Tag: Houston

Houston: River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships.–Alecia Lawyer

Based in Houston and drawing on some of the finest players in town and from around the nation, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is gearing up for their tenth season. Since its inception in 2005, ROCO has presented hundreds of concerts to a wide variety of audiences and in many different forms. Founded by oboist Alecia Lawyer, ROCO has commissioned or premiered 34 new works and during their upcoming season they will pass 40, including a co-commission in partnership with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry for a piece by Derek Bermel. Lawyer was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to fill me in on how ROCO got started and where it’s headed.

Andrew Sigler: How did ROCO come about?

Alecia Lawyer: I had been a part of many start-up orchestras in NYC and in Houston and had had an entrepreneurial trio in NYC while at Juilliard.  While in Houston, when my church was being renovated I knew a chamber orchestra would be perfect there in this lovely Frank Lloyd Wright-style building with seating for around 550.  I wanted to build something for Houston, but also something very authentic and relevant to the classical music world.
I thought of the musicians who were with me at Juilliard and different festivals who actually smiled when they performed and took joy in their craft on stage; who could be vulnerable and open in performance; who could talk to an audience and engage them, not just entertain them; who performed with such fluency that the music became the language, not the entity.  I was lucky to have hired Suzanne Lefevre as personnel manager, who helped form the orchestra, as well.

AS: What are some areas of presentation that set you apart?

AL: We have many simple ways to make the audience feel comfortable without changing our product of fantastic classical music.  The concerts start at 5 p.m. and are over before 7 p.m., so people can do more than one thing in a night.  I put pronunciation guides for composers’ names [in the program] so people don’t feel dumb, and I include timings of pieces to allow people to get a sense of the scope of a piece. (And if they don’t like it, they know how much longer it is!) I married the idea of a kid’s night out with the concerts and now have ROCOrooters, a music education/childcare program during and after our concerts.  We don’t have a regular intermission.  It’s “Take 5” [style] and musicians actually clip on nametags and walk into the audience to greet our audience. ROCO is known as “the most fun you can have with serious music.” Our season consists of four main concerts with all 40 professional musicians (half of whom fly in to play) with repeat performances.  The rest of our 25-30 concert season is made up of chamber music in various venues and with many partners throughout Houston.  We actually perform in ten zip codes here.

AS: Your mission statement is to “shape the future of classical music through energizing, modernizing and personalizing the orchestral experience.” That’s a tall order. How do you accomplish this?

AL: We energize through musician involvement in programming and creative direction, rotating conductors ([the ensemble has] no named conductor), annual conductorless concerts, and world premiere commissions. We modernize through streaming live concerts into patient rooms at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Hallmark Retirement Home.  We are dedicated to bringing this music to immobile communities like the V.A. hospital, where we performed a veteran’s concert this season. We also have a Listening Room where you can hear our past concerts for free and also download them.  We offer ring tones by our individual musicians so you can carry your favorite ROCO musician with you wherever you go.  We have been broadcast nationally over 60 times on Performance Today. We personalize through accessibility where musicians and audience and board have relationships; through our musical collaborations; knowing our audience members by name; keeping the house lights up the whole concert to feel even more connected to our audience; having individuals or groups support each musician’s chair throughout the season (every musician has a sponsor or group of sponsors); commissioning and programming with actual people in mind and involved.
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
AS: You have a pretty spectacular group of players from all over the place. How were they assembled?

AL: They are not just from Texas!  NYC, Vancouver, Boulder, others I cannot think of. It’s more about people I knew and ROCO’s personnel manager, Suzanne Lefevre, who has a wide group of musicians she knows.  Plus her job is not what you would expect.  She is now named associate artistic director and has always been a partner in building the orchestra.

AS: You have had 34 world premieres (and counting!) in less than ten years. Are any/all of these commissioned works? How do you go about selecting these works/composers?

AL: Yes, all are world premiere commissions.  We have more that are either Houston premieres, or world premieres that were not commissioned by us. Some composers came to us in the beginning, but now that we are known for this I get submissions constantly and love it! I am constantly getting suggestions from the musicians in ROCO, as well, for repertoire and commissioning. Our big news this season is that we are doing a co-commission with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry having Derek Bermel compose the piece.  ROCO will get the world premiere on Valentine’s Day next season.

AS: Houston is a large cosmopolitan city with many outstanding musical organizations of all sizes. How does ROCO fit into this?

