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Classically Folk: Carnegie Hall-bound group brings its unique music to Houston for a special concert

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Apollo Chamber Players
Apollo Chamber Players presents "Basque and Slavic Folkscapes" on Sunday at the Shepherd School of Music. Photo by Robert Seale
MFAH music and war concert, November 2012, Karim Al-Zand
The program includes the world premiere of Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms, commissioned by Apollo from composer Karim Al-Zand. Photo courtesy of Karim Al-Zand
Apollo Chamber Players concert preview April 2013 musicians
Matthew Detrick, left, Anabel Ramirez, Whitney Bullock and Matthew Dudzik. Photo courtesy of Apollo Chamber Players
Matt Detrick
Matthew Detrick, violin. Photo by Chris Detrick
Apollo Chamber Players
MFAH music and war concert, November 2012, Karim Al-Zand
Apollo Chamber Players concert preview April 2013 musicians
Matt Detrick

If you ask violinist Matthew Detrick to describe his journey with establishing and growing his chamber ensemble, the Apollo Chamber Players, he'd say that small steps that include instating administrative procedures, adhering to an easily definable focus and hours of sleepless nights devising forward-thinking strategies are benchmarks that seemed like they would sidetrack the group from achieving artistic excellence.

But concentrating on getting their ducks in a row has resulted in an approach that ushers the string quartet upward to another level of achievement — artistically and operationally speaking.

With its Sunday performance at the Shepherd School of Music, the Apollo Chamber Players take one giant leap that adds a line item in its list of accomplishments and sets the stage for a major debut in one of the country's art meccas.

The program, titled "Basque and Slavic Folkscapes," continues the ensemble's focus on music that dialogues on the importance that folk traditions have played in the development of classical music. What's notable is that the playbill includes a world premiere, funded by the Houston Arts Alliance, of a commissioned score by acclaimed composer Karim Al-Zand, who's on faculty at Shepherd.

Moreover, the carefully crafted selection of works will anchor Apollo's upcoming East Coast Tour, which includes an October debut performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

"One of the critical aspects of preparing for a tour and a Carnegie Hall debut is programming the right mix of music," Detrick says. " 'Basque and Slavic Folkscapes' should provide for an entertaining and engaging concert."

Apollo's original arrangements of folk melodies from the Basque/Slavic regions will serve as an interpretive bridge to the string quartets of Maurice Ravel and Leoš Janáček, who were influenced by the folkloric music of their homeland as well as from neighboring cultures. For Detrick, though, the crown of the program is the world premiere of Al-Zand's Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms.

"From the very beginning, we knew that any concert in New York needed to include a new composition," he says.

New and old, East and West

 "Like Apollo, Karim shares a deep affection for the folk and ethnic music of different cultures, and he draws inspiration for his compositions from these rich influences. It's a perfect match."

The Fantasy embodies the group's mission of exploring the vast scope of folk inspirations in classical music, that ethnic music is a timeless muse, Detrick explains. As Houston and the Big Apple are two of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world, it is his hope that the commission represents that unique characteristic.

"An early encounter with this music for me came through the recordings of Yuri Yunakov, a Turkish/Bulgarian/Roma virtuoso whose wildly exuberant 'wedding music' uses the traditional dances of Bulgaria," Al-Zand says.

Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms incorporates two characteristic asymmetrical rhythmic divisions. The opening section uses a meter typically found in the Rachenitsa, a couple's dance, followed by the brisk Buchimish, a line dance. The music of the two is layered to add complexity to the conclusion of the composition.

It was Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices), a recording that enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States in the mid 1980s, which first introduced the composer to the intricate aesthetic of Bulgarian modes.

"The choir employs a distinctive close-harmony style that uses 'clusters' of notes in dissonant chords," Al-Zand says. "That sort of harmonic approach can be heard in the opening section of my piece, in passages which alternate with an expressive solo for the viola."

Apollo chose to commission a new work from Al-Zand because of his compositional style. His music is creative and affecting, accessible to novices and enjoyable to the seasoned listener. Al-Zand's credentials include degrees from Harvard University and McGill University. Among his honors are the Sackler Composition Prize, the ArtSong Prize, the Louisville Orchestra Competition Prize and the Arts and Letters Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

"Like Apollo, Karim shares a deep affection for the folk and ethnic music of different cultures, and he draws inspiration for his compositions from these rich influences," Detrick says. "For us, it's a perfect match."

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Apollo Chamber Players presents "Basque and Slavic Folkscapes" on Sunday, 6 p.m., at the Shepherd School of Music. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased online.

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