Flute players are generally stereotyped as high-strung hypercompetitors who wouldn’t waste time on anything that doesn’t edge them closer to first-chair status.
So it’s strange to hear flutist Elizabeth Baptista-Gaston tread dangerously close to spiritual mumbo-jumbo territory in telling her story of reawakened passion.
She even seems somewhat anxious that her musings will come across as hokey.
“My playing is about putting breath out there and allowing people to respond in a way that’s meaningful to them,” says Baptista-Gaston, summing up a 30-minute phone soliloquy.
“I just hope that makes sense,” she sighs.
Baptista-Gaston’s story not only made sense to Keowee Chamber Music founder Kate Steinbeck: It so touched her that she invited the San Francisco-based artist to join her group for its annual festival here in June.
“Her perspective is really a wonderful one,” says Steinbeck.
Baptista-Gaston’s purist approach to music, which involves seeking meaning rather than fame, resonated with Steinbeck. Also a flutist, Steinbeck abandoned the cutthroat classical-music scene when she moved to Asheville 10 years ago. Forced to create her own outlet for her art, she founded the Keowee group and launched the Keowee Chamber Music Festival. While both endeavors have been successful, with the ensemble earning a standing ovation at LEAF earlier this month and the festival now entering its seventh year, Steinbeck says friendship and feelings play a greater role in her work today than when she was a freelancer jockeying for jobs in the Bay Area.
As a young flutist, Baptista-Gaston also bypassed the emotional end of playing. Having studied at Mills College and at the Strasbourg Conservatory, where she was tutored by such luminaries as Jean-Pierre Rampal, she was most interested in landing an orchestral position that would pay the bills. But she found herself consistently making it to the final rounds of auditions—and no further. In desperation, she accepted a temporary job at a Hyatt Hotel in Winston-Salem, which she parlayed into a 20-year unmusical career.
“I used all the skills I had learned in music—the perseverance, the passion—and put it into business,” says Baptista-Gaston.
Work and family kept Baptista-Gaston from her flute: “Even when I was home with two little babies, it was impossible to play because they’d crawl on my lap,” she says. But an unexpected diagnosis of breast cancer in 2002 fundamentally altered her physical and emotional relationship to her instrument.
“Before this, I couldn’t even say ‘cancer,’” Baptista-Gaston says. “I belonged to a ladies’ gym, and whenever there was a gal with a handkerchief on her head, I was the one who turned away.”
Baptista-Gaston endured a round of chemotherapy, with each treatment growing progressively more unbearable. After the final treatment, she slept for 16 hours.
“I woke up and all I wanted to do was play the flute,” she says. “I had an insatiable desire to play again. It’s like I was picked up and thrown down on a different path.”
Baptista-Gaston had sold her flute to buy her house, so she began shopping for a replacement. She first heard the flute she wanted when a friend loaned her a Steinbeck CD. Steinbeck was playing a wooden flute crafted by her husband, Chris Abell.
“It was a sound I had never heard,” she explains. “Back when I was playing, there were no wooden flutes. Everyone in the middle of the 20th century played gold flutes and silver flutes.”
Baptista-Gaston took out a second mortgage on her house and added her name to the waiting list for Abell’s coveted $15,000-plus flutes. When her flute finally arrived, she found herself immersed in a very different flute world than the one she had left in the 1980s. New music was no longer dissonant, and her once-influential teachers had all died.
She’d changed, too, embracing the bright side in remarkable ways: Her mastectomy, she says, simplified her playing position. And—also a good thing—her youthful competitiveness had waned.
“I didn’t have the emotional baggage I did as a young player. It was all about the music. Now my inspiration is healing others. I play in dementia wards, I play in schools, I’ll go down to the coffee shop and play. It’s all about touching someone’s spirit.”
The Keowee Chamber Music Festival includes six concerts over two weeks in various venues in Asheville, Waynesville and Greenville, S.C.—Monday, June 11 through Sunday, June 24. Admission varies. For the complete schedule, visit www.keoweechambermusic.org or call 254-7123.