AL: Many people don’t realize the difference in groups for classical music.  There is a 100-piece symphony orchestra on one end and then chamber groups on the other.  In between you have string orchestras of around 18-20 players and then a full-size chamber orchestra like ROCO of 36-40 performers.  Each of those four categories is its own animal with repertoire specifically for it.  We have other groups in the different categories, but are the only one occupying the full-size chamber orchestra space and truly sticking to that repertoire.  I love the flexibility we have for the main concerts with the full group and then chamber groups throughout the rest of the season.  It is intentionally being built as a Lego model, where small groups like our ROCO Brass Quintet have their own series of concerts under the ROCO brand.

AS: You’ve presented at Yale, SMU, Round Top, Juilliard, UT Austin, and the Texas Music Festival concerning your entrepreneurial approach to community-specific orchestra building. What is your approach?

AL: I call what I do “Wildcatting in the arts” which might need explaining if you are not from Texas! I meet with the performance majors and the arts management students and talk about starting ROCO.  The talks have gone in many different directions from development and board building to programming/commissioning.  However, my favorite thing to do is to talk about ROCO as a case study of reactions to my own past in performance and then have individual appointment times for students to come discuss their own ideas. I believe that orchestras should not be cookie-cutter and actually have a personality like the city in which they are created.

I love the process of connecting people together through the arts.  Each conversation, whether about music, money, or venues, is one of discovery and craft.  Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships. Gratefulness, joy, and connection are our panaceas.


World Premiere/Commissions by ROCO for the full chamber orchestra
Brad Sayles – Echoes of Invention for narrator and orchestra (2008)
Karim Al-Zand – Visions from Another World After Illustrations by JJ Grandville (2008)
Carter Pann – Mercury Concerto (2009)
Brad Sayles – Buffalo Bayou Suite (2010)
Scott McAllister – Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra (2010)
Karim Al-Zand – Handel’s Messiah Pregame Show (2011) In collaboration with Houston Chamber Choir
Paul English – Lumiere Lunaire (2012) (In honor of the 100th anniversary of Pierrot Lunaire and based upon JoAnn Falletta’s poem about Pierrot)
Tony Brandt – Maternity (2012) based upon neuroscientist David Eagleman’s writings about women throughout evolution back to the amoeba.
Reena Esmail – Teen Murti for string orchestra (2013)
Carter Pann – The Extension of My Eye, Le Tombeau d’Henri Carter-Bresson (2014)

World Premieres
Steve Laven – Beyond the Odyssey (2006)
Tony Brandt – Nano Symphony (2010)
Todd Frazier – “Save the World” in Memorium; Richard Smalley (2010)

Houston Premieres
Derek Bermel – Natural Selection (2006)
Michael McLean – Elements for solo violin and strings (2006)
Daniel Kellog – Mozart’s Hymn for String Orchestra in 16 Parts (2008)
Pierre Jalbert – Autumn Rhapsody (2012)
Huang Ro – Folk Songs for orchestra (2013)

Chamber Music World Premiere/Commissions
22 Works for our annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) musical and literary ofrenda. Composers write small pieces about life, death, remembrance, or other themes for an oboe, viola, and cello trio from ROCO with a singer.
We also have commissioned and premiered two other chamber works on our chamber music series we are now calling ROCO Unchambered.
Alecia's Pet Peeves

Sticks and Strings: Houston’s Liminal Space

In the new(ish) world of bootstrap new music development, big things can come from the smallest of starts. In contrast to (or perhaps in response to) the slow-to-change, large-scale organizations that are dodging strikes, lockouts, and other potential extinction events, smaller, more nimble groups that are able to hide from the nuclear winter of dried-up funding, atrophied audience, and fracturing infrastructure are thriving. In contrast to the large institution model which involves the performance of largely 18th- and 19th-century warhorses to an audience whose average age is moving steadily upward, ensembles like San Antonio’s SOLI and Houston’s Musiqua have combined smaller forces and adventurous programming to engage with audiences old and new. Emerging from the rubble, these groups find new life in new forms, and though the Pierrot ensemble has emerged as one of the leading configurations, other families are taking shape as well. While the Pierrot is comprised of traditional instruments, the catch-all potential of the “plus percussion” option is quite compelling and has played a significant role in the development of music for the ensemble. When the percussion is taken out of this traditional context and placed alongside another primarily 20th-century chameleon, the guitar [1], a potent new pairing is created. A few months after seeing the potential of this duo during the Living Earth Show this past spring, I stopped in to hear Houston’s Liminal Space (guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley) present a concert that included two commissioned premieres.

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater
Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

I arrived at the Frenetic Theater just outside of downtown Houston about twenty minutes prior to the show and had a chance to survey the facility and the crowd. The multi-use venue geared towards dance and theater held a good-sized Sunday night crowd. Spread out in the 100-seat theater, some patrons had taken their chairs while others stood chatting, and it was in this relaxed setting and with little fanfare that Liminal Space walked onstage to start the show.

