My flute is Japanese, I think my flute is Japanese, I really think so...

Since my last few posts have been clarinet-centric, and I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about flutes (which isn't really all that new or unusual), I thought I'd do some talking about a topic that seems to generate some mild disagreement in the flute world, or at the very least is the source of a bit of division among flute players, and that is...Japanese flutes vs. American flutes. 

Much is written and heard about the glorious Haynes sound, or the unrivaled mechanics of the Brannen Brothers' offerings, or the rich history of Verne Q. Powell. Let us also not ignore Lillian Burkart and Kanichi Nagahara, also churning out much-beloved magical flutey-tubes from their Boston workshops. (It should be noted that Nagahara, while certainly of Japanese origin, lives and makes his flutes in Boston, and as such is considered an American maker.)

But, this isn't about them...

On the other side of the globe, we have the big Japanese heavy-hitters of the last few decades, Muramatsu, Miyazawa, Altus, Yamaha, and Sankyo, flutes we've all heard of and most of us have played at least one or two of them. Proponents of the American flutemakers often decry the Japanese flutes (as if you could lump them all together and assign characteristics to the whole lot!) as being one-dimensional in sound, too limited in dynamic range, colorless, devoid of personality...to them, I say “pfffffffft”. The Japanese flutemakers, both the globally renowned (Muramatsu, Sankyo, Miyazawa, Yamaha) and the secret local gems (such as Akiyama, Aihara, and Mateki, which is distributed globally, but for some reason the Mateki flute has never achieved the widespread popularity they deserve), are turning out instruments of impeccable fit and finish, ever more nuanced and colorful headjoint cuts, and they are utterly unafraid to be innovative and try new things.

I would love to write this from a completely balanced and unbiased perspective, but it should be noted that I have always been a great lover of Japanese flutes, and for the majority of my adult life, and certainly the portion of which has been financially supported by my flute playing, I have primarily been a Sankyo player, and I have a bit of a fanatic love of the company and their flutes. However, this does not preclude me from finding many other makers' instruments to be delightful and worth playing on...in fact, I have over the years owned a good number of flutes by other makers, and loved them all in their own way, but I find myself always drawn back to the magic flutes of glorious Nippon! :)


MURAMATSU

When discussing Japanese flutes, one should begin with the internationally recognized king of them all, Muramatsu. Most people are aware that Muramatsu was the great James Galway's flute of choice for many years, but it is also worth noting that Muramatsu is consistently the best-selling professional flute globally. Many prominent flutists around the world, both soloists and orchestral players, play on a Muramatsu. They began making flutes in 1923 (which may surprise many people), and continue to make incredible flutes, from the basic EX model, with a silver-plated nickel silver body and solid sterling head, up through their 24K gold model. (It should be noted that Muramatsu is one of only 4 flute makers on Earth to make flutes in 24K gold, and all of them are...Japanese. Hmm.)

One of the things I love about Muramatsu flutes is the incredible consistency from model to model, flute to flute. If you lined up one of every model they make (EX, GX, DS, SR, PTP, 9K, 14K, 18K, 24K, platinum) and played them back to back, you should find that from one flute to the next, there is very little difference in what you experience as a player in terms of resistance, evenness, intonation, and ease of color production. This is, I believe, due in large part to the fact that unlike many other flutemakers, Muramatsu does not offer a wide variety of headjoint cuts; there is the standard and the Tsubasa, which is Mura's take on the winged headjoint. That's it. They've figured out a headjoint that allows just about any player of any style to find their own “sweet spot” and, regardless of how much air you use, how strong your stream is, or the angle you prefer to play, you will get just about anything you want out of a Muramatsu.



There is also a distinct styling to their keycups that, to the keen eye, renders a Muramatsu flute almost instantly recognizable. The cup itself appears somewhat diminutive, and there is a beautiful simplicity about the design of the radius leading to the point at the center that just screams “That's a Muramatsu!”. There aren't many flutemakers this can be said of, save perhaps also Sankyo, which has a similarly unique key styling. Muramatsu flutes are simply one of the most elegantly designed flutes in existence.

