There are many reasons to go back to school when you’re already a working professional: a career change, career advancement, networking, etc.
When BSO associate principal flute Elizabeth Klein decided to go back to school, it was less to do with a career pivot or push forward and more to do with intertwining the two major pillars in her life: music and religion.
Her dual devotions to flute and Christianity led her to graduate summa cum laude from the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2017 with a master’s in spiritual formation, all while still working full time with the BSO. We spoke with Klein at the beginning of the 2023 Tanglewood summer season about balancing performing with studying for those five years, her pandemic coping mechanism, and why her dream artistic collaborator might be a figure skater.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You had an established career with the BSO for, what, 15 years before you decided to go back to school?
Yeah, and actually that decision came through music. I played my flute for a fundraiser for a friend who had aggressive cancer and was without medical insurance for a while, and he had gone to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. We came up with something [for the fundraising recital] that wasn’t a typical recital program, interspersing sacred and secular music with Bible readings. We gave the recital just before Holy Week, and after that John Ferrillo [the BSO’s principal oboist] called me up and said, “Hey have you ever thought about becoming a spiritual director?”
And I said, "no..." [laughs]. And he said, “No, no, no, I think you should seriously look into it.” So I thought, alright it’s kind of wild, but why not? I looked into programs and ended up with Gordon-Conwell. But that’s how it all started, with just a phone call.
You were still performing full-time with the BSO while you were doing your degree?
Oh yes. It took five years, and one of those was a sabbatical year [from the BSO]. In that sabbatical year, from September to May I crammed in eight courses. I actually lived on campus in a small grad school apartment and was on a meal plan and slept on the floor. It was fun.
If you weren’t playing music professionally, do you think you’d be a spiritual director or more professionally involved in a church?
You know, it’s impossible to say. During the shutdown, I was intensely missing performing and playing with my colleagues.
What was your pandemic coping mechanism?
I had two friends who I got back in touch with, so that was amazing.
And I did get married in the middle of the pandemic! We got engaged in June 2020 and married in November 2020. I wouldn’t want at all to make light of the pandemic, but it turns out that was the best time on earth to get married because you didn’t have to worry about anything. We had no rehearsal dinner. We had no reception. So we could really just concentrate on the service. A year and a half later we had some cake and coffee at Duane’s former church in New Jersey and showed some pictures of the wedding. It was really low-key.
When did classical music become "The Thing" for you?
My grandpa was a high school band director. My dad’s older brother, Acton Ostling, was the director of the concert band at University of Louisville. My cousin Kristin is a cellist with the Baltimore Symphony. She also went to Curtis [Institute of Music] before I went there. My cousin Eric, he actually went to school for aeronautical engineering but he’s still really serious about composing and performing in jazz bands. So, it’s all in my DNA.
When I was in first grade I heard a performance of [Gian Carlo Menotti’s] Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Christmas opera. It’s really short, it’s in English, and the main character is a child. And the music, it’s just haunting and beautiful. I still find it incredibly moving. After that, my parents got me an LP (this was way back in the 70s), and I played it all the time. I sang it throughout the house. I couldn’t get enough of it. My uncle Acton picked up that I was just very naturally into music and suggested to my parents that I start taking piano lessons. A few years after starting piano, I heard a flute played in my church for the first time and asked my parents for lessons.
My epiphany moment career-wise was when I was 15 and I played The Rite of Spring at the Eastern Music Festival summer program. I was really intimidated because I had never seen rhythms that looked remotely like that before. But after performing I was just so unbelievably excited. I called my dad from the dorm phone, and I said, “This is it. This is what I have to do with my life.”
When you’re not listening to classical music, what are you listening to?
I usually have my husband choose the music for dinner. His taste is a lot more eclectic than mine. Jazz is fun. He’s also really into progressive rock.
Who would be your dream person to collaborate with?
I used to be quite an enormous figuring skating fan. I was a real fan of Ekaterina Gordeeva. Her skating was just radiant and ethereal. I found out the name of her agent and wrote to her agent and I said, you know, I’d love to record something for her to skate to. And I never heard back. It’s too bad!
One dream collaboration that actually happened for real was with Dr. Jeremy Begbie. He’s the director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. At seminary, I got to design my own independent study course on [composer] Olivier Messiaen. I had a stack of books on theology and the arts that kept getting taller. I wrote to him [Begbie] for his advice on quality reading material, and he responded immediately. I was just so touched that he was so responsive. The way that he was able to point out what some of the main philosophical ideas of modernism and postmodernism really are, where they come from, and how you see them reflected in the arts and through composers like Messiaen and Stravinsky, that just added a richer framework to my studies.
Jeremy actually wrote me a piece for flute and piano called Good Measure that was inspired by a beautiful Malcolm Guite poem, and he flew up from North Carolina to perform that with me on a recital.
Is there a talent you wish you had, or something you wish you had pursued? Figure skating, maybe?
I’m not nearly coordinated enough to figure skate! I’ve done it a few times. I just like going around the ice really fast; I love that feeling of gliding. But I absolutely love cooking and baking, home decorating, throwing occasional parties and dinner parties.
What’s your non-musical hobby?
One of my big hobbies is finding a new recipe and finding an excuse to celebrate. We had a contractor from down the street who did a gorgeous job fixing up our porch and painting the exterior, and I said “Hey, you know, you and your family should come over for dinner!” And I made this new recipe for this summery veggie pasta. It was really fun.
I also have my ongoing interest in seminary studies. I continue to do a lot of reading. I have a lot of books that have to do with the theology of women and church leadership, and the history of that. That’s become a recent obsession.
Lightning round! You’re from New Jersey, originally. What’s something that New Jersey does better than Massachusetts?
My husband has lived in NJ decades longer than I have! He’d definitely say Taylor ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.
What’s your favorite place to eat around Symphony Hall?
I used to go to Moby Dick. I was really sad that that closed down.
Flour Bakery. I have to give them some personal appreciation because I’ve been involved with this amazing organization GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. They came here [to Boston] and did a fundraising banquet and training session for pastors and church leaders, and Flour donated and catered lunch for them. So I’m just really happy to promote Flour.
How about out in the Berkshires?
My favorite, unfortunately, closed even before COVID: it was Elizabeth’s in Pittsfield. These days Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington is incredible. I also love the Barrington Brewery and their chocolate stout cake.
What’s your coffee order?
Decaf latte from Lenox Coffee in the Berkshires, or from City Feed in Jamaica Plain.
Favorite pizza topping?
Usually pepperoni with mushrooms and green peppers.