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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 28, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Four on Flutes, Flying High

Eyewitnesses differ. After a time, memories of an event become indistinct, and conjecture pushes out observation. One day people may wonder exactly what went on at the launch of Volanti, the newly-formed flute quartet.

The ensemble debuts at Miller Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary this Saturday, May 1, with a program that dips into music from about two centuries ago, when metal flutes with keys supplanted wooden ones, and focuses on repertoire less than 80 years old. Free to the public, the concert is part of the Seminary’s concert series.

The Volanti flutists are Jill Crawford, Katherine McClure, Elizabeth Stewart, and Barbara Highton Williams. The four have previously performed together in concert. However, the May 1 performance is their first full-length program as an independent entity.

Colleagues at the Westminster Conservatory of Rider University, Crawford arrived in 1983; McClure followed in 1988; Williams, in 1998; and Stewart, in 2000. Interviewed by telephone from her Princeton home, Williams credits Stewart as the creator of their musical bond. "She had been dreaming of a flute ensemble," she says. "All four of us have similar tastes and interests. There’s more than enough repertoire for flute quartet to keep us busy for quite awhile."

If the ensemble’s name evokes the idea of flying and of broad scope, that is exactly what its members hope. They decided to call themselves Volanti after decisively rejecting the many possibilities that sounded pedestrian, pompous, or pedantic.

The as yet unnamed quartet of flutists attended the August, 2002, National Flute Association Convention in Washington, D.C., and shopped for music together at the convention. The May 1 program includes Jacques Casterede’s "Flutes en Vacances" ("Flutes on Vacation"), which was among their purchases. "That’s how we feel about all of this work," Williams says. "We each have our own individual flute lives. Then when we come together it’s like a vacation."

The four flutes of Volanti are "C" flutes, standard orchestral flutes. In other words, their range covers the three octaves immediately up from middle C on the piano; their notation calls for the same pitch that piano or violin notation summons. "Each of us plays a different make of flute," Williams says, accounting for the variety of sound in the ensemble.

The Volanti’s flutes are all made of silver. "Different metals have different sounds," Williams says. The metals commonly used are silver, gold, platinum, and titanium. Her instrument and McClure’s have gold risers. [The riser is the elevated segment connecting the flute’s tube to the place against which the player blows.] "We found that the gold gives added warmth to the tone." Williams says. "I’m not enthusiastic about an entirely gold flute because I think of the flute sound as silvery."

‘The choice of an instrument is personal," Williams says. "You consider the warmth, coolness, brightness, and mellowness of the instrument. There’s a lot of variety in individual instruments, even if they’re made by the same maker. If two different flutists play the same flute, the sound would be very different."

Williams thinks of her own body as an integral part of her instrument. "The body of the player is the soul of the flute," she says. "We all have different oral cavities. I think of myself as the instrument from a physical point of view. The flute is a minor part of that instrument. The whole body is engaged. Playing flute is like playing cello."

Williams was born in Gainesville, Florida, to an artist mother and a herpetologist father whose specialty is salamanders. He is a retired University of Maryland professor. They brought up their family in the Washington, D.C., area.

Refusing to tell her age or the year of her birth, Williams offers the most engaging explanation I have yet encountered. "Age doesn’t matter," she says. "My husband and I are so far apart in age that we would have never married if age mattered. I can’t tell how old people are. When I enjoy a person’s company I always think they’re the same age I am."

The eldest of four siblings, Williams grew up listening to recordings featuring the folk music of Joan Baez and the Clancy Brothers, among others, as well as recordings of classical music. As a young child she was not interested in music lessons. However, she was exposed to classical music as she sat in on the lessons of her siblings. She heard the music of ballet when she accompanied her sister Kim, a year her junior, who became a soloist with American Ballet Theater in the 1970s. She heard her brother Scott’s violin lessons and his practice sessions as he studied with a member of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra.

In spite of her disclaimer, the flute beckoned. Williams was "enchanted," as she calls it, by a high school flutist who visited her elementary school. "I came home in awe of that sound," she says. Her fascination was reinforced by a third grade music teacher who brought classical music to her pupils. "The piece that’s responsible is ‘The Moldau’ [from Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic suite ‘My Country’]. It starts with a wonderful flute solo. As a child I was more interested in art – in drawing and painting. My music teacher got me to do a mural that covered the entire back of the room, and showed the Moldau from its source all the way to the Danube."