Something else to think about when you're considering your new flute choice is that all Muramatsu flutes are handmade, even the least expensive silver-plated model. So, no matter what your budget is or at what stage of flute playing you find yourself, you can be assured you're getting a handmade instrument of full professional quality, even if you can't afford a $15,000-$70,000 instrument. (And, if you happen to find yourself desperately wanting a solid gold flute but don't have a solid gold budget, Muramatsu is one of the only flutemakers in the world that can give you a gold instrument for under 20K...the 9K gold flute comes fully loaded with C# trill and D# roller as standard features in the US market, and it is less than $19,000. That's a pretty fantastic bargain!)

One of the most interesting things about the Muramatsu lineup, IMO, is that they are the only flutemaker on the planet that includes, as a standard part of their model catalogue, a fully platinum-bonded instrument, INCLUDING the keys and mechanism. It's a DS model (all sterling silver, drawn toneholes) that is then very thickly electro-bonded with platinum from top to bottom. You really have to play this instrument to truly understand just how magical it is...It really does approach the power and color of a solid platinum instrument, but with a voice of its own that's really quite unusual and totally intoxicating. There used to also be a gold-bonded model, but for some reason or other, it's been discontinued, which makes me super-duper ultrasad. :-(

And finally, of course, Muramatsu makes the ne plus ultra of alto flutes...well worth a try for any serious professional flutist who requires an alto in their career.

While we're in this part of the alphabet, let's talk about...

MIYAZAWA

Another long-established member of the Japanese Flute Family, Miyazawa flutes have long been favorites of younger flutists seeking to push boundaries or somehow distinguish themselves from the pack; much of this seems to be because Miyazawa themselves have never been afraid to be different. (I'm still in mourning for the Modern Style key cups! They were absolutely beautiful.) Miyazawa has also been a big proponent of material experimentation...over the years, they have developed and made flutes out of such materials as PCM (a proprietary alloy containing copper, silver, palladium, and other precious and semi-precious metals), rose silver (a beautiful pink silver alloy which I wish they still made, but suffered some tarnish/discoloration problems, I believe. Perhaps a reformulation is in order?), and the Miyazawa GS alloy, which contains 10.5% gold and 89.5% silver, a truly magical blend that fits in the low-karat gold category along with the Lafin/Brannen 15/85 and Hammig's 15% gold alloys. There really is just something for everyone!

Miyazawa is the second member of the ultra-elite 4-member club of flutemakers that offer a 24K gold instrument. It is also, sadly, the only one of the 4 whose 24K gold flute I have not had the pleasure of playing. (Maybe that could change? hint hint hint :) )

24K gold Miyazawa w/14K mechanism!

Since I played my very first Miyazawa flute in 1996, I would conservatively estimate that I have played somewhere around 200 of them over the intervening 18 years, so I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp on the marque, and I have to say they have continued to improve tremendously over the years. My distinct recollection of the brand from back then was that, when you got a good one, it was a VERY good one, but much like with Buffet clarinets, it behooved you to try a number of them. Today, however, it seems that no matter how many you play, you are just about guaranteed to get a Miyazawa that plays smoothly and beautifully with little effort or compensation for intonation and resistance on certain notes. In fact, one of my favorite flutes I've encountered in the past few years was a Miyazawa...followers of my blog and Youtube channel may recall the “Magic Miyazawa”, a 14K Miya body with a 14K Faulisi headjoint that was being sold by the inimitable Joan Sparks of Flute Pro Shop. I got to play this flute on three separate occasions, and it was absolutely breathtaking. Now, yes, I know that it didn't have a Miya headjoint, and that is where the bulk of the playing experience comes from, but the scale of the body was a perfect match to the Faulisi head, and the Brogger mekanik of the 14K body was an effortless joy to play. It remains one of the most beautiful flutes I've ever encountered, and I hope whoever finally bought it (I HATE YOU FOR HAVING THE MONEY TO SNAP IT UP, WHOEVER YOU ARE) realizes how truly special it is and cherishes it! :-)

The magic of their gold flutes aside, Miyazawa is a fabulous choice for the advanced student/collegiate flutist, in that much like the other major Japanese makers, even their silver plated entry model is handmade and paired with a sterling silver headjoint, so you don't have to break the bank to get a beautiful flute that will easily take you through to your post-grad work, and even into your first orchestral job.

For those who want something a bit more sonically complex than standard sterling, but either don't like gold or don't have the budget for it, Miyazawa also offers a higher-purity .958 Britannia silver alloy on the 602, Elite, and Vision models.

