Yeoman Interview – Charli Ashton

Musicians’ Company yeoman Charli Ashton is a multi-award winning freelance orchestral flautist and Principal Flute of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. A founding member of the prize-winning wind ensemble, Notus Winds, Charli has given recitals in venues including Bristol’s Colston Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and St. James’ Church, Piccadilly. Last year, Charli also performed Boulez’s Memoriale with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival.

True or false: ‘the flute is my first love’?

Hmmm… depends on the day! I remember when I was first given a flute – it was for my eighth birthday – and I didn’t know how to make a sound. I wasn’t due to have a lesson for a few weeks, but I was so desperate to get started, I just used to walk around the house with the body of the flute, leaving the headjoint in the box, singing down the instrument pretending it was like a recorder! Fast forward a few years, and we recently played Mahler 10 at the BBC Proms – that will be a performance I’ll never forget. The atmosphere in the hall was incredible, the music was overwhelmingly beautiful (and tricky), and I adored playing the gorgeous flute solo at the start of the last movement. One thing that compares to the euphoria after a performance like that, I think, is skiing, which I also really love – so maybe I’ll go and live in a ski resort and commute to Glasgow!

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

So many people! All my teachers have been absolutely amazing and have pushed me in lots of different aspects of flute playing and musicianship. However, as with probably 99% of flautists in the world, it would have to be James Galway, as he inspired me to want to become a flute player in the first place. When I had just started learning the flute, I was given a James Galway disc – for weeks that was all I listened to, and I used to sit in front of my CD player for hours, work out the tunes by ear and play along to them. Having said that, it wasn’t just James Galway I used to do that with – there’s an old video of me, age nine, dancing along and playing the flute to Atomic Kitten’s “The Tide is High”. I think my parents have that one saved up for the future!

What’s the best advice anyone’s given you?

There has been so much…  I don’t remember who said this to me, but I was once told to play the phrases as you would sing them. Mostly, this happens naturally, but if I’m struggling to work out how something should go, I always sing it, which will often provide a fresher perspective, to help find my interpretation. The other piece of advice was to always have a story going on in your head whilst you’re performing. I think an audience can always tell if a performer is engaged with the music, so having a clear idea of what a piece says to you (even if it’s not the “official” story) is a crucial part of an audience feeling anything from the performance.

What is your favourite flute piece?

This changes all the time, but at the moment, I think it would have to be Bartok’s “Suite Paysanne Hongroise”. I learnt it last year for a recital and fell in love with it, particularly the more tender, poignant moments. It journeys from being incredibly dramatic to sublimely simple and is such an adventure to perform. However, my most recent “hair on end” goosebumps moment was actually at the Proms in the Park this year, when we played “Highland Cathedral” on Glasgow Green. A piper proceeded onto the stage to play the tune in the middle, and it was so beautiful – I couldn’t hold back the tears. I still listen to that quite a lot!

What was your biggest break?

This is a difficult question, as I don’t know that there has been any single “big break” – I think rather there have been several lucky events that have led to this point. One major break was reaching the final of the Royal Overseas League at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and gaining all the support that comes along with being part of the ROSL family. This has undoubtedly helped my solo career, and has introduced me to some amazing musicians. In the orchestral world, I think getting a trial with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the second flute position a few years ago was invaluable in gaining auditions for later jobs. That trial was an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful, although I’ll never forget that feeling of sitting in a professional orchestra for the first time, about to play Elgar 1 with Ed Gardner conducting. Terrifying!

What’s the best bit about your career? And the worst?

That would have to be the amazing music that I get to play. Even just in the last few weeks, I’ve played so much repertoire, nearly all of it new to me, and I’m excited, looking at the schedule for the next few months, to see even more major works coming up. The other brilliant thing is the people I now work with – I’m fortunate to be part of a wonderfully supportive and inspiring woodwind section, full of people who have done everything to make me feel welcome, and it’s been a lovely few months starting to get to know all my new colleagues and friends in the orchestra. The worst bit is probably the Glasgow weather, the silver lining being that I get to buy more coats!

Tell us a little about Notus Winds

Notus formed when all five of us started at the Royal Academy back in 2011. We’d known each other in various capacities before we formed, but had never played as a group before.  Once we performed a few concerts, we realised that we had a good rapport, and we were fortunate that we had the support of the Royal Academy, who sent us to the Festival de Inverno Campos do Jordão in Brazil. There, we spent three weeks in the mountains near São Paulo playing chamber music, performing in orchestras and having individual lessons, as well as meeting lots of new people, dancing in the night, and sampling many different flavours of Caipirinha, the Brazilian national cocktail! I met so many amazing people in Brazil, and have extremely fond memories of that trip. Another highlight of our work as a group was our recital at the Wigmore Hall, which was a prize for winning the Royal Academy’s Patrons’ Award. I remember we started the concert in the dark, performing Birtwistle’s “Five Distances” from various locations around the hall. It was a huge challenge to learn that piece, let alone perform it so far apart! For me, chamber music is exactly what music is all about – working together with friends to make something beautiful – and I would love it to be a bigger part of my life.

What’s your favourite performance venue?

I have a lot of favourites actually. I love the acoustic of Wigmore Hall, and the sensation of the sound simply floating away. I also find the atmosphere during the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall very unique and exciting. In November, I’m off on tour with the BBC SSO to the Musikverein in Vienna, which I’m told is breathtaking, so I imagine that will be on my list very soon!

Performed anywhere unusual?

A couple of years ago, Notus was involved with the Two Moors Festival, and the founder, the inspiring and eternally ambitious Penny Adie MBE, managed to persuade us that it would be a fantastic idea to perform on a train between London and Tiverton Parkway, in order to promote the festival. I must admit that, at first, I was anxious about the public’s reaction, but within five minutes of starting to play, I felt at ease, and loved every second of it from then on, turbulence and all! A particular highlight was when our bassoonist, Jonathan Davies, finished a piece with a flourish and bounced the top of his bassoon, or “oboe” according to one Twitter follower that day, on the train ceiling and managed to split his reed in half!

What’s on your schedule right now? 

Lots of exciting projects with the BBC SSO, including our upcoming tour to Germany, Italy and Austria, several solo recitals over the coming months (details of which will be published on my website soon) and, quite excitingly, I’m recording Bernstein’s Halil for radio broadcast with the BBC SSO and John Wilson in March next year. Between all of that, I’m also hoping to get some skiing in somewhere!

You can find out more about Charli at charlotteashtonflute.com