By Tim Munro
In May 2021, Mark Sparks retires from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, after two decades as Principal Flutist. He was appointed Principal Flutist by the late Hans Vonk in 2000. I spoke with Mark about his St. Louis roots, his time with the orchestra, and his feelings on retirement.
Music wasn’t always front of mind for Mark Sparks. When his family moved to St. Louis, Mark was a sports-mad teenager. Turning him towards the flute took some creative thinking by his teacher, then–SLSO piccolo player Jan Gippo.
“Jan knew I was into sports,” Mark says, “and realized I liked a challenge.” Gippo set high musical bars for Mark to reach, a practice regimen, and performance goals. Then he introduced Mark to the glory of Powell Hall.
The first time Mark heard the SLSO, Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was on the bill. Mark remembers the sound of the orchestra. “It was gigantic…titanic.” To this day his pulse races when Mahler’s name is on a program.
After a stint in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, Mark left St. Louis for a musical adventure. Oberlin College was followed by orchestral jobs in Memphis, San Antonio, Venezuela, and Baltimore. Apart from family visits, St. Louis had waned from his life.
Then the phone rang. Initially, Mark was hesitant about moving to St. Louis. But the first time he sat in the SLSO flute section—with Beethoven’s “Eroica” swirling around him—something shifted. “‘This is a really good orchestra,’” Mark remembers thinking. “‘I guess I should reconsider…’”
I ask Mark for highlights from his SLSO tenure. He is silent for a moment, before he bursts out with, “Man! I mean, there have just been so many.”
Concerts at Carnegie Hall stand out. “The sound in that hall is incredible,” says Mark. “There is a remarkable sense of clarity and beauty in the hall. You never feel like you have to push your tone.”
He recalls one Carnegie performance with David Robertson. Rehearsal was limited—Robertson was a last-minute replacement—and since it was a flute-heavy program, he and Robertson spent a memorable hour on the phone, sharing thoughts and dreams together.
One particular soloist comes up in our conversation several times. “Mitsuko Uchida is my musical hero,” he says. “She is such a searching artist—always looking for more in the music she plays, and capable of so many layers of subtlety.”
Uchida’s curiosity taught Mark an important lesson. “It is easy to play the music well and feel like that’s the end of the road,” he says. “But the job of a musician is to go further and further into the piece. It’s an adventure.”
When Uchida played and conducted Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor with the SLSO (an “unforgettable performance,” he says), Mark turned into a trembling, geeky fan. “I went up to her afterwards, with my music, and said, ‘Um, will you sign…will you please sign my flute part?’”
It is in Mozart’s piano concertos that Mark feels most at musical peace. “Mozart wasn’t crazy about the flute, but in the later piano concertos there is a marvelous sense of freedom—every flute passage is a miracle.”
Mark speaks with a certain laid-back quality, like a gentle breeze through trees. But when talk turns to the flute, his voice gathers a quiet intensity, evidence of fire that burns within.
“On every instrument there's a mystery to be discovered” he says. “On the flute, there's nothing between you and the flute. There is no medium to manipulate to affect how your voice is heard. It's just you and the air.”
The key, Mark says, is to know yourself, how your body works. “The flute sound is our heart and our voice. It is a quest,” he says, “dedicating your life to finding the truth of flute playing.”
Since turning sixty, Mark has taken a look at his life and career. The pandemic in particular has forced him to ask bigger questions. “Gradually, a sense of tranquility, the thought of a satisfying career well-spent, and new paths and opportunities have become clear,” he says. “What would it be like to live without a flute in my hands all day? What would it be like not to always be practicing for the next rehearsal?”
He wants to travel with his wife, wants to devote more time to a passion for cycling. Music will remain important in his life, primarily through his teaching work. “I'm still obsessed with music, still obsessed with the flute. It's like my arm—I can't just put it down or separate from it.”
Mark is channeling his love of music, desire to advance the art form of flute playing, and respect for his fellow musicians into a series of method books. These books develop tone and phrasing through melodies played by every section of the orchestra. “I’ve learned so much from hearing my colleagues play beautiful solos. Listening and imitating is truly the best way to learn.”
There is sadness in retiring from the SLSO. “It is difficult, realizing that you have come to the end of something important.” But he knows the SLSO is in strong artistic hands. “I was overjoyed when [Music Director] Stéphane Denève came to St. Louis. I feel very close to him as a musician.”
Mark will miss his fellow SLSO musicians. He points to his own instrument. “I have the dream flute section,” he says, “one of the best in the country. I waited my whole career to play in a section like ours.”
Mark is quiet for a second, thinking. “A musical life is more than a career—it’s a sort of mission.” He says that he feels lucky. “It has been such an incredible gift—so much more than I could have imagined.”
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.