One thing to be aware of when choosing Miyazawa is that they offer a wide array of headjoint styles, so it may take you some time to find the one that is the best fit for your style of playing, your airstream, and your preferred angle of attack. If you're an inexperienced player, or perhaps don't have the chance to try all the headjoints, the MZ-7 and MZ-10 (for the gold players) I find to be good all-around headjoints that would work well for 90% of flutists.

Miyazawa also makes a spectacular platinum flute...if you have the budget, it is very much worth considering!

Their alto flutes are also very, very, very good, and in the case of the PCM model, absolutely exceptional. (Miyazawa no longer makes PCM concert flutes, but it has proven an ideal material for the particular resonance of the alto). While I don't believe they're available in America, when I was in Japan last year, I discovered that Miyazawa also makes VERY good piccolos!

A final note about Miyazawa (and this is neither good nor bad, just information) is that the pricing of their gold flutes is quite a bit more than comparable flutes from other makers, owing to the fact that all Miyazawa gold flutes feature soldered toneholes as standard. For example, the 9K gold Miyazawa flute is $25,000, which is more than $6,000 over the price of the 9K Muramatsu and the 10K Sankyo (which is just a hair more expensive than the 9K Muramatsu, still coming in at under 19,000 via FluteWorld), both of which are available with drawn toneholes. Just something to think about :-)


I wanted to save the best for last, but I'm too impatient...it's time to wax rhapsodic about:


SANKYO!!

So, here we are. This is probably going to sound a bit like an ad for Sankyo, and...well, it sort of is. After all, the mission statement of this blog is to spread the word about instrument makers that are outside the mainstream in the US, and if that doesn't describe Sankyo, I dunno what does! I never claimed I'd do it without bias, though. :-P

Quite a number of years ago, I had an encounter with a very famous international flute soloist and pedagogue (who, I should disclaim, is a very lovely person and has been delightful in subsequent meetings) and said flutist, who happens to be a Brannen player, asked me what flute I played on. At the time, I was playing a beautiful 14K Sankyo that I had recently purchased and was madly in love with (selling that flute is one of the greatest regrets of my life), and said as much. Aforementioned Flutist responded with a slightly derisive chuckle and said “Oh, my...I didn't realize people still played those. How cute.” This anecdote seems to me to encapsulate the general attitude toward Sankyo flutes in the United States until quite recently, and I've never been able to understand why. After all, not only are they wildly popular in Asia and continental Europe, but the great flutist and pedagogical father to many of the world's top players today, Alain Marion, played an 18K gold Sankyo! I can't seem to unravel the mystery of why Muramatsu caught on like a house afire and Sankyo was regarded largely as a curiosity, but it's certainly a disservice to Sankyo, because they make flutes every bit as wonderful as Muramatsu. I can only imagine it's because Muramatsu happened to land in the hands of a couple of prominent American flutists such as Ervin Monroe and Murray Panitz, who loved them and championed them, and Sankyo was not so fortunate.

That, however, is changing. A recent change in the distributorship model and a re-evaluation of their pricing scheme to bring them more in line with the other major American and Asian handmade flutes has gone a long way towards making the flute-playing public take Sankyo seriously as a contender in the upper echelons of flute making. It also doesn't hurt that the new principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the dashingly handsome Julien Beaudiment, is a Sankyo player. If that isn't street cred, I don't know what is! :-)

What is it about Sankyo flutes that I find so special? It's hard to put into words...there is just such a harmonious matching of the sound that I hear in my head, the sound I'm constantly striving to produce, and the sounds that I am able to get from a Sankyo flute. My fundamental sound concept is a very strong, solid, stentorian sort of sound that is capable of a great deal of volume, particularly in the low range, but also possesses a very dark primary color that stays dark as you ascend into the third octave, but with the flexibility to change colors as the music requires. This is never as easy for me on any flute as it is on a Sankyo, particularly with any of the RT headjoint cuts. (My personal preference is for the RT-3, which is the head style I've played on for the past 9 years).

