Legends: After A Lifelong Reputation As A Master Flute, James Pellerite is Still Climbing.
Words by Tom Alvarez Adapted from NOTE Magazine
Up until a year ago, Pellerite lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he taught flute at Indiana University. He retired from the faculty in 1987. Having lived for a time in New Mexico a quarter century ago with his wife of 63 years, Helen Mae, who passed away in 2013, Pellerite longed to return.
Pellerite’s renewal follows a storied career as a master of the modern flute. After studying flute at the Juilliard School, he played in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra followed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Eventually, Pellerite served as principal flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he succeeded his famed teacher, William Kincaid. Pellerite performed under a list of celebrated conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski and Igor Stravinsky, with whom he recorded the composer’s famed Octet. In 2016, he was the recipient of the National Flute Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor the organization bestows.
Add to Pellerite’s achievements his mastery of the Native American flute, a passion ignited in 1993, when he attended an Independence Day event at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. “I was entranced with not only New Mexico, but by the beauty of the instrument of tradition,” Pellerite says. “It had an almost spiritual quality and an expression that was haunting. “The instrument has a natural sound that is magic.”
Thus began a career in 1995 with his newly chosen instrument. Since then, besides playing the Native flute, he has commissioned and published 85 scores, featuring a mix of works for solo flute, chamber music, and with orchestra. His published scores are housed at the William and Gayle Cook Music Library, which serves the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His lecture recitals include excerpts from symphonies, ballets, films and even music from The Great American Songbook.
“The Native American flute provided the inspiration for me to continue on in a more creative manner and branch out as a musician, and not just a flute player,” says Pellerite. As an orchestra soloist, he has recorded compositions with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Pellerite’s performances are recorded on CDs by Azica Records and Centaur Records, and others have been released by Albany Records, including Embrace the Wind and Mystic Voices Soaring. Although he recently recorded his eleventh CD, Pellerite embraces newer formats for sharing his work. “Nobody buys CDs anymore,” he says. “Everybody goes online, so I post performances on YouTube. You have to follow what’s being pushed, so you swing with the times.”
Pellerite says he still performs live, but not as often as he would like. “I’ve slowed down, but I practice daily and believe the breathing is excellent physical therapy,” he says. “Also, I’d like to retain my flute technique, if at all possible.”
Neither classical music audiences nor Native Americans have pushed back against Pellerite’s varied repertoire. “They don’t give me the time of day,” says Pellerite, referring to Native American flutists. “They have no interest in what I am doing because I play contemporary music on the Native Flute.” Some of his students can’t quite accept that he no longer plays the modern flute, although they seem to appreciate the fact that his intense dedication been transferred to a new instrument.
And what is a typical day like for the father of two adult children and two grandchildren? “I follow the stock market and the news, and of course, I do my own investing,” says the former stockbroker. “I practice every day, enjoy the fine Mexican restaurants in this area and sightsee.”
Pellerite is still working on his bucket list, though he says it is now yellowed and frayed at the edges. “I had hoped to bring the American Indian flute to the university classroom,” says the vibrant nonagenarian. “It has not happened yet, but I have not given up. I want to be remembered for being totally dedicated as a performer and teacher, always eager to give 110 percent. I am equally proud to have embraced diversity with music of all types.”