Originally written in 2008 for two bass clarinets, Mark Mellits’s Black has since been rearranged for a variety of duos and lent itself well to the guitar and marimba incarnation. Rolling lines and punchy riffs which brought to mind a mid-’80s King Crimson were couched in symmetrical phrases and sections, their rock and roll roots showing. Both players were all in for the bulk of the work, and Heathco’s clean guitar tone with just a hint of overdrive for body [2] complimented the mellow tone of the marimba.
The evening’s concert was the closer of the inaugural season, and Hubley took a minute to describe the genesis of the group, which made its debut with a John Cage centenary concert last September. Among their goals is the regular commissioning of new music for the ensemble, and to that end Liminal Space has commissioned nine composers in the Houston area to compose new works for guitar and percussion. The next piece on the evening’s program, Apparatus by Mark Buller, was the second of two world premieres of work written for Liminal Space as part of their 2013 New Music Initiative. Apparatus started with a simple additive process played in unison, the two slowly expanding lines diverged recalling Reich’s Piano Phase, only to eventually return to their original position. The second movement began with pulsing dyads outlined in crescendos and decrescendos, hairpins rising and falling while an initial symmetry gave way to odd groupings and smaller divisions. This lead to a clearer separation of the parts as arpeggios in the marimba formed a framework for leaping octaves in the guitar. A recollection of the first movement had the guy behind me tapping (a bit loudly…) his feet and bopping his head, though it was funny to hear him lose the rhythm as the patterns began to phase once again.

Taking a quick break from the duo action and a modest step back in time, Heathco performed the solo plus tape version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. The work holds up well 30+ years later, and the relative ease with which an enterprising guitarist can record and playback the parts on a laptop should allow for more performances than ever before. Hubley then took his moment in the spotlight to perform Cage’s In a Landscape. Written for dancer Louise Lippold in 1948, its modest range and bifurcated octaves give the work a controlled and harmonically segmented sensibility. A pleasant, quasi-pentatonic sound resulted as scales rose and fell in comfortable mid-tempo eighth notes, every one taking its place from a list of dance counts provided to Cage by Lippold.
The closer for the evening was the second NMI world premiere of the night, Eric Martin’s You didn’t build that!, which was a nod to some of the rhetoric of the last presidential election cycle. A guitar intro which begged to be joined by drum kit [3] was interrupted abruptly by the marimba, part of the concept of the piece in which each instrument attempts to one-up the other. This led to a more traditional back and forth of sorts, with the guitar backing the marimba for a time and the marimba returning the favor. Harmonically straddling the modal/white-note world, the two instruments morphed comfortably from foreground to background before reaching the work’s conclusion.
Liminal Space put on a terrific show for a clearly enthusiastic audience. The guitar/percussion combo is quite approachable and particularly versatile, and while the idea that the use of these more familiar instruments will make inroads with those outside the new music community is debatable, it can’t hurt. When a traditional string trio or brass quintet takes the stage, adventurous new music converts may be inclined to check out before the first note. However the familiarity of the guitar (or the laptop) has the potential to bring something from an audience member’s world into the one they are about to experience, and who doesn’t like watching someone beat on things with sticks? [4] Regardless, the music on tap that evening was certainly as rich and involved as any one might hear from more traditional instruments, and with the 2013-2014 season lined up, Liminal Space is in a great position to be at the vanguard of a whole new ensemble movement.


1. In another life, I was a classical guitarist and am well aware of the rich pre-20th century repertoire for the instrument. I’m also aware that a few guitarists out there read that sentence and immediately began harrumphing all over the place, so just relax.

2. It’s a tone I’ve always associated with jazz, but given that I’ve listened to and played very little jazz, you can take my evaluation of this “jazz tone” with a big old grain of salt. Heathco was playing a gorgeous red hollow body, and it’s certainly possible that the hint of overdrive was just a result of the pickups coloring the sound. Or aliens.

3. I’ve played in approximately a million rock bands, so you can take this estimation to the bank.

4. It’s been brought to my attention that there is more to percussion than this.

Deep Sky Objects: Musiqa’s Season Opener

For more than a decade, Houston’s Musiqa has presented a sort of artistic cornucopia for its audience. Music, dance, and the spoken word come together with other art forms in dynamic multifaceted presentations that keep the audience engaged and on its toes. Their recent opening night featured a new commission supported by a major grant from Chamber Music America in the form of a collaborative work by composer Sebastian Currier and poet Sarah Manguso. Also featured were works by Lera Auerbach, Musiqa’s Pierre Jalbert, and the world premiere of choreographer Tina Bohnstedt’s work Divided and Scattered featuring music from Currier’s 1995 piece Quartetset.