As I also mentioned with Muramatsu earlier, there is a remarkable consistency with Sankyo flutes, not just between individual flutes of the same model (ie, 14K to 14K), but also throughout the entire range. Like the other major Japanese makers, Sankyo's least expensive flute is a handmade model with a sterling silver headjoint and a silver-plated nickel-silver body (the 201), and in a blind listening test, you would be hard-pressed to differentiate between that flute and the $125,000+ solid 24K gold one. The craftsmen at Sankyo take enormous pride in their instruments, and lavish just as much attention on the lower models as they do on the gold flutes.

Speaking of gold, it seems that gold flutes have become what Sankyo is most closely associated with in the minds of those who love them...nearly every major player around the world who plays a Sankyo plays a gold one (or a wooden one, which I'll get to in a bit). Over the years, Sankyo has produced flutes in a wide variety of gold alloys, one of the most popular of which was their now-discontinued 5K gold, which was then plated in a double layer of 18K rose gold. I can only surmise that Sankyo discontinued that flute because it was so affordable and fantastic that it bit into the sales figures of the higher-karat gold models. (I have also heard over the years that there may have been some occasional issues with the integrity of the gold plating over the 5K body, but those reports have been few and far between. I do wonder, though, what the 5K gold would have looked like on its own without the rich 18K red gold over it. Perhaps just a hint of a pale blush champagne against the stark white gleam of the sterling mechanism? I guess we'll never know!)

They also had a lovely 9K gold flute for quite some time that is also discontinued...the low-karat niche in the lineup has been filled by their beautiful rosy-pink 10K gold alloy, which is only available in the -2 configuration (10K-2), meaning that the only thing that is solid gold is the actual body tube itself (and the entirety of the headjoint), all ribs, posts, keys, and rings are silver. It's quite a beautiful instrument, but I can't help but wonder how gorgeous an all-10K Sankyo would be! :)

Above the 10K, we have a 14K, 18K, and yes, 24K. (Sankyo is #3 in the 24K Gold Club!). The 14K and 18K are available in -3, -4, and -5 configurations, each number denoting additional gold as you go higher. (A 14K-3, for example, will have a gold body and rings with silver ribs, posts and keys; -4 adds gold posts and ribs with silver keys, and -5 means the entire thing is solid gold.) The 24K, a very special flute indeed, has a base configuration of 24K (14K)-4, meaning the only thing that will be silver if you choose is the keys themselves. All parts that attach to the tube (ribs and posts) are 14K gold. If you desire gold keys, you can have them made in 14K or 18K. Gold plating of the silver keys is also, of course, an option.








Glitzy, eh? If you want to know how much of a hit your bank account would take for one of those beauties, the German Sankyo website has a current 2014 pricelist available on their website (Sankyo Gold Flute Prices 2014 ) and you can have a look...you should probably be sitting down first, though. Don't say I didn't warn you!

While Sankyo certainly makes exquisite gold flutes, we shouldn't ignore their magnificent silver instruments, either. Sankyo was an early pioneer in the usage of higher-purity silver alloys (“Sterling silver”, for those who may not know this, is only 92.5% actual silver, the remaining 7.5% of the alloy is traditionally copper). Sankyo offers flutes in .950 silver (95% pure silver) and .997 silver, which is 99.7% pure silver, and has an absolutely remarkable sound. Playing the Sankyo Pure Silver model (officially called the 901) is an experience that I think every flutist should have. It's nearly impossible to describe, and equally impossible to forget. There is something of the platinum color in the sound, but there's also the shimmer of silver and a bit of the burnish of gold....it's really just something else!




Another wonderful thing Sankyo does is to create a special instrument every year to add to the lineup. This year we got the fabulous B-footed bass flute: 










last year brought us the LOW A FOOT (yes, seriously) concert flute:









and prior to that there was a special gold-engraved model (the keys, lip, and crown are engraved and within the engravings is a beautiful shimmering gold fill):





and before that, the “Crystal Light”, which is a .950 silver body with special thinned keywork for added resonance, an engraved G# key, 10K gold rings, and a Swarovski crystal in the headjoint:





 I have played several of both of the Crystal Lights and the gold-engraved flutes, and they're just magical. The gold engraving is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on a flute. Dare to be different!

