We asked internationally acclaimed flutist, composer and conductor Robert Aitken about the challenges and rewards of a career spanning six decades.
World-renowned flutist, composer and conductor Robert Aitken has been artistic director of New Music Concerts, Toronto's senior contemporary music organization, since its inception in 1971. His many accolades include the Order of Canada, the National Flute Association's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
You were the first composition student admitted to the Electronic Music Studio of the University of Toronto. How did this influence your composition work?
It taught me to listen – which affected how I composed, how I performed, and in fact my overall appreciation of music. We were in fact two students and were presented the task of cataloguing tape loops, which hung all about the room that served as the electronic music studio on Huron Street. First, we had to decide how to organize them and then determine into which classification they would fit. Coming up with recognizable categories was very taxing and taught us a great deal about sound and how to organize it.
In addition to your career as a flutist and a composer, you balanced various roles as a director and 16 years as a professor in Germany. What did you find the most challenging and rewarding?
Speaking practically, it was the challenge of remembering so many names in such a variety of activities. I never felt that I was gifted at learning languages, although I managed to mutter my way around several of them. During my last year as the artistic director of the winter program at the Banff Centre, I was faced with knowing the names of the administrators, 50 students from around the world, of course all my Canadian friends (including New Music Concerts), and the huge collection of acquaintances that accompanied my new position as flute professor as the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. As I generally crossed the Atlantic once a month with occasional master classes in Japan, New Zealand, and other countries, I found it a challenge to recall everyone, but as I do like people, I enjoyed it.
You left the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as you felt there was no freedom or ability to play solos as part of an orchestra. How has that decision benefited your growth as a musician?
Leaving the Toronto Symphony may not have benefited my growth as a musician because I already was composing, playing chamber music and solo music, conducting, teaching and so on while I was there. But it may have saved my life because I was doing all these things as well as playing in the orchestra. I loved the Toronto Symphony, but the management would not give me the freedom to do anything else if it conflicted with the orchestra’s activities. There were several times that I flew to Montreal and back the same day in order to rehearse and play a concert there. I survived two years where I took over 100 flights – the final straw was when I played the Ibert concerto in Boise, Idaho in the morning, then flew back in time to play the second half of the Toronto Symphony concert that night. I looked at my music after that trip and it was bouncing around so much, I thought I was developing a brain tumour. That was why I left the orchestra.
You’ve said “in life, especially in music, you need luck.” What do you consider the luckiest part of your career?
In life as well as music, I do believe that without luck, you have little chance. However, you can help luck happen and you need to be prepared if it comes along. I was lucky to have a supportive family that tried to raise my sister and I as well-rounded human beings, which included an involvement with music. I was lucky to have an excellent teacher from ages 9 to 11, and then no flute teacher from 11 to 16. During that period I was fortunate to take lessons with a great violinist and cellist, and then in Toronto with Nicolas Fiore, principal flute of the Symphony. Then at the age of 19, the Vancouver Symphony suddenly needed a principal flute and perhaps I was prepared, but I was certainly fortunate and was given the position, which started my career in a very big way. That was my great luck.
How does it feel to be nominated for the Muriel Sherrin Award?
Since the establishment of this award, I was hoping I would be nominated. I knew Muriel Sherrin since the early days of the Shaw Festival, and in fact she was responsible for establishing our Music Today series at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I only continued as director for three years, but it was a fabulous time we enjoyed while there, and Muriel’s encouragement and generosity was essential for its success. She is certainly worthy of being remembered in this way.