Lawrence Toppman

Headed to ‘Ghostbusters’ or Spielberg’s ‘BFG’? You’re about to hear this Charlotte native

Composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg (center) are flanked by the flute team that created themes for “The BFG:” Ben Smolen, Geri Rotella, Heather Clark and Jenni Olson.
Composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg (center) are flanked by the flute team that created themes for “The BFG:” Ben Smolen, Geri Rotella, Heather Clark and Jenni Olson. Mark Graham

When you need a toot from a ghostly flute

Who ya gonna call? Ben Smolen!

If the BFG wants to dance with glee

Who ya gonna call? Ben Smolen!

Smolen and three flute-playing compadres provided swirling melodies for John Williams’ music in the dream-gathering scene of “The BFG.” That’s also Smolen playing Theodore Shapiro’s giddy tunes in “Ghostbusters,” which opened nationally this weekend.

He contributed to John Ottman’s grandiose score for “X-Men: Apocalypse.” And if you’re just catching up with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on video, some of the flute solos on that Williams soundtrack come from the 31-year-old graduate of Myers Park High School.

Smolen’s musical life has been a case of “right place, right time,” from the day he picked up a flute at 10. He discovered his deep passion for playing when he went to Russia for a completely different reason, thinking he’d become a musicologist.

He got the first professional job for which he ever auditioned – though on the second time he tried out for it – with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Costa Mesa, Calif. And that gig put him in the right spot to become a go-to guy for film soundtracks.

A call out of the blue for the 2012 “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” led eventually to the apex of his movie career: the afternoon when Williams and director Steven Spielberg sat alone with a flute quartet, choosing an ethereal sound for the Big Friendly Giant.

A private session with greatness

“That was the most fun ever,” he recalls. “The musicians had a double Sunday session, 10 to 1 and 2 to 5. After the morning one, everybody packed up except the flute players. It was just us, Williams and Spielberg, who was shooting footage with his camera.

“Spielberg’s asking, ‘Can they try it staccato? Half-tempo?’ Williams is saying, ‘That sounds great! I should turn this into a piece just for flutes!’ He and Spielberg read each others’ minds and know exactly what the other wants, so it’s fun to see them together. Spielberg even picked up a clarinet and started playing a little of the ‘Jaws’ soundtrack.”

Remember, this is Smolen’s after-hours job: He’s still principal flutist for the Pacific Symphony, where he and the other three principal winds will play the world premiere of a concerto by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen in October.

Smolen performs in Duo Musagete, which has just cut its first album, with French guitarist Jerome Mouffe. He played on Neil Young’s 2014 album “Storytone.” He has formed the Tamino Duo with Seth Allyn Morris, principal flute with the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera orchestras.

And none of this was supposed to happen this way.

“Everyone in my family played piano,” he says. “So at 6, I started lessons. I preferred the oboe, and I started that in fifth grade. But I got braces, and it really hurt to play. So I transitioned to flute.”

Now he was at home. He played in the Charlotte Symphony’s Junior Youth Orchestra and Youth Orchestra. He loved it so much that his parents would punish him by putting the flute off-limits: “If I got grounded, they’d say, ‘No lessons!’ 

A sudden change in plans

He went to Princeton University for a degree in music history, because “It never occurred to me that performing would be a path to a paying job.” He went to Moscow to prepare material for his undergraduate thesis – yes, he speaks Russian – and picked up the flute again for conservatory lessons.

Suddenly he fell back in love. He went to New England Conservatory of Music to study with renowned flutist Paula Robison, took a master’s degree and got his job with Pacific Symphony at 26.

“Ben is a wonderful flutist, but he goes way beyond just the playing: He is highly intelligent, too,” says Robison. “Ben hears the music in the context of the larger world in which the composer worked. He plays from the head and the heart, so he is the ideal interpreter!

“He really cares about his colleagues. He thinks not only for his own benefit, but also for the benefit of those around him. And he is so funny, twirling stuff around so we see it in a different way and then laugh like crazy. Whenever you ask anyone about Ben, their faces light up. And they say ‘Ben!’ in a sunshiny way.”

Chasing different dreams

After five years with the Pacific Symphony, Smolen’s starting to branch out. The self-produced Duo Musagete album “From Bach to Beaser” includes Robert Beaser’s “Mountain Songs,” which Robison famously recorded with Eliot Fisk, and Smolen hopes to cut an album of American music. He’d also like to commission a flute sonata.

Hollywood, which has an ongoing relationship with the Pacific Symphony, will continue to call. (“Hunger Games” composer James Newton Howard sits on its board of directors.) When it does, Smolen will answer.

“There’s a maze at Shanghai Disney Resort based on ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and I got asked to record the flute solos in Danny Elfman’s music,” says Smolen. “A friend called to tell me, ‘I can hear your flute played all over the park, floating through the air.’ You can’t plan something like that.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Ben Smolen

Age: 31.

Instruments: Piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute. Like Sir James Galway and Hubert Laws, he plays flutes by Boston-based Wm. S. Haynes.

Hometown: Charlotte. Graduated from Myers Park High School in 2003.

Family: Father, Paul (pediatrician); mother, Wendy (former attorney); sister, Sarah (web designer in Chapel Hill). He has a Siamese cat, Wasabi.

Life partner: Seth Allyn Morris, principal flute with the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera orchestras. They also play together as the Tamino Duo.

In his down time, he’s: Running, woodworking, working with stained glass. He and his dad built a cabinet to hold orchestral parts and scores and, this summer, collaborated on a flute stand for his instruments.

But he has little down time during the season, because: “I play music almost all day, every day. If I’m not performing or recording, I am practicing four to five hours a day.”

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