BUT WAIT, there's more! :)

Sankyo also makes one of the absolute finest modern wood Boehm flutes on the market today. Available in grenadilla or cocuswood (though I believe the cocus has been recently discontinued, there are still stocks available at certain dealers around the world), the Sankyo wood flute distinguishes itself among the other wooden flutes available by dint of the fact that it is one of the ONLY ones you can buy with a C# trill key. (A feature I consider indispensable). I've played about a dozen wood Sankyos, and I would happily have taken any one of them and played it for the rest of my life. I am about 90% certain at this point that my next major flute purchase is going to be a wooden Sankyo.



In addition to the concert flute lines, Sankyo also makes a stunning alto flute in several different configurations of silver, from a silver lip plate on a plated head/body to an entirely sterling instrument and a silver piccolo with soldered toneholes that plays like a flute.  

Sankyo also produces a flute d'amore in A which beautifully fills the gap between the alto flute and the concert C flute. There is a great deal of repertoire for this instrument, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries, and it's lovely to have a modern flute upon which to play it all!

You may never have heard of Sankyo flutes, or you may have only heard of them peripherally, but I encourage all of you to consider them when you're looking for your next flute. At the very least, whenever you have a chance to try one, do so. You just might be taken by surprise :-)


ALTUS

Another beautiful Japanese flute that has reached great heights of popularity in the States over the last decade or so is this gem from the picturesque mountainside town of Azumino, Japan. It would be impossible to talk about Altus without mentioning the great British flutist William Bennett, who combined forces with Japanese flutist and engineer Shuichi “Speedy” Tanaka in the late 1970s to see what they could do about recreating their beloved Louis Lot flutes for the modern era. A little mathematics, some artistic inspiration, and a few prototypes, and in 1981, the Altus flute was officially born, featuring the Altus-Bennett scale.

This fascination with the old French flutes has led Altus to a great deal of experimentation with the metallurgy behind flutemaking, in an effort to replicate the sound of the time-hardened silver and maillechort tubes of the Lots and Bonnevilles with modern alloying techniques. This experimentation has resulted in several proprietary alloys, including the extremely popular PS (Powdered Silver), a tube formed of 99.7% pure silver and trace elements of other metals in fine powdered form that is then compressed under great pressure into a tube. There's also the AL (Altus Limited) alloy, formed of 94.6% silver and 18 other metals, including gold and platinum, that very closely approximates the properties of the age-hardened silver found in the prized old French flutes. Finally, we also have Britannia silver, which is a traditional 95.8% silver alloy long used in coin making in England.

In addition to these innovative new materials, there is of course also the option of traditional sterling silver and 14K gold. (I believe they will also make flutes in 9K and 18K on special order, and of course there's also platinum if you have very deep pockets and are willing to wait a while). Another unique feature of the Altus flute is that above a certain model level, the option of a thick layer of 18K rose gold or platinum plating is available on all models, which is a fabulous way to further customize your instrument and your sound. (Though I believe the plating is now available on the body only, whereas in the past, you could also get the mechanism plated.)

One of the things I've always found fascinating about the Altus flute is the complexity of the sound that seems built into every flute they make, even the humble 807, which, in a step further into affordability, has just a sterling silver lip plate and riser, with the remainder of the flute being silver-plated nickel silver. (And, like our other Japanese friends, it's handmade!) There really is something of the complex Louis Lot sound present in Altus flutes, and more than just about any other flute maker out there, there is a richness of color available in the Altus sound that makes them a very compelling instrument to consider. The “Artist” models (807, 907, 1107) are particularly popular with woodwind doublers and commercial/jazz musicians because of their great economic value without sacrificing that refined handmade sound and flexibility.

(I should disclose that I have owned 2 Altus flutes, an all-18K-gold plated 1307 and a platinum-plated 1407, and both of them were amazing instruments that I wish I still had! The Telemann Fantasie #12 recording on my Youtube channel was made with the gold-plated Altus)

Altus also makes a killer alto and bass flute, and like Sankyo, offers a flute d'amore, but UNLIKE the Sankyo, which is in the key of A, the Altus can be had in either Bb or A. No piccolo (yet), though!

Worth noting...several of the world's greatest current orchestral principal flutists play Altus flutes, such as Emily Beynon of the Royal Concertgebouw, Denis Bouriakov of the Metropolitan Opera, and Gareth Davies of the London Symphony Orchestra. (All of whom play on either the PS or AL material, coincidentally!) If you've been hesitant to consider Altus, perhaps that little piece of trivia will convince you to take the plunge :-)




Playing a solid platinum Altus in Tokyo: 





YAMAHA

Well, well, well...I couldn't very well avoid talking about El Grande Papa of them all, Yamaha. It's been very easy to dismiss Yamaha as not a terribly serious option in high-end flutes because, hey, they also make motorcycles and pianos, and who wants to play a flute made by a motorcycle brand, right?

