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Flutist Kate Steinbeck Brings Rocker's Spirit To Chamber Music And Pan Harmonia

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Kate Steinbeck’s eyes light up when she talks about the music that inspired her to play the flute.

“I’m raised on rock ‘n’ roll. You remember Heart? I saw them at the Asheville Civic Center in 1979. I loved Ann Wilson, she was playing on a black flute,” Steinbeck recalled “I mean, I played along with records. I love Traffic. I love Stevie Winwood. Marshall Tucker had a lot of flute.”

The market for rock ‘n’ roll flutists hasn’t been hot since, say, the 1980s. But Steinbeck has brought a rock ‘n’ roll defiance to her musical pursuits, steering away from the orchestral career path to blaze a trail in chamber music.

Steinbeck co-founded the chamber music presenter Pan Harmonia, which is celebrating its 20th season.

For its upcoming program, Pan Hamornia is partnering with three North Carolina women poets in a new piece called “Rubble Becomes Art,” about the connection of healing, reconciliation and transformation. Performances are Nov. 8 at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain and Nov. 10 at Biltmore United Methodist Church in Asheville.

“I work so much to keep it up to have work,” she said. “But, also, I’ve developed an infrastructure that’s really solid and viable, and this is a career.”

Every fall to spring, Pan Harmonia presents monthly programs at churches, art galleries and less obvious spaces—one concert was at a Cadillac dealership. Most are in Asheville, some in Greenville, S.C. and Blue Ridge Public Radio is among the concert sponsors. For Steinbeck, Pan Harmonia serves the same purposes it did 20 years ago, shortly after she moved to Asheville with her partner, the flutemaker Chris Abell.

“I looked around, went to some concerts and I was pretty underwhelmed by what I saw,” Steinbeck said. “I had no work when I got here and I was like, well, I’m thinking about having a summer festival, because I thought if I could have my friends from elsewhere come once a year, I think I could handle living here artistically.”

Steinbeck grew up in Waynesville and studied flute for a year in Winston-Salem, at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

“I was uninvited back because I smoked weed,” she recalled.

She went to conservatory in Cleveland and later in London on a Fulbright fellowship. She learned French and German and, in Germany, produced concerts for the first time. From the beginning, orchestral music held little sway with her.

“I don’t think of chamber music just as classical. For me, a jazz trio is chamber music, a bluegrass quartet is chamber music,” she said. “Also, I’m pretty ornery and extremely independent. I’m very obstinate in that way, so I think chamber music really suits me because I get to self-determine.”

Abell and Steinbeck were living in San Francisco before moving, at Abell’s urging, to Asheville. Abell turns wood from this region into flutes that sell for well into five figures to musicians all over the world. Steinbeck has played her black Abell flute for more than 20 years. But by her 30s, she had already performed in major centers for chamber music, and she fretted about returning to a region not known for its chamber music scene.

“I couldn’t rebel, really, even though that’s so much my nature, because It’s very consuming to have young children,” she said. “They’re the most important thing I’ve ever done and I wanted them to be with their father. So, my challenge was keeping my playing up.”

Steinbeck soon met other independent professionals in the Asheville music scene. She and the cellist Elizabeth Austin co-founded the first iteration of Pan Harmonia, then named Keowee, after the area’s first inhabitants. Their summer festival brought in guest musicians from both coasts, occasionally commissioned new work and created an elementary school residency. In 2012, the rebranded Pan Harmonia expanded to monthly programs.

“I really want everything to be collaborative, but I guess people are used to someone being in charge, so I’m kinda the ringleader,” Steinbeck said. “It comes down to the music, man, because it’s really not about our egos. Music is a sacred thing, so yeah, you need to come to rehearsals with your notes learned, so that we can dig deep because we’re serving this greater-than-us thing.

Steinbeck estimates performing with 100 different musicians through 300 concerts over the past 20 years, but she sees a turning point and a slowing down ahead, at least for herself if not Pan Harmonia.

“It’s been 20 years of achieve, achieve, achieve, raise a kid, raise a kid, so I’m kind of exhaling right now and just ruminating,” she said. “I want there to just be space for creative dreaming.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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