John Christian Krell, born April 2, 1914, was one of six children of Adolph Jacob Krell and Flossie V. Howell Krell. Adolph was one of the foremost flutists in Saginaw, Michigan, playing with the Saginaw Civic Symphony, the Germania Symphony, and the Orpheus Trio. He taught his son the flute beginning at age 10, and John picked up the piccolo on his own at the same time.
A member of the Saginaw High Band, John Krell was selected in 1928 to represent his high school as a flutist in the National High School Orchestra, held in the Music Supervisors National Conference in Chicago. He studied at Interlochen National Music Camp during the summer of 1930 and graduated from Saginaw High School in 1933.
Krell received a bachelor of music degree from the University of Michigan in 1937. While there, he was first chair flute in the University of Michigan Little Symphony and vice-president of his class. He studied flute with William Kincaid at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1938 to 1941, near what Krell claimed to be Kincaid’s peak teaching years: the mid-1930s. While a student with Kincaid, Krell substituted with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
During summer 1941, Krell was slated to tour 54 U.S. cities, Canada, and Mexico as piccoloist for Leopold Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra. The principal flutist, Albert Tipton, was called out for a summer tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra, so Stokowski gave the position of principal flutist to Krell. The orchestra recorded many albums for Columbia Masterworks by the end of the season. The advent of WWII ended the ensemble’s tour and Krell’s studies at Curtis. In fall 1941, Krell entered the Army and played flute and piccolo in the Fort Riley, Kansas, band, graduating from Curtis in abstentia in 1942. After his discharge from the Army in 1946, he played second flute with the National Symphony Orchestra from 1947 to 1951.
In February 1952, Krell auditioned for William Kincaid for an available opening in the Philadelphia Orchestra and became that body’s piccoloist while its conductor, Eugene Ormandy, was out of town. Another Kincaid student, Donald Peck, replaced his vacated position with the National Symphony Orchestra. Krell reminisced that, at the start, “I sort of had two bosses; I had Ormandy and I had Kincaid, which meant that I had to satisfy two people, which at times was difficult.”
Krell said, “To a certain extent, men like Kincaid and (Marcel) Tabuteau controlled sometimes even the tempo of the orchestra because they had that much authority and they were that fine. Mr. Ormandy had that much respect for them… they pretty much dominated not only the character of sound but the demeanor of the orchestra.”
Krell held the piccolo position of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 29 years. “When it came to playing a concert, there was no letdown. There was always a kind of playing esprit de corps which carried us through, and everybody felt that.” They toured Europe (five times), South America, Russia, countries behind the Iron Curtain, Scandinavia, and, often, Japan, Korea, and China. His piccolo can be heard on the great many recordings produced by the orchestra from 1952 through 1981.
Previous Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was said to have built the sound of the orchestra, first returned as guest conductor in 1959 in a program including Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, followed by yearly appearances until 1967. These guest appearances were, for Krell, “great, great, adventures.” As Stokowski was interested in the different colors that Krell could produce on the piccolo, he would sometimes ask him to play his silver piccolo for even greater tonal variation.
He considered Mozart with Sir Thomas Beecham, Dvorak with István Kertész, and Carmina Burana with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos the orchestra’s most outstanding and memorable performances. His favorite performances with Eugene Ormandy conducting were the Strauss tone poems, the first and second Mahler Symphonies, and a few Berlioz recordings, including Symphonie Fantastique.
Each summer, John Krell played as principal flutist with the Peninsula Music Festival orchestra in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, since the festival’s inception in 1953, and continued for almost 20 years, performing new contemporary works twice a day. Krell said, “It was a rather frantic period but a very nice period.”
In 1954, Krell gave the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor its premiere American performance as a piccolo solo at the Peninsula Music Festival under the baton of conductor Thor Johnson, a concert that was repeated in 1972. In 1957, he recorded with this ensemble a concerto for flute, clarinet, and bassoon by John Lessard for CRI. This monaural recording can be heard on Spotify.
Krell gave another two solo performances of the Vivaldi Concerto at the Ann Arbor May Festival, Michigan, and at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, both with Thor Johnson conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In addition to receiving the NFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Krell is a recipient of the C. Hartman Kuhn Award, given by the Philadelphia Orchestra for outstanding service, and the University of Michigan’s Citation of Merit in 1981.
The notes from John Krell’s private studies with William Kincaid and his class experience with woodwind instructor Marcel Tabuteau, the principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the Curtis Institute were later made into a book entitled Kincaidiana: A flute player’s notebook. Originally published by Trio Associates, it is now available through the NFA in a revised and expanded edition. “Kincaidiana exists as both a tribute to his teachers and as a gift to succeeding generations,” noted John de Lancie, former solo oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and former director of the Curtis Institute of Music.
Krell’s publications include his 20th Century Orchestra Studies book, published by G. Schirmer, and his pamphlet, The Piccolo: An Artist’s Approach for Armstrong Flutes.
During his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Krell was the flute instructor at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Settlement School of Music, the New School of Music, Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Music Academy, and Temple University. His students have gone on to perform in symphony orchestras and in solo careers and to teach at music conservatories and universities.
John C. Krell died of a heart attack on January 10, 1999, at age 84. In accordance with his wishes, his remains were donated to medical science.