Wrong. They're freaking awesome.

One of the major benefits of being a ginormous global conglomerate is that there is a HUGE budget for research and development, so they have unlimited resources to explore the advancement of flutemaking, and given the experiences that I've had with Yamaha flutes in the past year, I'd say they are doing a bang up job. With the input of some of the world's leading flutists, they have developed new models and new headjoint cuts that are absolutely on par with anything that Muramatsu, Sankyo, Haynes, or Brannen for that matter have to offer.

While I was in Japan for two months last year with the international tour of “Dreamgirls”, I got to spend a considerable amount of time at both Yamano Music and the Yamaha Showroom, both in Ginza (just a few blocks from each other!). Between the two, I would say I played somewhere around 25 different Yamaha flutes of the newest generation, and I would be terribly hard-pressed to have picked just one of them as a favorite. (Ok, fine, it was the 14K gold Ideal model with the type A headjoint...) From the silver Merveille model to the all-gold Ideal and the delicately beautiful Bijou, I was consistently blown away by how refined Yamaha's flutes have gotten. They have always been very popular in the student and intermediate categories, but perhaps not so much in the upper end. I distinctly feel that that is all about to change with the newest generation of Yamaha professional flutes...even the “standard” pro models (the 500/600/700/800 series) have been revamped with new body designs and headjoint styles that put them on par with anything else I've ever discussed on this blog. The type A headjoint in particular is just mind-blowing to me...it is VERY reminiscent of my beloved Sankyo RT-type headjoints, and that is a very, very good thing. The M (Merveille), K (Khaner) and HC (Bijou), A, and Am (American version of the Type A) headjoints are all equally fabulous and have very distinct personalities that provide something for every type of player, whether you're a big-sound-American-guy kind of player, or you prefer the beautiful delicate French school of playing. They've even created a German-style flute with an entirely new headjoint style, and features a traditional German setup of closed holes, C#/D# footjoint rollers, and a G/A trill key (which features two small trill keys on the back of the instrument, instead of one large one like the C# trill)






Yamaha is not playing around, kids. They mean business.

AH, and I haven't even talked about their wood flute yet! It is the most affordable of the handmade wood Boehm flutes on the market right now, and it is a wonderful, wonderful instrument. It's quite barebones in terms of options (you can get a split E, probably some footjoint rollers, and I've seen them with gold plated mechanisms, but no C# or G/A trill keys), but MAN do they play beautifully! Huge bottom register and a gorgeous, colorful high register.

I think we're all pretty familiar with Yamaha as a brand, but you may not be aware that they've stepped up their game and are making Serious Flutes now...try one and let me know what you think! :)






PEARL

Ah, Pearl flutes...one of my favorite recommendations to students, doubling friends, and amateurs on a budget is the Pearl 665/765 series of flutes, and for those with a bit more scratch, the Coda versions. They are sturdily built instruments that are well in tune and sound beautiful, and most people have heard of them. However, how many people know they also made fabulous handmade flutes? From the .970 Pristine Silver Maesta to the all-18K gold Opera model, Pearl turns out some extremely beautiful high-end flutes that are played by soloists and orchestral principals all over the world, particularly in Europe. Much like the other Japanese makers, Pearl offers a wide range of options to customize their instruments, from standard options like elaborate engravings, C# trill key, C#/D# rollers, and split E (also available in on/off clutch form), to things you just don't see on American flutes, such as gold plating of either the tube or the entire flute in yellow, rose, or champagne(!) gold and the G/A trill key system which is very popular in Japan and Germany. Pearl has also developed a lovely array of headjoint cuts to speak to a wide range of playing styles (my personal favorite is the Forza, on which you can peel the paint from the walls with a low B, but the Vivo and the Calore are also excellent, colorful choices!).

