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Mothers through the ages: Brandt and Eagleman world premiere honors survival & perseverance

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Maternity - Women's Voices Through the Ages, commissioned from David Eagleman and Anthony K. Brandt, marks River Oaks Chamber Orchestra 29th world premiere. Photo by David Brown
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Eagleman's text wanders from the present to back in time when the librettist's great-grandmother to the "706,406,493rd" power became the first single-cell organism female on the planet.
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Brandt's Maternity moved away from the soft nostalgia assumed with lullabies and into powerful displays of grief, sorrow and joy associated with struggle and survival. Photo by Beryl Striewski
The Church of St. John the Divine
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When composer Anthony K. Brandt and author and neuroscientist (among other designations) David Eagleman embarked on a collaboration to honor motherhood through music, it wasn't to rouse thoughts on the friction — and confluence — between creationist and evolutionist philosophies.

But as Eagleman noted in a pre-concert chit-chat, if you are invested in genealogy, you can't help but delve into biology. Maternity — Women's Voices Through the Ages, commissioned by the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), wanders from the present, through 20 of his ancestor's matriarchs back in time to when our great-grandmother to the "706,406,493rd" power became the first single-cell organism female on the planet.

That its first hearing was in a religious setting, The Church of St. John The Divine, added to the mystique — though I should note that the Episcopal Church accepts evolutionism as working alongside scripture and not against it.

Think of that as a paradox of Possibilianism, a term coined by Eagleman to abandon extreme epistemological positions in favor of inclusive probabilities. We know too little about the workings of the universe, and beyond, to stake claim to steadfast policies, he says. As such, artistic vehicles turn into bona fide mediums through which to explore non-empirical ideas.

 Forget sweetness: These mothers persevered through thick and thin, and they are the reason why you — and I — are alive.

Two years ago, the brainy duo began working on what became ROCO's 29th world premiere in seven seasons, which sold out the hall for this Saturday afternoon musicale. Surely that's a direct response of the orchestra's die hard fans, Brandt's prominence and Eagleman's popularity — in addition to the theme du jour.

The progress was interrupted when Brandt stepped aside to work on his Nano Symphony, which ROCO premiered as part of The Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology's 25th anniversary celebration of the discovery of the Buckyball in October 2010.

And when he picked it up again, he whimsically benchmarked his activities by how many of Eagleman's 20 "mothers" — explicit and alleged — he had set to music.

Although Brandt described his compositional process as non-linear — he doesn't commit notes on paper in sequential order — the completed Maternity emerged as a tightly-structured, through-composed poetic framework that affixed further prowess, whether emotional support or narrative context, onto Eagleman's varied writing style.

The music of perseverance

"You are here because of me." 

If Maternity is about our own survival, then the players that brought forth the work are the reason for new music's standing in Houston: Thriving beyond survival. 

That's the opening verse that Brandt's wife, soprano Karol Bennett, intoned with extroverted bravura after a Barber-esque, thickly-scored introduction, which unfolds with harp and lower strings. Presented as a lullaby, the theme is increasingly abstracted as the "mothers" move back in time, jumping years according to an algorithm based on the Fibonacci series.

If scientific methods suffused the music and libretto, they weren't at the detriment of a style that connected with the audience emotionally. In fact, Maternity moved away from the soft nostalgia assumed with lullabies and into powerful displays of grief, sorrow and joy associated with struggle and survival. And no one could have done the piece justice like Bennett, who just when you thought the piece had reached a dramatic apex, dug deep and found more fire to keep listeners enraptured.

Forget sweetness: These mothers persevered through thick and thin, and they are the reason why you and I are alive.

Painting words with music, Brandt chose literal pairings, as in the number three set atop a triplet or a fly with a tickle of the xylophone, as well as musical pathetic fallacies like illusions of water with undulating textures, early life with fragmented and open sonorities, and pain with jarring tone clusters.

Brandt and Eagleman do quench our desire for cohesiveness when, for the first time, they bring back the opening line and musical style to conclude in a harmonious orchestral zinger that accompanies the last line, "Because of each of us, you are here."

If Maternity is about our own survival, then the players that brought forth the work are the reason for new music's standing in Houston: Thriving beyond survival.

Tell me more

There's now proof that orchestra founder Alecia Lawyer can double tongue the crap out of her oboe.

It was a pleasure having Shepherd School of Music graduate and Grammy-nominated conductor Alastair Willis return to ROCO. A brilliant musician and an even more entertaining podium conversationalist, Willis was delightful in offering up listening cues to an attentive audience. Whether you agreed with the parental theme across all pieces on the playbill wasn't the point. It's that he has a gift of engaging listeners, a skill that everyone holding a baton should master.

As an aside, there's now proof that orchestra founder Alecia Lawyer can double tongue the crap out of her oboe. In Gioachino Rossini's Overture to La scala di seta, there wasn't a note left to luck or chance.

With the help of her principal colleagues — flutist Christina Jennings, piccoloist Valerie Estes, clarinetist Nathan Williams and bassonist Kristin Wolfe Jensen — Kodály Zoltán's Dances of Galánta was an all out Hungarian/Slovakian outdoor rowdy fete, one that would rival a lawless hootenanny of a Texas barbecue.

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