Some were band directors, some students. Many performed regularly, a few hadn’t played in years. They ranged in age from 13 to 80 years old.
But the dozens of people who gathered Saturday morning at Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul each carried the same small instrument — the flute.
Not a violin or French horn in the bunch. This piece calls for 100 flutists to roam the concert hall during a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance Wednesday. Despite the grand setting, amateurs were welcome, the nonprofit orchestra assured those interested. So women and men, teens and retirees came to rehearse.
“I want you to forget everything you ever learned about flute playing,” superstar flutist Claire Chase told the group. “We are trying precisely not to make a tone.
“If you do make a tone,” she continued with an ominous pause and arched eyebrow, “you’ll be thrown out!”
The flutists laughed.
At first, Chase’s biography had sounded a little intimidating: The Brooklyn-based soloist, curator and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble was named a MacArthur Fellow, better known as the “genius” grant.
But by Saturday morning, many of the Minnesotan flutists felt like they knew Chase, the project’s director. They had met online, through selfie videos Chase filmed in a dressing room, on a train, standing in the Swiss Alps. In them, she demonstrated how to make the soft, dramatic air sounds for the piece. No pure tones allowed.
Wearing thick glasses and a beanie, Chase waved her flute in the air in one video as she described “Cerchio Tagliato dei Suoni,” or “Cutting the Circle of Sounds.” The hourlong work, by avant-garde Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, calls for four soloists, a “flute force” of 100 and not a single string instrument. It’s rarely performed — and never before with so many flutists.
“In our version, we’re going to have 189 of you, which is the largest mass of flutes that has ever played this piece,” she told them, “which is pretty awesome.”
During a performance in Los Angeles in 2015, the fire marshal got involved, according to an account in the L.A. Times, at first restricting the community flutists to 40, then letting in a few dozen more. In the Ordway, the hall’s second tier will be closed for the performance, to offset the nearly 200 flutists, with other seats closed along their route.
“This is what happens when you do a brand-new piece — and when it involves mass community participation,” Chase said in an interview last month. “These things don’t necessarily fit with the traditional concert production model.”
Nor does the music. The four soloists, stationed in different corners of the hall, trade passages back and forth. (It’s like “listening to a two-way pingpong match,” Chase said.) Meanwhile, the roving flutists play soft air sounds, filling the hall with rhythmic, scattered breath.
“It’s not a safe piece of music,” said Kyu-Young Kim, the chamber orchestra’s artistic director. “Feeling the breathing of all these people becomes a fascinating and really transformational experience for the people who are there.”
The hall is sensitive to soft sounds, he added, making it the perfect venue.
The SPCO connected with Chase in 2013, Kim said, at an artistic brainstorming retreat in New York. They began discussing Sciarrino’s piece, growing excited about Chase’s ability to “pull together a whole community of flutists.” The chamber orchestra nabbed a $50,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation to stage the piece, along with about $33,000 from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
During a weekend of rehearsals and workshops, flutists as young as 10 years old worked with Chase, who bounces and moves as she plays and speaks. “Awesome,” she often told the players. “Fantastic, fantastic.” She demonstrated, dipping the end of her flute with her entire body.
“Just play it like it’s the most expressive, beautiful thing you’ve ever played,” she said.
The score is fully notated, but Chase translated it for musicians who can’t read music. Then, in a rehearsal Friday with the youngest flutists, the children came up with their own nicknames for the sounds: haunted house, sighs of a ghost, Hufflepuff.
Deep, low breaths into the flutes’ headjoints became “Darth Vader scuba diving.”
Playing without tone — disregarding years of flute lessons — was difficult, said Cary Miller-Dolan, 50, of Mendota Heights. “It’s easier for the kids.” Her 13-year-old son, Aidan, nodded: “It’s the complete opposite of what you’re taught to do.”
Aidan’s band teacher wanted him to play the French horn. But he took to the flute, easily creating tones. “I tried to encourage him not to play the flute because there aren’t many men, and in middle school, that’s a hard thing to take on,” Miller-Dolan said. “But he plays really, really nicely.”
The pair signed up for the “Circle of Sounds” project together, not sure what to expect. They each praised Chase’s creativity. “Most concert musicians are ... strait-laced is the wrong word, but ... She’s been really interesting, so cool to watch and learn from.”
Halfway through Saturday’s rehearsal, Chase sent the flutists into the aisles of the tiered hall, its undulating ceiling made of mohogany-stained oak dowels.
Wednesday’s performance will be the first time Chase has performed this piece in a hall with several levels, she said, “which I think will be really interesting for the audience and performers — to have these circles of sound swirling around them in multiple directions and multiple levels of the hall.”
As the musicians played, slowly walking down the aisles, Chase encouraged them to move, rotate and pause. She told them to play into the ear of a concertgoer, to make eye contact with another. She asked them to resist forming a single-file line — praising a few flutists for getting momentarily lost in a corner of the hall.
The composer was inspired by butterflies, Chase reminded them, who fly alone but as part of a larger migration. “The more personally you expressively play these gestures,” she said, “the more effective our mass.”
Playing flute in a band, the goal was always to “mesh, almost make yourself one,” said Amy Goebel, of Woodbury. “You didn’t want to stand out unless you’re doing a solo.
“But here people will be able to hear the individual breath sounds of everybody ... so that’s fun.”
Goebel, 48, began learning the flute in fourth grade, partly to combat her asthma with strong, controlled breathing. For years, she played on a flute that she’s “very, very comfortable with,” she said. “It’s like putting on your favorite pair of shoes.”
But on Saturday, she brought a “special” flute her husband gave her 15 years ago, with open holes and a richer tone. Wednesday, she said, would be its concert debut.