Instrumental music leaves your imagination to itself; the sounds are free to lope and form images without the tired sagas imposed by the refrains of grocery-store songs.
At a Feb. 3 concert at St. Matthias' Church, Asheville flutist and Pan Harmonia founder Kate Steinbeck encouraged this kind of personal free association as she introduced a set of music by Massachusetts-born composer Mabel Wheeler Daniels (1878-1971), aptly called “Three Observations” for three woodwinds.
Generally, content dictates form for the local chamber music group. For this concert, it was woodwinds. Steinbeck was joined by bassoonist Rosalind Buda and clarinetist Fred Lemmons, the first Asheville performance for the trio.
After Steinbeck explained a bit about Daniels and her rather humble place in American classical music, she invited the crowd of about 60 listeners to close their eyes and let the music provide a kind of soundtrack to “the movie” of their own imagination.
“We, as humans, have so many sounds in our ears now,” Steinbeck says. “This [music] isn't foreign, but it's something able to transport you. If people take a chance on having this experience, they will probably come away moved on some level.”
For Buda, the Feb. 3 performance illustrated Pan Harmonia's character. “It can be kind of an adventure — sometimes the offerings are limited for this kind of instrumentation,” she says. “We're trying to find things that are really of quality. We end up reading through a lot of different music and then picking out the ones that really seem to be the gems. And boy, we feel like we find them sometimes.”
Steinbeck co-founded what is now Pan Harmonia in 2000, as a concert series called Keowee Chamber Music, named after one of the “most important settlements of the Cherokee nation and the main village of the lower Cherokee,” which was “flooded in the 1960s to create Lake Keowee,” says the organization’s website. After more than a decade of concerts and events in the Carolinas, the core ensemble disbanded. Steinbeck established Pan Harmonia in 2011— Pan for “the flute-playing Greek god, and Harmonia for “the Greek goddess of symmetry and order.”
Pan Harmonia doubles (or triples) as a shifting ensemble, a concert series and a musical outreach program, including the Shining Light Project, which brings free live music to nursing homes, homeless shelters, prisons and other places. For Steinbeck, such performances are often highlights of the season. “We went to a vocational center for adults with disabilities — it was amazing,” she says. “We all thought that, in a way, they were more open-minded than the general public, as were the guys at Western Carolina Rescue Ministry.”
Pan Harmonia hosts diverse regular events such as the “Second Sunday at 5” series at The Altamont Theatre downtown. The March 10 concert features Steinbeck on flute accompanied by pianist Fabio Parrini from Greenville, S.C. That program includes Cesar Franck's Sonata in A Major, an arresting piece with a dulcet theme and four movements of embattled lyricism (as much as two instruments can produce). Originally scored for the violin, the flute transcription is slightly less tense, but just as poignant.
Parrini returns on April 14, with his 15-year-old daughter, Maria. The two perform Felix Mendelssohn's Trio No. 1 in D Minor with Steinbeck. On May 12, Buda joins local pianist Vance Reese for the popular Mother's Day concert. “The bassoon is just an amazing instrument,” Steinbeck says. “When you listen to it you get happy — it's a real surprise.”
Buda will also play her other instrument: bagpipe. “It definitely requires a similar amount of breath support,” Buda says. With the bassoon you control every nuance of air; the bagpipe is just one steady stream.”
Pan Harmonia, along with other groups such as pianist Daniel Weiser's AmiciMusic, is part of a convivial development in Asheville chamber music that seeks to recalibrate classical music performance, replacing formal and rigid presumptions with a more genial, integrative mode. “I think people feel inhibited about coming to classical concerts, because they think they have to behave a certain way,” Steinbeck says. “I don't feel that. From my perspective on the stage, I don't behave the way people think classical performers should. We try to have a good time. We work so hard to [prepare] for a concert; that's the easy part, and it's fun.”
Steinbeck admits that it takes more than a casual dress code and adventurous programming to dispel the stiff reputation that so-called “classical” music maintains. “I want to be positive — I love this community — but the huge challenge here is that people aren't very open-minded about listening,” she says.
Classical music's often aristocratic ticket prices don't help, which Steinbeck addresses. “We are really intent on affordability,” she says. “Our ticket prices which are low, and if someone is really interested and can't afford it, we'll let them in. We want people — we don't the art form to die out.”
Buda has a similar outlook. “I hope chamber music and classical music in general can continue to be vibrant, and that people my age (I'm in my mid-20s) will find interest in it and find value,” she says. “It's really accessible, but I don't think most people realize that.”
— Jaye Bartell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.