in: “The adjustment I had to make was to learn how to blend with the principals, who were Michael Parloff and Trudy Kane at the time. They’re very different players, so the challenge was to meet both of their needs.”

That, in essence, is a second player’s job description. As Stefán puts it, “The principal player is a solo voice - part of the texture, part of the blend, but much more at the top of the musical line, so to speak. The principal player has to have distinctive colors of sound [that act as] different voices. As a second player, you have to learn how to adjust to all these different colors of sound."

How does one change the color of the sound? It is a question of balance and listening to what's going on around you. “You have to learn to play a bit less [than the principal player], but not sound weak.” This is a challenge - to play softly, but with confidence - that is vitally important in playing any supporting line. “You have to develop a sound color that is complementary, but does not overbalance the principal. I believe in purely adjusting the sound by listening. A good player will develop a kind of sound from listening - hearing the sound first in your head, knowing what you are looking for, and then trying to create it. That’s my way of working.”

Stefán with Michael Parloff

Stefán with Michael Parloff

Stefán expresses profound gratitude for the experience of playing second to Trudy and Michael. “[From them], I learned the ins and outs of a lot of the operas - a lot of the tricks.” With a laugh, he describes a passage in the first act of Aida in which the flute must essentially repeat a fast passage over and over - more times than is actually written - until the tenor onstage arrives at the same point in the score, at which point things “always magically line up.” He describes learning “to play more lightly - to fit in their sound - when we had unison passages,” but more than anything, he says, he learned about professionalism. Michael and Trudy were “exemplary” both in their  musical preparation and their ability to personally relate to their colleagues.

“I want to carry on that tradition.”

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Stefán describes the process of preparing for the principal flute audition while simultaneously performing the grueling season at the Met as “a challenge. I was lucky enough to have had exposure [in the orchestra] to most of the repertoire on the audition, so I knew the excerpts very well - how they sounded, how they fit in, the general style - but regardless, I still had to prepare for the audition [with the same intensity as] any other audition.” His musical goals, however, had now shifted in accordance with the role for which he was auditioning. He describes striving for a “frugal” style in his second flute audition: never overbearing, clearly demonstrating that he was the sort of player who could be musically supportive. For the principal audition, though, he “really went for the maximum expression - not holding back, but still keeping in mind that the operatic style is always lyrical, always with vocal expression and a warm sound.”

When Stefán emerged victorious at the principal flute audition, he found himself suddenly moving in a very different direction musically. “I think my sound started to open up more - I started really having my own voice, and this is a creative process that’s still going on.”

While this process of constant growth is something that goes on for a lifetime, Stefán says that at a certain point, he felt he had “arrived.” He belonged in the principal chair. “I had been acting principal flute for about a year and a half before the audition - Michael was on medical leave and I was just sort of pushed into the chair. So [by the time I won the principal flute audition] I had already been making adjustments. I had the luxury of that year, overcoming a lot of things, learning a lot of things.” He elaborates: “Your part is suddenly much more entwined with what’s going on onstage. As a principal player, you and the singer and the conductor are in constant communication.”

Stefán says that the most important thing that carried over from one chair to the other was a “consistent quality of sound - a homogenous sound that blends well. As a principal player, it has to be expanded, but you still need the same basic quality in both positions.” He asserts this is a result of the acoustic qualities of the Met. “This orchestra has so much sonority - an extremely lush, big sound. The hall creates that, too. It’s a sound that isn’t created in a forced manner, but in a relaxed manner, so I’ve learned to emulate that sound in the same relaxed way. The hall just responds better if you don’t push or force. If the sound just floats out there, it ‘takes’ the sound much better.”

Ultimately, Stefán is a passionate musician with a passionate love for what he does. “[The unique thing about playing in an opera orchestra is] that we always play great music. We never play music that’s second-rate - it’s all first-class, especially in this house. The audience comes to be uplifted and nourished and transported by this music, which I just think is the greatest in the world.” As one who has been inspired by his playing since becoming a member of the MET Orchestra, I can verify that Stefán’s passion comes through, no matter which chair he occupies.