Interview: James Donahue, Professional Flutist

I sit down with James Donahue, a professional flutist who will be performing my work, "Bright Wind." We talk shop on shakuhachi, Japanese composers, and his second career as a dog breeder.

Flutist James Donahue enjoys a diverse career as an orchestral musician, soloist, and teacher.  Since 2012 he has been principal flutist of the Evanston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Lawrence Eckerling.  James is also an active freelancer and regularly performs as a guest flutist with the Elgin, Rockford, and Elmhurst Symphony Orchestras and the Midwest Philharmonic.  Prior engagements include performances with the San Antonio and Waco Symphony Orchestras, and the Lyric Opera of Waco.   In addition to frequent solo recitals and concerto performances, he performs  in various chamber ensemble combinations with the Midwest Fine Arts Society.  

An enthusiastic advocate for new music, James has collaborated with a number of contemporary composers, including Helmut Lachenmann, Tamar Muskal, Lewis Nielsen, Warner Jepson, and Timothy McCormack.  In May of 2008 he gave the premier performances of McCormack’s Tumma Pilvi for solo bass flute and chamber ensemble and Hammara Pilvi for solo bass flute; both works were dedicated to him. 

 James maintains a strong interest in the ethnic flute traditions of the world and has given numerous lecture-recitals on the influence of the Japanese shakuhachi (an end-blown bamboo flute) on the contemporary flute compositions of Toru Takemitsu, Kazuo Fukishima, Toshio Hosokawa, Joji Yuasa, Shirish Korde, and Wil Offermans.  In 2007 he was a recipient of the Masuda Shuho International Shakuhachi Scholarship, which allowed him to study the traditional Buddhist repertoire with shakuhachi master Michael “Chikuzen” Gould. James is currently working on transcribing selected traditional works for shakuhachi into western notation for performance on the modern flute.  

Increasingly in demand as an adjudicator, he has served on the juries of competitions for the Society of American Musicians, the Chicago Flute Club, and the Texas Music Educators Association.

Currently residing in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, James is a faculty member of the Midwest Conservatory in Hoffman Estates, the Knight Music Academy in Lake Zurich, and also maintains a small private studio in his home. For the past several years he has served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Summer Flute Camp. From 2011-2017 he was on the board of directors for the Chicago Flute Club serving as the chairperson for the Donald Peck International Flute Competition and Kujala International Piccolo Competition. 

 James holds an Artist Diploma from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he was a student of the famed French flutist and pedagogue, Michel Debost.  Prior to his graduate studies at Oberlin, James received his bachelor of music degree from the Baylor University School of Music, as a student of Helen Ann Shanley. He has also studied with Tal Perkes, Dr. Rita Linard, and Kathleen Chastain. 

As an enthusiast of the modern wooden flute, James most often performs on Powell #12876, a handmade grenadilla wood flute with 14 karat gold keys.  He also owns Powell #6500, a handmade 14 karat gold flute made in 1983 for one of his mentors, Florence Nelson, of the New York City Opera orchestra.  

Shawn Head