For her 16th birthday Williams was given a flute. "I got hooked late," she says. Her brother’s violin teacher found a flutist colleague in the National Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Parisoli, who became Williams’ first teacher. When she entered Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, about an hour from St. Louis, she studied with Jacob Berg of the St. Louis Symphony. "He took me on despite my inexperience because of Parisoli’s recommendation," she says. "I intended to be a writer, but fell madly in love with the flute by the end of freshman year."

"I was exhausted by the time I finished being a music major," Williams says. "I started working to earn money for graduate school. Then I didn’t play for eight or nine years. By then I was married and had small children."

With her husband, an electrical engineer, and two daughters, now grown, Williams lived in Palo Alto, California. There, beginning in 1985, she studied with Frances Blaisdell of Stanford University. "She filled in the technical gaps," Williams says.

In 1988 Williams and her family moved to Obernay, France, where she continued to play. After settling in Princeton in 1995 Williams found that she was "hungry for music," and satisfied her appetite by three years’ private study with Jayn Rosenfeld.

For us pianists, whose instruments do a lot of the work for us, the flute is somewhat mysterious. When I ask Williams what’s the hardest thing about flute, she says, "It’s all hard. When you start, just holding the flute up is difficult because you’re working against gravity. It’s amazing how hard that can be. Second, you have to balance the instrument so that nine fingers are free to play. Only the right thumb has no fingering responsibilities. When people take a flute in their hands for the first time, they can’t imagine how to keep their fingers free."

Part of the problem is simply balancing the instrument. There are three points of balance for a flute: the right thumb, the knuckle of the left forefinger nearest to the hand, and a spot just below the lower lip. Using the balance points is not as straightforward as it seems. While the knuckle of the left forefinger helps support the instrument, the tip of the finger must be free to play. And the balance point above the chin must be chosen so the flute’s blow hole is centered in the middle of the lower lip.

The next challenge is learning the fingerings. Fingers are combined [cross fingerings], rather than depressed in order when neighboring pitches are desired. Alternative fingerings for some pitches may be used depending on the preceding pitch or the one to follow.

Governing the air is yet another skill the flutist must master. Blowing into the instrument must be coordinated with balancing the instrument and fingering it properly. Players must manipulate the air stream by opening or closing their lips [embouchure], and by adjusting the angle at which they transmit air to the instrument. They must differentiate connected and separated sounds by their embouchure and manage the sonority by rolling the flute towards or away from their lips.

"Then," says Williams, lumping together the entire panorama of interpretive skills and strategies, "there are all the usual musical aspects."

The flute has become a popular instrument, Williams says. The national conventions attract 3,000 to 6,000 people, she notes. All those flutists are in search of music to play.

Much of the flute literature dates from the baroque period, before 1750, when clear single pitches were the standard. Today, with the granting of numerous commissions for flute music, composers are diverging from conventional sonic usages. "It’s a vibrant scene," Williams says. The cornucopia of new literature for flute may purposefully use sounds that were previously considered mistakes.

Contemporary composers sometimes employ the flute’s ability to make more than one pitch at a time; releasing a finger normally used for a particular pitch results in a simultaneous double sound, which Williams calls a "split sound." Sometimes avant-garde composers purposely select pitches between those normally used in western systems of scales, bending the pitch and producing the microtones that lie between conventional pitches. The flutist produces such modified pitches by blowing either harder or less hard than a normal pitch demands. Volanti happily programs music that extends the conventional territory of the flute and happily performs it.

"We’re four individual flutists," says Williams, "and we each have our own individual sound. When the four of us get together, there’s a surprising shimmer and warmth. We become a special entity that’s both physical and psychological. It’s a collaboration of joy – nourishing, restoring, and inspiring." You can judge whether Williams’ eyewitness account of the Volanti experience matches your own by attending the first ever performance of this unusual musical ensemble.

A Bouquet of Flute Music, Princeton Theological Seminary, Miller Chapel, 609-497-7890. The Volanti Flute Quartet presents works by Bozza, Kuhlau, Casterede, Dubois, Shocker, and McMichael. Free. Saturday, May 1, 8 p.m.

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