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A music festival that looks to the future: Getting collaborative at Anderson Fair

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American Festival for the Arts collaboration concert July 2013 musicians
American Festival for the Arts' "Collaborations Concert" is set for Friday at Anderson Fair. Photo by David DeHoyos
News_Joel Luks_slideshow_2_Michael Remson
Michael Remson, American Festival for the Arts executive director. Courtesy photo
American Festival for the Arts presents "Collaborations Concert: Desiring Her Soul to be Beautiful"
New York-based composer Gity Razaz. Courtesy photo
Aaron Alon
Composer Aaron Alon. Courtesy photo
American Festival for the Arts collaboration concert July 2013 musicians
News_Joel Luks_slideshow_2_Michael Remson
American Festival for the Arts presents "Collaborations Concert: Desiring Her Soul to be Beautiful"
Aaron Alon

It's tradition that the training of young classical musicians begins with the oldies. On the menu are scores of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and the likes of such giants, a collection that formulates the foundation for studying technique and musicianship.

But as important as poring over the cornerstone of the genre's repertoire is, one always needs to cultivate an appetite for compositions of today.

This mantra has molded the 20-year history of the American Festival for the Arts (AFA), an organization that tenders music education programs for youth. In addition to strong instrumental and vocal programs for students in fifth through 12th grade, the institution also focuses on fostering composers at the high school level.

"It's so important for young musicians to understand that music is an ongoing, living, breathing thing," Michael Remson, executive director, explains. "Even though a lot of the music they play in school and in our campus is old, we want to encourage our kids to be aware that they have peers who are writing new music all the time."

As AFA enters its third decade, officials are upping their game with the second annual Collaborations Concert, set for Friday at 6:30 p.m. with a second seating at 8:30 p.m. at Anderson Fair.

 "It's so important for young musicians to understand that music is an ongoing, living, breathing thing."

The relatively new concert series isn't an opportunity for current high school aged pupils studying at the summer program to try their hand at contemporary repertoire. Rather, it's where their teachers, many of them alums of the American Festival of the Arts, can demonstrate the essential role these oeuvres play in shaping a well-rounded artist.

"Alongside an impressive composition faculty that includes Rome Prize, British Masterprize and two Pulitzer Prize winners, we've built a roster of composers who have come through AFA's program and are building careers as young composers," Remson says. "Some of our students have been honored with the ASCAP Morton Gould Award and The Charles Ives Scholarship from American Academy of Arts and Letters."

"I want to have a way to bring them back to our campus to make composition a central part of our program."

Remson designed the AFA Collaborations Concert as a curated playbill that tempts students and Houston music enthusiasts with fresh commissions performed at the highest level by classical music professionals. The forum also offers alumni faculty a space to pen and premiere works while modeling one of the key principles that nurtures artistic growth, that is, collaborations outside of their own field of expertise.

Boosting creativity through multi-disciplinary collaborations

Cross-artistic collaborations aren't new to AFA. A 16-year partnership with the Houston Ballet has ushered many kinds of multi-disciplinary projects that have in turn spurred more creative collaborations with other organizations and artists, including the Houston Grand Opera, Da Camera of Houston and filmmakers Hillerbrand+Magsamen.

 "If we can inspire middle school and high school students to appreciate new music, we may be able to cultivate the next generation of the genre's supporters."

The subtitle of this concert, "Desiring Her Soul to be Beautiful," is a quote taken from Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras for soprano and double cello quartet. The theme suggests an entry point into understanding the music but it doesn't stifle listeners from veering away to explore their own interpretations. Pieces on the program include Hildegard of Bingen's O Ignus Spiritus, Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters," Astor Piazzola's Fuga y Misterio and Barracuda (1977) from Little Queen — yes, from the hard rock band Heart — arranged by Remson.

The collaboration bit, however, is earned from the AFA commissioned works that will have their world premieres.

New York-based composer Gity Razaz found her muse for Sunburst and The Missing Interval in poetry written as part of an Inprint workshop at the Finnigan Park Community Center in Houston's Fifth Ward. The workshop prompted a group of African-American senior citizens to jot down their memories. Razaz responded to participants Norma Edwards Koontz's Waltz and Karen Cooper's Uncertainty by means of musical sketches teeming with visual imagery, scored for clarinet and string trio. The authors will read their verse prior to the musical performance.

Aaron Alon's Soul Flow for flute, bass clarinet, viola and cello tinkers with text differently.

Writer Tacey A. Rosolowski, oral history interviewer and consultant at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, probes into the crossroads of physical existence and metaphysical awareness by considering the notion of the human soul in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and American Transcendentalism dogma. Her verse weaves with Alon's music to render an integrated aesthetic — an accompanied monologue of sorts.

Through these meaningful collaborations, Remson hopes to instill in his students a love of contemporary classical music.

"If we can inspire middle school and high school kids to appreciate new music, we may be able to cultivate the next generation of the genre's supporters," he says.

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American Festival for the Arts presents "Collaborations Concert: Desiring Her Soul to be Beautiful" on Friday at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. at Anderson Fair, $10 suggested donation.

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