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Striking right note together

'Mircea was in my eyeline, and he kept looking over and winking," says flautist Elizabeth Petcu, describing how the great romance of her life began more than 30 years ago on stage with the RTE Concert Orchestra. "I thought he was winking at someone behind me at first and I was looking around to see who it was."

It was on a 71-day American tour in 1980 that the couple fell in love, and travelling across the country on a bus gave them plenty of time to get to know one another.

The fact that they were positioned across from each other on stage was also serendipitous, because conductor Proinnsias O'Duinn's arrangement of the various sections of the orchestra was not a standard one.

Elizabeth, then Elizabeth Gaffney, is one of nine girls, and took an honours degree in music at Trinity. She joined the orchestra in 1979, a few months after Mircea.

"I noticed him immediately because he was a tall, handsome, lanky, tanned, exotic-looking man, who didn't look Irish," she says. "He had been on holidays, so had tanned skin and piercing eyes, and didn't have a word of English. We didn't really need any language, though, as we seemed to be able to communicate on so many levels. He had a warmth about him and he was my soul mate."

Violinist Mircea grew up in Bucharest, Romania, where his dad Constantin was a church pastor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He came to Ireland as his brother Adrian and sister-in-law Ruxandra Petcu were already working here as musicians, and had advised him of a job vacancy in the orchestra. He was 26 and Elizabeth was 21 when they first met, and he says that he liked that she had a quiet warmth about her without being too demonstrative, and wasn't an extrovert.

Although they have been together since 1980, Mircea and Elizabeth are not married, mainly because they say that they are anti-bureaucracy and don't feel obliged to fulfil social expectations. They have three children in their 20s, Cristian, Ana and Lia, which is why Elizabeth decided to take the surname Petcu.

"We don't have a piece of paper, but we consider ourselves to be married," she explains. "I took the name Petcu because I was tired of being mistaken for the children's nanny, and professionally, I am known by both it and Gaffney."

Now in their 50s, life is really good for Elizabeth and Mircea, who live on the water's edge in Bray and have two beloved dogs, Nina and Leroy. Mircea has just recently retired from the orchestra, partly precipitated by a nasty motorbike accident in 2005, which left him with back pain, and pins and needles in his hands, as well as nine fractures between the knee and ankle.

However, he is just about to fulfil his ambition of learning to fly a plane, and will shortly go to Florida to get his private pilot's licence.

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After 25 years, Elizabeth retired a couple of years ago as principal flautist with the RTE Concert Orchestra, also on health grounds.

"I retired because of my advancing deafness, as I didn't want to become a complete fool in the orchestra," she says, without a trace of self-pity. "I'm quite deaf now, so I thought I'd better quit while people remembered me for doing my job properly.

"I could play and hear myself, but couldn't hear the voices of my colleagues or the conductor properly, and I knew it would get worse."

Elizabeth had come to realise that she had been losing her hearing gradually over 15 years. She was diagnosed with otosclerosis, the same condition that Beethoven was thought to have, where the bones of the ear fuse together, preventing sound from entering and vibrating.

There is a history of deafness in her family, and she now wears discreet hearing aids. She finds women's voices easier to hear, she says, and has developed successful coping strategies, although she can't hear things as simple as the kettle boiling.

Surely, as a musician, the loss of her hearing must have been particularly devastating? "Funnily enough, music is the area in which I feel it the least," she says. "My cochlea is still quite good, and I have good bone conduction in my ear and have no trouble hearing myself.

"I can play in small groups if I'm in the right place and can see everyone, but I didn't want to compromise the overall standard of the orchestra. I thought it was better to leave rather than embarrassing myself or potentially ruining a performance."

After she left the orchestra, Elizabeth formed a new group called Rune, because she could not imagine a life without music. As well as the music, they present off-beat programmes, where they combine music with poetry and images, and she puts her heart and soul into designing the performances.

"I was determined that this wasn't going to be the end, and I wasn't going to be all doom and gloom about it," she says. "There were other things that I wanted to do, and I never had time to pursue them."

Elizabeth is the subject of the short film Hearing Silence, which will premiere at the forthcoming Cork Film Festival. Directed and written by Hilary Fennell, it explores how the musician is coping with going deaf with her trademark strength and humour, and it sounds like it will be a fascinating documentary.

In addition to the music, Elizabeth has released her first solo CD, Just Me, and in October last year, she held her first solo exhibition of paintings, drawings and ceramics. It was a sell-out and she is now putting the finishing touches to a diploma in fine art. Far from being retired, life is almost too busy, she laughs.

"People were fighting among themselves to buy her pieces at the exhibition," says Mircea proudly. "The only thing about Elizabeth is that sometime she doesn't talk about it if something is bothering her, whereas I'm very communicative.

"She is very warm and is extraordinarily capable on so many levels, and she is always surprising me with the things that she comes up with. You never stop when you're with Elizabeth."

Hearing Silence will be premiered at the Corona Cork Film Festival, which runs from November 7 to 14. Visit www.corkfilmfest.org for more details. For further information on Elizabeth's work, visit www.elizabethpetcu.com