“I thought the flute and the violin had the prettiest sounds, and I was going to play one of those,” remembers Seattle native Evan Pengra Sult. “My dad thought that the flute probably sounded better when it was played badly, so my parents said, ‘Let’s go with the flute.’”
While he loves the sound of strings and, for that matter, music written for full ensembles, Pengra Sult considers his parents’ decision to send him along a woodwind path a godsend.
“I think I would have made a terrible violinist,” he says. “I doubt very much whether I would have been any good.”
The flute proved perfect for the young musician, though, starting him on a path of achieving a high level of artistic merit since grade school. In high school, Pengra Sult decided he was interested in getting more serious about music. His parents signed him up for private lessons and there was no turning back.
“Late in high school I realized playing music was something I liked doing and didn’t want to stop doing,” he notes. “At that point, I was very interested in getting a university degree. I did also apply to a couple of conservatories, and eventually, I decided to go to Eastman.”
When it came time to start thinking about graduate school, Pengra Sult was firmly set on making flute performance his career and knew that he had to get the best instruction available to make it as a professional musician, especially, considering his instrument doesn’t traditionally fill out large sections in ensembles.
“It was just a question of looking around the country and saying, ‘Okay, who are the best teachers?’ That’s how I came to SFCM.”
During his two years as a master’s degree student at SFCM, Pengra Sult studied with Timothy Day, the San Francisco Symphony’s principal flute. Under Day, he honed his technique and refined his musicianship to that of a top-level performer. Just a couple of months ago, he won the principal flute position with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra and will return to his home in Seattle this summer to take on the role.
But getting there—or to someplace like there—was always on Pengra Sult’s mind. It was, of course, Day’s presence, and also SFCM’s unique place among conservatories that led him to San Francisco.
“People talk, people develop reputations, and I think Tim has one of the best in the business,” he notes. “Everybody always had great things to say about him as a player and as a teacher. My teacher at Eastman has sent a handful of students here to SFCM over the past several years and it sounds like they’ve all had a really good time.”
With the weight of his community’s approval behind him, Pengra Sult auditioned at the Conservatory and enrolled for the following fall.
Aside from his lessons with Day, upon beginning classes at SFCM, Pengra Sult began to explore a new curriculum and new atmosphere of learning.
“From undergrad to grad, there is the freedom—the schedule becomes so much more opened up,” he says. “You’re spending more time rehearsing or practicing or pursuing outside things.”
And it isn’t just performing that Pengra Sult was doing. He was a grad assistant for SFCM’s history department, attending lectures and teaching recitations for the undergrad survey courses.
“That was one of the things that was really special to me about my time here,” he remembers. “I feel like I’ve gotten the chance to develop some of those skills and revisit some of the history I may have gotten a little foggy on. That was one of the things that helped me find some structure during my time at SFCM.”
It even made him consider his own time as an undergraduate student.
“One of the things I’ve liked about getting to interact with the undergrads through the history assistantship has been to watch them and see them and to reflect about where I was just a few years ago when I was their age.”
But certainly performing is Pengra Sult’s main concern. He took a number of auditions during his time as a student in San Francisco, working with Day on excerpts and delving into the specifics of how to approach each one, even preparing mentally for it all.
Better still, with his joining the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, Pengra Sult gets to return home and spend time with his family as a working flutist after having been away for so long. And he will look back on his time at SFCM with a strong sense of pride at having been a member of Day’s studio and contributed to such a diverse student body.
“There is a certain eclecticism in a very positive way about the student body at SFCM,” he says. “People have a lot of different goals. When everybody is shooting for the same thing it can create a sort of unhealthy, competitive or claustrophobic atmosphere. I appreciate that everybody is doing their own thing side by side. It’s been interesting to see firsthand the varied approaches to classical music making.
“I’m on a traditional career path and that has always been my vision, but it’s nice to be reminded that there are other things and to be open to doing those things should they happen across my path.”