Mechanically, Pearl's greatest claim to fame is the one-piece core bar system, which mounts the entire mechanism on one long rod and eliminates many of the typical wear and tear issues one encounters with the flute. All Pearl flutes are also constructed with pinless mechanisms, which is a boon for any of us who have ever snagged a sweater or stabbed a finger on the tiny little evil buggers. Pointed key arms are also standard on every flute in the entire range, including the most basic student models, which I think is a lovely touch that not only lends an aesthetic uniformity to the entire line, but I think offers a psychological benefit to younger players. Having a beautiful flute that LOOKS like the five-figure handmade flutes would certainly have encouraged my 12 year old self to practice more. :) There's just something extra-inspiring about having an instrument that is as fun to look at as it is to play!

MATEKI

In Japanese, “Mateki” means “Magic Flute”, and having experienced quite a few of them over the past year, I would have to say they are very appropriately named.

In parallel with our most illustrious American flutemakers, Mateki flutes began as the independent venture of a flutemaker who had worked for many years for Muramatsu. S. Watanabe left Muramatsu along with his friend Shuichi “Speedy” Tanaka (remember him?). They formed a very short-lived flute company called “Takumi”, but they had very different ideas about how the company should be structured, so they parted ways (amicably, one hopes) and formed their own companies. Tanaka went on to create the Altus flute, and Watanabe started the Mateki company.

I've known of Mateki flutes for years, but the only ones that have traditionally popped up in the states have been the older lower-level models. The ones I'd encountered were lovely and played well enough, but I didn't think they were anything particularly special, and I had no idea that the company was as reknowned as they are in Japan. Like many of the other companies I've discussed so far, one of the distinguishing features of Mateki is the vast array of materials they use in flutemaking, and the innovation in experimentation of both material and design. They have, for example, developed an alloy called “G10”, which is 10% gold, 20% palladium, and the remainder is primarily silver with a few other trace elements added. This alloy was inspired by the Japanese tradition of adding gold to the bronze used to make temple bells, and when the tube is pinged with a fingernail, there is indeed a bell-like resonance. It's quite an experience to play, as well! In addition to this brilliant alloy, they also use several different grades of silver. You can order a Mateki in sterling (.925), .943, .990 (99% silver, 1% platinum), and .997 silver.

Bridging the gap between silver and gold is the G10 alloy, and from there we have 9K, 14K, 18K, 24K (there's member #4 of the 24K Club!), and platinum. All gold/platinum flutes are available with a choice of silver, gold (any karat up to and including the karat of the body; ie, you can get an 18K gold body with 9, 14, or 18K keywork), or gold-plated silver mechanism, and in the case of the platinum flute, you can also choose platinum-plated or a G10 mechanism.

The G10 Mateki! 


14K Mateki


I mean, how to choose, right??

In Tokyo last year, at the Yamano Flute Fair in Ginza, the current scion of the Watanabe family and head of Mateki flutes was there with a table FULL of flutes and headjoints, and this ended up being one of the places I spent the most time. I fell absolutely MADLY in love with two of the flutes in particular, both of which were heavy-walled .943 silver models, one of which was very heavily gold plated (I believe there were 3 separate plating processes applied), the other of which was heavily platinum plated over a base of gold. I cannot tell you how fabulous these flutes were. I was floored...the power and color in them was just mind-blowing, and there was a real elegance in the sound that remained even when I played like a brash American pig. I took them out into the then-empty recital hall along with a lovely young lady who was one of the artists presenting later that day, and we recorded each other playing both flutes back to back. You can see the results of that below. I recall that I preferred playing the platinum one (it was rather like what I'd imagine driving a sports car to feel like; just pure exhilaration and a sense of limitless power), but upon listening to the playback, I preferred the sound of the gold-plated one, regardless of which of us was playing it. Still, I would have been hard pressed to choose one if I'd actually had the money to make a purchase that day.







These flutes are incredibly well made with a great deal of attention to detail, it's a multi-generational family business, and thanks to Sherry Lee, there's now a US distributor! I would strongly encourage any of you who read this to get in touch with her and try out a Mateki flute. Check out her website at: http://www.lflutes.com/mateki_flute.html

I just can't say enough good things about them...it's the only other flute that I can see tempting me to switch from Sankyo forever, and that's saying something! :-) 

FMC (Flute Masters Co.)

