This weekend, October 29–31, we will perform Symphonie fantasique—classical music’s wildest ride! This thrilling performance also features Principal Flute Aralee Dorough in Sarasate’s virtuosic Carmen Fantasy. Although this piece was originally written for violin, Aralee shares how she will adapt it for the flute and provides additional Carmen insights!
Houston Symphony: Do you have a favorite theme from the opera Carmen that you’re excited to play in the Carmen Fantasy?
Aralee Dorough: I’ve loved the “habanera” ever since my mother introduced me to the opera. She loved the music and the Spanish wanderer setting of the story. The song is Carmen’s first entrance: "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle”. It’s so famous it's a cliché! I remember it in the Pixar movie, Up. An old man is riding up and down on his staircase lift and you hear this music. It’s so funny. Why does it work? Maybe because Carmen is singing about her indifference to falling in love, and the Pixar character is indifferent to life. Musically it’s great: the falling shape of the melody conveys lack of passion, but the bump of the habanera rhythm fights against that. By combining two simple elements, Bizet created a hit song.
HS: Carmen Fantasy was originally written for violin, what are some of the key technical differences with the flute transcription?
AD: First let me say, this will be the most unusual, and most “flutastic” Carmen ever. I’ve been preparing something that’s going to be quite different from anything done before.
Every flutist who plays the piece must make some changes to the solo part to make it playable. There are a few instances where the part goes to notes that are too low or too high and places where the violinist plays double stops, or 2-part harmony. It is trickier to solve the technical passages that exploit what can be done with the bow and crossing the strings. Sarasate wrote this way in places in the music that call for power and volume, but if played literally on the flute they will be extremely difficult to hear. Our low register is nice, but not for that kind of projection, especially if jumping back and forth from low to high. A flute composer uses the upper register and more lyrical playing for the powerful moments of our pieces. So, in that sense, the flute and violin are nearly opposite!
I started by listening to other flutists' performances to get ideas on how they solved those problems. After basic fixes they all stayed diligently close to the original—because we classical musicians are taught firmly to respect the composer’s wishes. But in this case, there are two composers: and it happens that Bizet wrote many of the melodies in this suite for flute. My first arranging decision was to change those passages back to be more faithful to the original Bizet.
After that, I turned to the problem of the Finale. It gets its punch from the relentless fiddling passages. I didn’t think it would have enough impact no matter what I did, on just a flute. That lead me to an audacious idea—I don’t want to give away the surprise but...I have friends in high places...
And once I crossed the line on authenticity with this secret weapon idea for the finale, I let my imagination run with some other parts of the work. I started writing entirely new material to suit my own playing—it bears no resemblance to Sarasate or Bizet, but after spending much of my down time during the pandemic working on composing and improvisation, it seemed natural to write my own part.
HS: You’ve been with the Houston Symphony for over 30 years, is there a performance or event you are most proud of?
AD: So many! I am especially proud of the work of the orchestra staff and musicians in presenting the 2020–2021 season, when many groups were not able to perform. Much of the repertoire were personal highlights for me: I played beloved chamber works like the Stravinsky Octet and the Ravel Introduction and Allegro and was a soloist in the Bach Orchestral Suite, which I had never performed before. And now here I am again about to perform this unusual Carmen Fantasy! The livestream concerts have added a very satisfying dimension for me. It feels good to be able to share concerts with people who can’t come to the hall, and with friends and family who live far away, who have known about my work for so many years but have never seen me perform!
Join us this weekend for Principal Flute Aralee Dorough’s “flutey” rendition of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy! Get in-person or livestream tickets.