THE ability to hear plays such a crucial role in making music that it’s almost impossible to imagine how a professional musician feels when they’ve been diagnosed with a condition called otosclerosis, or progressive deafness. “I’m in good company, apparently,” says the flautist Elizabeth Petcu with a wry smile. “Beethoven is thought to have had it as well.”
Yes, but Beethoven was famously cranky and difficult. Petcu, on the other hand, has always been calm, generous and quietly humorous, a graceful presence in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, where she played for more than 25 years, many of those as principal flautist.
For a long time she was able – largely through sheer musicality – to manage her encroaching disability. Eventually, though, it caught up with her. She unclips one of her hearing aids, and we gaze at it in disbelief. Though tiny and light, these little gizmos allow her to carry on a normal conversation even though we’re in a noisy cafe, with some extremely abnormal music blaring on the sound system.
“I didn’t really have big problems with the music itself,” Petcu says. “But I was having trouble hearing voices – hearing what the conductor would say, for example. Recordings were the worst. In the studio, it might be, ‘Let’s go from the letter A’, or whatever. And the red light would go on. And you wouldn’t know where to start from – and you couldn’t ask anyone, because the red light was on! I used to think, ‘If I mess this up we’ll have to do it all over again’. One person out of 60, messing up. That was very stressful.”
It was traumatic to have to admit that things were getting worse. But two years ago, she decided to bite the bullet and leave the orchestra. “I thought it was better to quit while I was ahead,” she says, “rather than be asked to leave because I had become such an embarrassment.”
That, however, is not the end of her story.
Instead, it’s a kind of beginning. Petcu formed a trio with the pianist Deborah Armstrong and the traditional flutemaker and player Martin Doyle. They call themselves RUNE, and they take an innovative approach to live performance; their concerts blend visual imagery, poetry and prose with various different kinds of music, from baroque to improvisation via the slow air. “I wanted to keep playing. But I didn’t want to do the very conventional, formal kind of classical recital,” she says. “So what we do is, we pick a theme and tie the music together with words and the beautiful visual imagery of Martin’s photographs.
"We did one a few weeks ago called Stones, with photographs from west Clare. You wouldn't expect such beauty from stones; but they have an incredible range of patterns, shapes and forms, and when you put them together in a slide show, they move a little bit. Martin does some improvising as well as the traditional pieces, and it's a very relaxing form of entertainment. It's not like listening to a Beethoven sonata. It's a very different experience."
Their debut performance was at Calary Church near Bray, in Co Wicklow. Having decided to offer something fresh and new on the musical front, Petcu found herself up against the wall – quite literally. "There was an old wooden pulpit on the wall at the back of the church, and I decided I'd start the concert from there," she says. "Take the audience by surprise. I was going to play Debussy's Syrinx. So I climbed up this rickety ladder to hide myself in there."
It all worked marvellously, helping create the kind of dreamy mood which that particular piece, with its evocation of the god Pan in pursuit of a nymph, sets out to evoke. But it turns out that – unlike the hapless nymph – Petcu had a lucky escape.
“Afterwards, when they did some restoration work in the church, the rector told me that all the wood and the nails in the pulpit were completely rotten. The whole thing could well have come away from the wall with me in it.”
Another adventure has been to record a CD of solo flute repertoire called Just Me. "I wanted to record this music before I lose it – to have something to show for 50 years of flute-playing," she says. The programme sees Petcu move from Debussy to Honegger, from the traditional air My Lagan Loveto Telemann played on the keyless wooden flute of Irish traditional music. It can be purchased through her website, www.elizabethpetcu.com, although she chuckles at the idea that anyone might want to buy it. "It's really for myself," she says.
As if all that weren’t enough she has embarked on a full-time course in art and ceramics. She has long been a keen potter, and if her hearing deteriorates any further, skills of the visual variety will be even more desirable. Life in a different key, as it were. “I didn’t want to think of leaving the orchestra as the end of the world,” she says. “It was, in one way. But rather than just sit and be miserable, I decided to see it as an opportunity for me to do other things.” It could be a mantra for the rest of us – even without the diagnosis.