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Sparkling Starr Lights Up The Bay Area
Click below to hear
parts of our recent interview with
Isabelle Chapuis Starr,
excerpts from her performances.
We spoke with Isabelle by phone,
so the audio quality
is limited. Sound files may also take a few
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For Isabelle, music was a family legacy. Her grandmother was a violinist with the Orchestre Colonne. Her
mother, Janine Bourgoin, was a gifted pianist who lived for a time in New York, where she studied with French musicians Edgar
Varese and Emma Boynet. (Boynet, an internationally known concert artist in that era, was a close friend of flutist Philippe
Gaubert.) While in New York, Janine met a young French physician, Jean-Louis Chapuis. The two married and settled around
Dijon, where Dr. Chapuis became chief of dermatology at the local hospital, and where the couple raised their
two sons and daughter Isabelle.
Michel Debost fondly recollects:
"Isabelle's family and mine were living in Burgundy, France. Dr. Chapuis
was a well-known dermatologist and her mother an excellent concert pianist. When the doctor was appointed to the Dijon General Hospital,
they bought a beautiful old farm/winery/house among the vineyards in Marsannay, now a suburb of Dijon.
"We got acquainted through common music lover friends when Isabelle was a lovely little girl and I a student at the Paris Conservatory.
Dr. Chapuis had a huge interest in music and a great collection of 78 rpm that he cared for as religiously as for his patients! Among
them were Rampal's first recordings, 78 rpm dating from the 1950s.
"As Isabelle was growing into the
gorgeous woman she still is, she and her family decided to have her learn the flute. This befell not to me (I was living in Paris
and there was no TGV) but to a former student of Gaston Crunelle, my professor at the Paris Conservatoire."
As Isabelle reached adolescence, she grew frustrated in school. Unlike many of her schoolmates,
she recalls, "I was really an artist in my soul." She had played the piano since she was very young, so her mother helped
her to pursue a musical path. Isabelle remembers that her mother consulted Debost. It was he who suggested that she start
Indeed, Isabelle's first flute studies were with Maryse Gauci, a friend of Gaston Crunelle living
in Dijon. Perhaps because Isabelle began playing at the comparatively late age of 13, Debost at first thought her interest
might be "a little ambitious." After just one year, however, Gauci arranged for Isabelle to play for Crunelle, and
the Paris Conservatory professor immediately offered to take her as a private student. So began a ritual where,
every Saturday, Isabelle and her mother made a 3-1/2 hour train trip between Dijon and Paris, for her weekly flute and solfege
lessons. And so it was also that, after a few years, the young Isabelle's interest in the flute had, as Debost says, "blossomed
into professionalism and musical passion."
At age 17, not yet ready for the Paris Conservatory, Isabelle spent a year at the conservatory in
Versailles with Roger Bourdin, whom she describes as a wonderful teacher. During this time, again thanks to Michel Debost,
Isabelle had her first opportunity to attend lessons with Marcel Moyse. Debost drove her with him to visit Moyse in
"In the meantime, I would go to hear Michel Debost...take lessons from Marcel Moyse.
And he was already the first flute of the Paris Orchestra (l'Orchestre de Paris). I mean, he was the most famous -- with Rampal,
so famous -- and he would go take lessons with Marcel Moyse! So, I would sit during the lessons of Michel, mouth open, thinking,
'I can't believe it! He's the best, and he's still taking lessons? It was an eye opener....There is never an end on how
you can learn from someone who has such wisdom and experience and age, and has gone through so much. And that's what Michel
so intelligently did. He kept going to the source, because it is a lineage, really, that we get from Marcel Moyse."
In 1968, when she turned nineteen, Isabelle entered the
Conservatoire national superieur
de music -- the famous Paris Conservatory. Fellow students in that era included Robert Stallman and Leone Buyse, among
others. Isabelle's first year was Gaston Crunelle's last before retirement. So, the next year (1969 - 70), Isabelle's
class was taught by his successor, Jean Pierre Rampal. "I was totally, totally in love with the sound of Jean-Pierre Rampal," she says. "Jean Pierre was my god -- and Michel, bien sur!"
At age 20, capping off her year in Rampal's class, Isabelle won the Conservatory's coveted
premier prix de flute, from a unanimous jury presided over by James Galway. The flute prize has been awarded continually
for almost two centuries, and its winners have included nearly every, major French flutist.
Isabelle would have liked to remain in Rampal's class, but the school's policy was that prize winners must leave to
make room for new students. She continued studying at the Conservatory for another year, in the chamber music class.
At the end of that year, Isabelle earned the premier prix de
musique de chambre.
Isabelle reads the jury's decision and learns she has won the Paris Conservatory's coveted premier prix de
flute in 1970. (Photo: Collection of Isabelle and Mark Starr)
From the beginning, Isabelle credits family friend Michel Debost with inspiring her love of the
"Michel Debost was my concept of the most beautiful sound....[When] Michel was fifteen, he used
to come to my parents' house. I was just a baby at best, so when I say I jumped on his knees, it's true. I was three years
old, and anyway he would come, and he would play his flute. He was so excited about his flute -- he was already fantastic
In the Beginning, There Was Debost
Michel Debost in 2007 (Photo: © 2007, Chris Leck)
Photo: © 2007 Lars Johannesson
We eagerly agree with the San Francisco Chronicle writer who declared that Isabelle is "a sensation...French
to her fingertips." Born in the French region of Burgundy, she studied with some of France's most legendary flutists, including
Jean-Pierre Rampal, Michel Debost, Gaston Crunelle, Alain Marion, Christian Larde, and Marcel Moyse.
Of Rampal, Isabelle has written,
"Jean-Pierre Rampal was as great a flute teacher as he was
a great flutist. He simply could not contain his enthusiasm and love of music. He encouraged every student to surpass
themselves. Every comment he made to a student, he would illustrate by playing the passage incomparably, tossing it off effortlessly
from memory. When a student mastered a passage, he would become ecstatic."
The flute class of Jean-Pierre Rampal at the Paris Conservatory, 1970. Isabelle is in the first row, on the right. (Photo: Collection
of Isabelle and Mark Starr)
"I had the great fortune to see him, hear him and study with him at his absolute prime....He mesmerized an
audience like no one else. He had two indispensible qualities of a great flutist. His playing was as natural as breathing.
And he was fearless."
Isabelle also gratefully acknowledges Gaston Crunelle, as
well as the legendary Marcel Moyse, for teaching her opera's importance for flute playing: "They gave me the
love of singing, and how beautifully the sound of the flute could imitate the voice." Now, in her role as flutist with
Opera San Jose, Isabelle thinks of Crunelle whenever she plays Carmen. It was one of his favorites, which he
had hoped she would one day have the opportunity to perform.
Isabelle with J.-P. Rampal, during his final U.S. tour. (Photo: Collection of Isabelle and Mark Starr)
Isabelle and Mark Starr moderate TuttiFlutti, the message board for Northern California flutists. Flute enthusiasts from other
regions are also invited to join. Find out more here.
We recently caught up with Isabelle Chapuis Starr, flutist with Opera San Jose and retired faculty member
at San Jose State University. Known to all as "Isabelle", she has made her home in the Bay Area since the 1970's. And,
for over three decades, she has been a major force in the region's flute community, introducing successive generations to the traditions
of the revered French School.
Isabelle visiting with
Olivier Messiaen in 1970, when she was
principal flute for a
performance of his
Oiseaux exotiques for
piano and chamber
ensemble, broadcast nationwide on
In FBA Journal,
shares thoughts on a
recent master class
with Isabelle --