The English flautist, Stephen Preston, began flute playing in his teens when he bought a fife at a jumble sale and taught himself to play it. He took up the flute to plug a gap in Haberdashers Askes’ school orchestra. On leaving school he won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he studied with Geoffrey Gilbert.
Stephen Preston began his professional career began while studying the flute at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In the late 1960’s he began exploring contemporary music with an ensemble dedicated to the performance of new works by young composers, sponsored by the Arts Council. And he took his first steps in historical performance when he became the flautist in the Galliard Harpsichord Trio, alongside harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock and cellist, Anthony Pleeth. The Trio made its London debut in 1966.
The professional success and musical vitality of the Trio helped lay the foundation of Stephen Preston’s early career, which took a decisive turn after a chance encounter with an 18th century flute. This, and his proximity to the Carse Collection of Wind Instruments housed at the Horniman Museum in South London, led to Stephen teaching himself to play 18th and 19th century flutes (Baroque and classical flute, then generally known as the flauto traverso), using the method books together with a wide range other historical performance sources.
During the 1970’s, Stephen Preston was invited to become principal flute in all the leading period-instrument ensembles and orchestras in the UK as they were founded, including The English Concert, The Academy of Ancient Music and London Baroque to name but a few, with whom he gave many concert tours and made many recordings. During his prolific recording career, he has recorded most of the major baroque works for flute, including J.S. Bach’s complete flute sonatas with Trevor Pinnock, Orchestral Suite in B minor (BWV 1067) with The English Concert and Antonio Vivaldi’s Op.10 flute concertos with The Academy of Ancient Music. His chamber music partners have included: harpsichordists Arthur Haas, Blandine Verlet, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, Robert Woolley and John Toll, gambists Jordi Savall and Charles Medlam, flautists Nicholas McGegan and Lisa Beznosiuk, among many others.
More recently, Stephen Preston worked as an advisor on historical performance practices with one of America’s most eminent chamber ensembles, the New Century Saxophone Quartet on their highly praised recording of J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue (BWV 1080).
From 1981 to 2001, Stephen Preston put his flute playing career on hold in order to pursue his interest in historical dance, and worked as a choreographer, principally of historical dance in opera. He founded two dance companies, the first of which was devoted to 18th century dance, while the second reflected his deepening interest in the relationship between performance forms and the cultures from which they arise, exploring the relationship between contemporary and historical performance practices. When he returned to the Baroque flute, it was in a more experimental and improvisational vein that reflected his experiences with dance and music.
Stephen Preston’s performances are eclectic, varied, imaginative and adventurous. While engaged in exploring the boundaries of the potential and expressive sound-world of the baroque flute, he continues to be excited by the endlessly unfolding possibilities of historically informed performance. His repertoire ranges from purely Baroque to totally contemporary; from acoustic to electro-acoustic and to ecosonic improvisation; from music that inaugurated the 18th century solo flute repertoire – Michel de la Barre’s Pièces pour la Flûte Traversière avec la Basse-Continue of 1704 – to Edward Cowie’s The Soft Complaining Flute for flute and 6 sopranos (written for Preston and the BBC Singers in 2004) and other 20th/21st century pieces written for the Baroque flute. Plus arrangements and pilferings of pieces for Boehm flute and other instruments, such as Jacob ter Veldhuis’ The Garden of Love (originally for soprano saxophone and boom box). Preston’s engaging programmes offer from one to one and a half enjoyable and rewarding hours of music making for either baroque flute alone or accompanied by keyboard. In addition, as a delightfully informative lecture, Preston gives a performed/spoken presentation called The Bird Fancyer’s Delight: a brief history of birdsong in music sung from the song-post of a flute player. He now regularly performs in a Baroque-flute duo (with Amara Guitry), Nodneeya. They perform “haunting Native American melodies; virtuosic pieces from the 19th century; authentic period arrangements of well-loved works by Mozart; and unique improvisations based on the ‘duetting’ songs of birds”.
Stephen Preston lectures, teaches and coaches at some of Britain’s leading music academies, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as giving regular master-classes in the USA.
Stephen Preston now divides his time between research, teaching and performing. In 2005 he gained a PhD for performance based research into birdsong as a heuristic model for new techniques and forms of improvisation with the Baroque flute. From this work he has created a new musical language – ecosonics. An example of ecosonics can be heard in the The Soft Complaining Flute by composer Edward Cowie. In 2008 he was the youngest player to be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Flute Association of America.