Restless lullabies

“We’re not stuffy classical,” insists flutist Kate Steinbeck.

And her point is well taken: Classical music, for all its sexy prodigies like Lara St. John, still invokes images of grimacing, black-clad men and women prodding somber tones from such inexplicable instruments as the oboe or bassoon.

Steinbeck and her group, the Keowee Chamber Music Festival, may work as hard at disputing people’s classical-music preconceptions as they do practicing their instruments.

“I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll,” Steinbeck reveals. And though she decided to become a professional classical musician (even studying classical music in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship), she still looks at her group’s arrangements through the eyes of a popular-music fan.

“Take the Dirty Dozen Brass Band,” she offers. “You want to go hear them because they’re from New Orleans — they’re rowdy and energetic, right? Well, we actually achieve rowdy, high-level playing.”

Then there are those rabble-rousers Bach and Vivaldi.

“I think of the energy of [their] music as being a lot like reggae,” Steinbeck goes on. “I look at this stuff and try to put it into a 20th-century context.”

Of course, she also adds modern compositions to the mix, making sure to educate audiences about the works of female composers.

“I think it’s important to play the work of people who are alive, and to support women,” she declares. “We’re biased that way, since most of us [in the group] are women.”

The Festival, a series of regional concerts, came about after Steinbeck relocated here from San Francisco six years ago, deciding to settle down and raise a family with her husband, wooden-flute craftsman Chris Abell.

“He’s from this area, and wanted to move back,” Steinbeck explains. “But I was feeling like a fish out of water, because the classical scene here is smaller than what I’m used to.”

Which is, of course, a nice way of saying that there isn’t much of a local scene at all. However, a teaching job at Clemson University in upstate South Carolina put Steinbeck in contact with like-minded musicians, and soon the Keowee Music Festival came to fruition, named after a Clemson-area lake.

Keowee’s musicians are professionals with degrees from prestigious schools, and associations with important orchestras:

Cellist Elizabeth Austin played with a trio in Spoleto, Italy, and Judy Bevins attended Eastman School of Music and Harvard before studying harpsichord at the New England Conservatory. Violinist Linda Plaut is a specialist in women composers and has performed at the Ringve Museum of Music History in Norway, while pianist Dewitt Tipton (the founder and director of Asheville Symphony Chorus) can boast long-time local connections. Violinist Leslie Warlick attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and earned her doctorate in music from Florida State University, and Lisa Zweben also started her education as a violinist — before receiving a doctorate of music arts in viola performance from the University of Miami.

Such a complex wealth of backgrounds makes for an unusually well-rounded repertoire — Keowee players cover everything from Bach (early 1700s) to the contemporary masters. The focus is chamber music, traditionally performed in small groups (12 players or less) instead of by a symphony.

The term itself refers to concerts played in a room — often the home of a wealthy landowner, in past days — rather than in a theater.

“The rich association made it elite,” Steinbeck explains. But that was then.

“I don’t play music that I don’t find lyrical and beautiful,” the flutist asserts. And, for that matter, audiences aren’t expected to sit still.

“We’re not all stiff and proper,” she adds.

The group’s repertoire includes “Craftsbury Trio” by contemporary lesbian composer Gwyneth Walker, plus “Trio, Opus 11,” from Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

Among Keowee’s upcoming concerts is one scheduled at Pretty Place — “an open-air chapel with a curving vista” at YMCA Camp Greenville, past Brevard, explains Steinbeck.

“It’s magical,” she adds. “We want to take this music into places where people wouldn’t normally listen to it.”

Accordingly, Steinbeck and her group will open their season with a noon show in downtown Asheville.

“I think that if you went to the concert on your lunch break and then went back to your office, you’d be pretty energized,” Steinbeck says.

The free performance will feature Bach’s “Partita #2 in B minor,” a piece for solo violin.

“It rocks,” declares Steinbeck.

The group’s cellist and violinist will follow that with “Lullaby and Grotesque” by Rebecca Clark.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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