Music And Visual Art Come Together In Flute Concert

Flutist Claire Chase is featured in a program of new and recent music inspired by Cy Twombly paintings, for
performance at Houston’s Menil Collection on April 2 and 3.
By William Albright

HOUSTON – What do you do with a gallery full of Cy Twombly paintings and a piece of music inspired by one of his canvases? If you’re Da Camera artistic and general director Sarah Rothenberg, you assemble some similar works and create a program called “Cy Twombly and Music.”

Rothenberg decided to showcase music inspired by the acclaimed art of Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly, Jr. (1928‒2011) as well as by classical mythology and works of literature. The concert she devised will be performed April 2 and 3 in the Menil Collection gallery dedicated to Twombly paintings and feature the participation of superstar flutist Claire Chase. Winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2012 and the Avery Fisher Prize in 2017, she will be assisted by 18 members of Da Camera’s Young Artists program. The program will comprise Marcos Balter’s Descent from Parnassus and a suite from his Pan, a 90-minute genre-defying work for Chase and community participation that she premiered in New York in March; Felipe Lara’s Meditation and Calligraphy for amplified bass flute (2014); Suzanne Farrin’s The Stimulus of Loss (2016); and Erik Ulman’s Lacrimosa (2011) plus a brand-new Ulman work also titled Pan.

Twombly’s ‘The First Part of the Return from Parnassus’ inspired music by Marcos Balter.

The Art Institute of Chicago commissioned Descent from Parnassus for amplified solo flute for Chase in 2011. “I was asked to pick a painting in the permanent collection and pick a composer I wanted to work with in response to it,” Chase recalls. “I picked the composer first and the painting second because I wanted the piece of music to be a collaboration between me and the composer. I picked (43-year-old Brazilian) Marcos Balter because he’s my favorite composer of our generation. I think he’s absolutely extraordinary and writes some of the most beautiful flute music since Debussy and Ravel. We took separate trips to the Art Institute and made lists of what we were really inspired by, and the work that was on the top of both our lists was Twombly’s The First Part of the Return from Parnassus. We created a musical response to it not knowing of course that Twombly would leave this world just a few months later. The piece that was to be a celebration of him ended up being a memorial – which of course was also a celebration.

Marcos Balter composed ‘Descent from Parnassus.’

“You know,” Chase continued, “I play a lot of crazy music, but I have to say Descent is by far the most technically and I would say dramatically demanding and confronting piece I’ve ever played. It’s phenomenal. What he asks the flutist to do is to play and sing simultaneously in this totally virtuoso fashion. What he’s written is a basis for another kind of music and another kind of experience, a heightened high-wire act, I guess you could say. It’s dangerous, it’s whimsical, failure is built into the process, and it’s utterly uncompromising. Those are qualities that are very much a part of Twombly’s work.

Chase said she’s lost count of how many times she’s performed Descent since the January 2012 premiere. “I took a break from it for a while because the piece is just so incredibly demanding, and I needed to learn other demanding music. But it’s been so wonderful to reacquaint myself with it” for the Da Camera concerts. “I’m a different musician now, I’m a different flutist, I’m a different person.”

Ulman’s Lacrimosa for solo flute is his memorial to Twombly, and his Pan is a duo for flute and violin. Here, Chase will partner with Rice University student Giancarlo Latta, who worked with her at the summer music program at Canada’s Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity that she leads with Steven Schick. “It’s something I try to do as much as possible: help the young people that come into my life and help them transition into being colleagues.”

Suzanne Farrin composed ‘The Stimulus of Loss.’ (Photo: Luke Redmond)

Chase called Farrin’s The Stimulus of Loss “sonically a really beautiful companion to the works that surround it.” Taking its title from a line in a letter by poet Emily Dickinson, it’s written for glissando headjoint (a flute fitted with a pitch-shifting sliding mouthpiece) and ondes Martenot. Farrin recorded the part so Chase wouldn’t need to scare up an instrument and player to perform the piece. “I love the idea of these two instruments glissando-ing together,” Chase said.

The California-born Chase, 39, has been a champion of new music since age 12, when she was blown away by Density 21.5, Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking 1936 flute solo. “My teacher at the time brought it in to my lesson and put it on the music stand. I looked at it, and it was like nothing I had ever seen. There was only one trill and all these high notes and low notes and swells. It didn’t look like music to me. He said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘Of course I want to do it, stand back!’ It just proceeded to blow the roof off my imagination. It was a before-and-after moment in my life. I wanted to play it at my high school graduation” but – shades of James Galway – “I had to play ‘Danny Boy’ instead!”

And the rest is history.

Erik Ulman composed a new work for Claire Chase.

Chase fell in love with the flute as a toddler merely by looking at one. “My parents are both musical. My mother is a singer, and my father is a community choral conductor and teacher. My parents took me to a San Diego Symphony concert when I was three. We were sitting up in the balcony and I looked down at what looked like this sea of penguins in tuxedos playing all these strange things. I saw this golden instrument in the middle and was first attracted to how it looked. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When the orchestra started to play, the only thing I looked at was the flute and the only thing I heard was the flute.

“After the concert I asked, ‘Can I get a flute? Because that’s what I’m going to play!’ My mother said, ‘Well, you’re a little young,’ so I started in on the violin and the piano. I was really not any good at them, and I just kept on asking for a flute every birthday. Finally, on my eighth Christmas, I got one! I was the happiest little girl in the world, and I’ve never put the flute down since. My C flute is a platinum that was played by Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the first woman principal flute in the Boston Symphony” and first female section principal in any U.S. orchestra. “She was a hero of mine as a kid. The Anthony in her name comes from Susan B. Anthony, so there’s serious girl power in that axe. It’s a really special instrument, and it’s a tremendous privilege to play it. My hope is to pass it on to a young woman someday.”

Edgard Varèse’s ‘Density 21.5’ set Chase on the path of new music.

Trained at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in the studio of Michel Debost, in 2001 Chase founded the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which has premiered some 1,000 works and spearheaded an artist-driven organizational model that earned the ensemble the Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center in 2010 and the Ensemble of the Year Award in 2014 from Musical America Worldwide. That same year she launched Density 2036, a 22-year commissioning project to create an entirely new body of repertoire for solo flute between 2014 and 2036, the centenary of the work that defined her musical path, Density 21.5. Also in 2014 she was named an inaugural Fellow at Project&: Cultural Production with Social Impact. With Project&, she is developing several large-scale new works exploring the relationship between language, ritual, and music.

Chase’s efforts on behalf of new music have earned impressive recognition. Two years ago she was honored with the American Composers Forum Champion of New Music Award, and in 2012 the MacArthur Foundation recognized “Arts Entrepreneur” Chase for “forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and live performance of classical music and opening new avenues of artistic expression for the twenty-first-century musician.”

Chase, who lives in Brooklyn with her fellow-musician girlfriend, is also a champion of some key social movements. “I’ve been fighting for LGBTQ rights since I came out at 15 in a public high school in San Diego and started the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance. I have also been fighting for immigrant rights since the days of Prop 187 in my high-school years. I staged one of the state’s largest student protests against that measure,” a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal aliens from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services in California.

“And I was arrested earlier this fall at a DACA protest in Boston. I plan to get arrested again at an upcoming one that several of my colleagues at Harvard, where I teach a course on 20th-century ensembles, are organizing. We’ve got to keep up the fight against this nonsense.”

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles TimesChristian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.