Obituary: Alain Marion

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The Independent Culture
ALAIN MARION was one of the finest flute players of modern times. Both as a performer and as a respected teacher of his chosen instrument, he helped to ensure that the style and traditions of French flute playing - broadly speaking, the international style of today - will be heard and observed well beyond the dawn of a new millennium.

The "French School" of flute playing is characterised by an elegance of sound enlivened, where appropriate, by the use of an expressive vibrato. Its origins lie in the playing and teaching of Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert at the Conservatoire in Paris during the early part of this century. Their mantle was inherited by the great Marcel Moyse, whose playing and teaching influenced many of today's foremost flautists, including the virtuoso James Galway.

With the advent of recordings and radio broadcasts, the sound of the French style as executed on an instrument made of silver, or in some cases gold, came as a revelation to many players. This was particularly so in Britain where the wooden flute, and especially those manufactured by the London firm of Rudall Carte & Co, was still the professional's preferred (and often the only available) choice of instrument. Indeed, there were still some orchestral players in this country at that time playing on flutes which used the old "simple system" or the "1867" system of fingering and key mechanisms whereas, on the continent, the Boehm system had been adopted almost everywhere.

In the mid-1930s, Geoffrey Gilbert - Sir Thomas Beecham's flautist - was one of the first players from this country to "convert" to the French style of playing. (He had learnt that recording companies were refusing to record English players.) Many soon followed his example.

Alain Marion was born on Christmas Day 1938 in Marseilles. He studied the flute at the Conservatoire there under Joseph Rampal, father of the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and gained a prestigious premier prix du flute while he was still only 14 years old. Marion later studied with Rampal fils at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1961, he announced his presence to the musical world when he carried off a prize at the Concours International de Geneve.

Three years later he was appointed first flute in the chamber orchestra of the broadcasting company ORTF, and after another three years, to the Orchestre de Paris. He became flute solo of the Orchestre National de France in 1972.

Although Marion could have settled for a career as an orchestral player, his virtuosity and musical energies always drove him to seek fresh challenges and in 1977 he joined L'Ensemble InterContemporain, the modern music ensemble directed by Pierre Boulez at Ircam (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris. In collaboration with Boulez, Marion interpreted and performed countless pages of new music to the very high standards both men shared.

But Marion was equally at home in all styles of music and played all of the vast repertoire written for the flute: on one of his many CD recordings he performs concertos from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the composers Francois Devienne, Wilhelm Bernhard Molique and Jacques Ibert - this last work being one of the most difficult concertos written specifically for the flute. He professed a special admiration for the music of the great baroque flautist-composers and drew inspiration from their works. Also, he recently demonstrated his enthusiasm for the music of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu on a CD of his chamber works issued by Analekta. This recording was an editor's choice of Gramophone magazine in September of last year.

Not only was Marion a professor at the Paris Conservatoire but, since 1969, he had taught every summer at the Academie Internationale d'Ete in Nice, taking over as director of this institution in 1986. He enlisted the services of the finest international soloists and teachers on the courses, including Henryk Szeryng, Jessye Norman and Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Hundreds of students came from all over the world to attend the classes at the Nice Conservatoire, including many from the United States, which he had visited as a guest teacher in San Francisco. His own masterclasses were always crowded with young musicians and the competition to take the stage with Marion was often fierce. Those whose determination propelled them on to the platform were subjected to a thorough and sometimes ruthless probing of their technical and musical weaknesses.

Unlike some teachers on the international circuit who can only give one without the other, Marion, having identified their problems, would suggest and dispense the means whereby these difficulties might be overcome. And at the end of every student's time under the spotlight, especially for those whose talents had yet to flower, there were always words of encouragement - and usually a Gallic grin.

Very often the difficulties were due to deficiencies in technique and he would emphasise again and again the importance of adopting a rigorous daily regime of scales and technical exercises - and sticking to it no matter how one felt. He advised students, "In your practice, there is no such thing as a bad day. To anyone else it will sound just the same." He regarded all problems as solvable through exercise and on one occasion revealed to his class, "Playing the flute is easy. If it was difficult - I wouldn't do it."

Fashions change in musical instruments just as they do in haute couture and even some French flautists are again taking up the wooden flute, once considered only suitable for players of baroque music - and the English. While many players still favour the old silver instruments hand-made by Louis Lot - the Stradivari of the flute - Marion preferred a modern 14K gold instrument made by the Japanese flute manufacturers Sankyo. A gold flute is not simply a status symbol: many players find such instruments more suited to their style of playing. Certainly the extraordinary sounds Marion conjured from his flute, sadly now only to be heard on his many recordings, are proof of this.

Alain Marion embodied joie de vivre, not only in his music but also in his everyday life, especially with his family. Apart from the terrible loss to his family and close friends, his absence will be felt by the many students who were fortunate to have benefited from his teaching. They should remember another of his sayings: "I know the greatest teacher in the whole world. C'est vous-meme."

Alain Marion, flautist: born Marseilles, France 25 December 1938; married (one daughter); died Seoul, South Korea 16 August 1998.