A relative newcomer to the flute scene, FMC has been in existence just since 1992, but in that time, they have firmly cemented a niche for themselves as a top-notch maker of fine handcrafted flutes. FMC began when 3 former technicians who worked at Yamaha for many years branched off and initially were in business as the go-to repair shop for professional flute players around the world. After repairing a huge number of top-level flutes, they decided they could improve upon what they'd been seeing and perhaps avoid some of the common problems they were encountering, as well as devising a better scale, so they started to design and build their own flutes. 

Similarly to how companies like Nagahara (with the Standard and the Full Concert) and Pearl (with the Maesta and Opera lines) have structured their lineups, there are now 3 series of flutes being produced by FMC: The Standard, the Seamed Tube, and the Master Made. Perhaps unique in all the world of flutemaking, FMC's flutes ALL have soldered tone holes, even on the "Standard" series. The difference lies in material and available options. The Standard flutes are sterling silver with soldered toneholes, a standard 0.35 wall thickness (optional heavywall .40 is available), and only a split E and 10K gold lip/riser as available options. In Japan, the typical flute setup is a very basic one, with the vast majority of players opting for open hole, inline G, and a split E, and that's all. Closed holes and C foot are also quite common on professional flutes, but the majority do not opt for things like extra trills and rollers, so the Standard model fits the local mold quite well. 

The Master Made flutes are where the fun stuff happens...included in the Master Made box is the Seamed series, which is a .970 high-purity silver tube that is rolled and seamed much in the way that Louis Lots were, and the Altus 1807 is. There are also options for .970 standard tubes, .997 silver, 10K, 14K, and 18K gold in all possible configurations. 

I had the opportunity to get acquainted with a .970 seamed tube, a .997 silver, and a 14K gold FMC at Yamano, and they reminded me a lot of a nice Powell, actually, but with a bit of a Louis Lot character to them. Very sweet, yet capable of a lot of power. They would be fabulous orchestral flutes for a principal player from the power standpoint, but a 2nd player would also enjoy them because of the ease of changing tone colors and blending. 

They also make a piccolo that has done very well in the Japanese market, and plays with an unusually even and dark sound, though perhaps a tiny bit much resistance in the top for my liking. 

The design elements of the flute are quite lovely, with a redesigned thumb key and a beautiful scalloped crown, and the key cups themselves are quite elegant, with a very French-throwback feel to them. 


As I near the end of this post, I'd like to talk about a couple of makers that I discovered in Japan that absolutely blew my mind with not only the quality of their craftsmanship, but the uniqueness of their instruments. 

AKIYAMA

The first is the wonderfully sweet and gifted Yoshiteru Akiyama. Mr. Akiyama made it his mission to recreate the essence of the great Louis Lot flutes, using the techniques of the time, but applying a modern scale to his flutes. He has gone so far in this pursuit of that Old French Sound that he actually has obtained a large supply of solid silver flatware and other objects from the 19th century and uses those in his flutemaking! This man is actually building flutes using silver FROM Louis Lot's time! I mean, how amazing is that?! He of course also works in gold (14K and 18K), and his instruments. Are. Freaking. Exquisite. I don't know if I've ever played anything so majestic and alive...I swear you can FEEL his spirit and his craftsmanship in your hands when you play his flutes. There's just nothing like it out there. 

The man himself is a treasure, as well. He's so charming and committed to his work that you can't help but get excited about what he's doing! 

Enjoy these photos of his beautiful work...they don't do it justice, but it's all I have! 










AIHARA

Last but certainly not least, we have the Aihara flute company. These charming instruments are made entirely start to finish by one person, and goodness are they ever clever! Innovation is definitely the name of the game with this maker...he has come up with a new kind of split E, a new system of activating the low B key that eliminates the second roller next to the low C and instead places the low B finger touch to the right of the low C with a small roller that facilitates travel; a new kind of C#/G-A combination trill, and a C# trill that is activated via clutch mechanism on the D trill key. 

The REALLY noticeable stuff, though, is the experimentation that Aihara has done with headjoint making, specifically lipplate/riser/crown material. I played an array of about a dozen heads that had lips and crowns in three different types of coral, crystal, different varieties of wood, ivory, buffalo horn, different silver and gold alloys, composite and ceramic materials. What a range of colors! (both visually and sonically speaking...) I can't imagine having a full case of these at one's disposal. Now if I could just win that Powerball jackpot...












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