Stanford’s trailblazing flutist, Frances Blaisdell, dies at 97
Flutist Frances Blaisdell braved the male-dominated orchestral world to score a number of firsts—among them, the first woman wind player admitted to what would become the Juilliard School of Music and the first woman to perform as soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
Blaisdell, who was a lecturer in the Department of Music at Stanford for 35 years, continued teaching until a few weeks before she died on March 11 in Portola Valley. She was 97.
A memorial service is planned for 4 p.m., May 31, at the Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley.
"Every woman flute player in every major American orchestra, every little girl who plays the flute in a school band, has Frances Blaisdell to thank. She was first," according to a 1992 article in Chamber Music magazine.
Blaisdell was almost born to the flute: Her father, who owned a lumber business, was a self-taught flutist. He was so disappointed she was not a boy that he called her "Jim." He wrote to New York Philharmonic flutist Ernest Wagner, asking if he would teach the instrument to "my Jim." Wagner balked when he saw Jim was a girl—but relented after her audition.
A similar misunderstanding had her scheduled for an audition at Juilliard as "Francis Blaisdell" (rather than the feminine "Frances") with the preeminent French flutist, Georges Barrère.
On realizing the gender error, an administrator tried to block her appointment. Blaisdell, almost in tears, argued her way into Barrère's studio.
Barrère was impressed with the New Jersey farmgirl's audition, although she could barely understand him when he instructed her, "You go to zee office, and you tell zem I want you, and, if nécéssaire, you have full scholarship. Comprenez-vous?"
Although she was known as a protégée of Barrère, Blaisdell also studied with master flutists Marcel Moyse and William Kincaid. In 1941, after Barrère had a stroke, he named her to succeed him on the Barrère Trio.
She made a solo debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1932, and was principal flutist for the National Orchestra Association under Leon Barzin.
She also performed in the Phil Spitalny Girls' Orchestra, the General Electric Radio Show on NBC, and the Radio City Music Hall, wearing a gold lamé dress for five shows a day. She formed the Blaisdell Woodwind Quintet and the Blaisdell Trio of New York. She was a soloist with Metropolitan Opera principal soprano Lily Pons.
She married Alexander Williams, principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic and a solo clarinetist with Toscanini, in 1937. Williams died in 2003.
Retiring in 1973 and moving to California, Blaisdell took a temporary job at Stanford in 1973 that turned into a 35-year stint, influencing generations of students. She founded the Stanford Flute Ensemble in 1996.
"She was teaching until 97—in the last year, from her wheelchair, and mostly blind. She could still play her flute and it was not unusual for her to listen to a student a play, comment on what needed to be fixed, and then demonstrate the correct technique from memory," said Mario Champagne, administrative director for the Music Department.
Blaisdell received a Lloyd Dinkelspiel Award in 2006. In addition to praising her "extraordinary teaching, mentorship and support," the award cited her "for teaching that music is not just playing notes on a page but the expression of the best that is within us; and for playing a pure tone that will resonate with Stanford students for years to come."
She is survived by her daughter, Alexandra Hawley, also a flutist and lecturer at Stanford's Music Department, a son, John Williams of San Francisco, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A scholarship fund in her name has been established to help pay for flute lessons for Stanford students. Contributions may be made for the Frances Blaisdell Flute Scholarship Fund, Department of Music, Stanford, CA 94305.