Houston, like many large cities, is a work in progress and, as such, is regularly being torn apart and rebuilt in one way or another. After a slightly late start to accommodate an Escher-like parking situation, the evening began with several movements from Lera Auerbach’s Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano. Using Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as a starting point, Auerbach’s piece explores a variety of styles and techniques that have been developed and become common since the composition of that seminal work. Violinist Lisa Burrell deftly negotiated the syncopated rhythms and chunky double stops of No. 9 in E major, trading hocketed figures with pianist Tali Morgulis. No. 3 in E major wandered in childlike, tonal, and innocent, lightly colored with dissonance around the edges. The stage was lit in bright swaths of red, blue, and green, which changed with each movement. I don’t suppose that there was any intention or suggestion of synesthesia here, but it was a nice visual reset between sections and pieces.

The Auerbach was followed by a reading by Sarah Manguso of selections of poetry from her book The Captain Lands in Paradise. Hearing a work delivered by its author has the potential to be either fantastic or terrible depending on the creator’s performance skills. Fortunately, Manguso’s understated delivery was captivating and provided an interesting change of perspective during the concert. Secret Alchemy by Pierre Jalbert received its Houston premiere and was prefaced by short descriptions and performance snippets of each movement. Violist James Dunham and cellist Lachezar Kostov joined Nelson and Morgulis for the four movement work. In the first movement, delicate appoggiaturas lead to repeated-note figures in the piano which when added to the close, oscillating harmonies in the violin and viola gave the impression of a breath held. A plaintive melody in the cello provided contrast to this texture, but it wasn’t until the appearance of a series of rapid ascending lines in the strings that the piece fully formed and really took off. Just as the motoric rhythms began to push it forward, it was pulled back by a return to the initial material and a wrapping up of the movement. It wasn’t unsatisfying or a tease, but rather provided a nice set up for the following movements. The second movement began with an agitated dynamic delivered by way of syncopated pizzicato accompanied by rumblings in the piano. A brief arco section gave way to a return of the pizzicato, this time reanimated with harmonics. High register piano skittered about as the harmonics and trills floated, coalesced, and dissipated, with added-value rhythms jumping the barline at every turn. The third movement started icy with the wide range in piano echoed in the strings, meaty fifths and unisons sounding larger than the personnel we saw on stage. The final movement was aggressive and explosive, with brutal attacks leading to rising waves in the strings plateauing in a static staccato figure. Crazy, angular parts for the cello fought for purchase while the violin and viola bickered in the background.

Currier’s Deep Sky Objects is described as “a cycle of love songs set in the distant future, exploring intergalactic longing and desire.” In ten movements and scored for soprano, electronics, and piano quintet, Currier manages to incorporate the electronics without being ruled by them. Each movement begins with an electronic incipit which created a “micro-composition” based on the title of each song, sort of an electronic calling card complete with a nonplussed female voice announcing the title, sounding ever so slightly like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey. Incorporating actual elements of signals generated by pulsars, man-made satellites, and Currier’s own creations suggestive of deep space, the electronic elements of the work serve for the most part a largely textural role; and they do it well. At times the incipits approached a suggestion of actual sci-fi fare, but never crossed the line and always set the stage acting as aural illuminations for the sound-text that followed. Soprano Karol Bennet delivered every syllable with finesse and passion, providing a perfect foil for the somewhat cold electronics of deep space.

Choreographer Tina Bohnstedt presented Divided and Scattered, a new work set to “Divided” and “Scatterbrained,”—two movements from Curriers Quartetset. Following a dramatic “Lowering of the String Quartet into the Pit” (by way of a motorized stage) Bohnstedt’s own quartet took the stage. Largely a three-against-one arrangement (and bearing in mind that my background in dance is…modest), Bohnstedt’s dancers from Houston Ballet II mirrored the music beautifully while presenting their own story on the stage.

I go to a fair number of new music concerts, and while I enjoy shows that feature exclusively recent fare, it’s also compelling to see presentations that combine the old and the new. The experience of seeing a concert programmed with music from a variety of eras is similar to seeing a concert programmed with a variety of arts. There is something refreshing about hearing everything all mixed together, and the combination resented by Musiqa on this and other concerts has a similar impact. Overall, the effect is one of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and when the parts are this good by themselves, together they make for a particularly remarkable experience. The extremely high level of artistic presentation, the relaxed and welcoming attitude, and the diversity of programming come together to show why Musiqa plays such an important role in Houston’s new music scene.