Philadelphia flutist’s yearlong tribute to Debussy nears final notes

 Flutist Mimi Stillman performs Debussy's

Flutist Mimi Stillman performs Debussy's "Syrinx" in her living room. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

On Monday, in the living room of her home in Logan Square in Philadelphia, flutist Mimi Stillman played Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx” for the 337th time in as many days.

Stillman has been on a marathon journey to play Debussy’s 2.5-minute piece, an iconic solo for the flute, every day for a year. Not just play it, but post 365 daily videos of herself playing it.

It started Aug. 22, 2012, the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. With her ensemble, Dolce Suono, she programmed a season of Debussy’s concerts, but that was not enough Debussy for her.

“I wanted to do something as a personal tribute to this man I live with all the time,” said Stillman, a sought-after concert flutist who published a book of Debussy arrangements in 2002.

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Debussy wrote “Syrinx” in 1913 as incidental music for a scene in a play by Gabriel Mourey called “Psyche,” in which the lovestruck god Pan chases a beautiful wood nymph named Syrinx. To evade his pursuit, she turns herself into reeds by the side of a river. Pan cuts down the reeds to make a pan pipe, unwittingly killing his love.

The song he plays is a mournful one, but one requiring dazzling technical proficiency.

Discovering something new

“It’s extremely beautiful, and a great opportunity for tone colors on my instrument for expression,” said Stillman, who plays the piece with vigor each time.

“Most people would assume I get bored or tired of playing it every day. That never happens,” said Stillman. “There is so much happening in the work. I feel differently every time. I still find something new.”

She will post her last web video of “Syrinx”  on Aug. 22, capping a year of daily performances. Shortly thereafter, Stillman will start a new job as director of the woodwind department of Settlement Music School, newly named the Shirley Curtiss Woodwind Center after the retired bassoonist who led woodwind instruction at the school for 50 years.

The renaming and renewed attention to the woodwind center is part of Settlement’s new strategic plan to more aggressively train students for ensemble repertoire.

“We’re spending a lot of time thinking about how to start students at the youngest of ages,” director Helen Eaton said. “Getting them involved with ensembles and then graduating on to very high-level chamber music and playing in our children’s chamber orchestra or our top-level jazz ensembles.”

“Syrinx” is part of every flutist’s repertoire—or should be. Stillman said she will be focusing on teaching chamber pieces by Franz Danzi, Anton Reicha, Paul Taffanel and more modern composers like Samuel Barber and Jennifer Higdon.

“I think I might actually miss playing Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ every day,” said Stillman, who will is anticipating a packed performance and teaching schedule next season. “But I think I’ll be squeezing ‘Syrinx’ in there.”

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