Rare Birds

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker spreads the word about Houston's contemporary classical scene

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker spreads the word about Houston's contemporary classical scene

News_Rare Birds_Nicholas Leh Baker_Lynsey Anderson
Nicholas Leh Baker and Lynsey Anderson
News_Rare Birds_Nicholas Leh Baker
Nicholas Leh Baker
News_Rare Birds_C. Gregory Gummersall
C. Gregory Gummersall, acrylic and collage on canvas Courtesy of the artist
News_Rare Birds_C. Gregory Gummersall
C. Gregory Gummersall, acrylic and collage on canvas Courtesy of the artist
News_Rare Birds_Nicholas Leh Baker_Lynsey Anderson
News_Rare Birds_Nicholas Leh Baker
News_Rare Birds_C. Gregory Gummersall
News_Rare Birds_C. Gregory Gummersall

I first met and heard Houston based violinist and conductor Nicholas Leh Baker in performance as Duo Scordatura with violist Faith Magdalene Jones last January at First Presbyterian Church. The concert took place in a medium sized classroom — there may have even been a blackboard behind the duo —and drew a respectable audience of maybe 50 people of all ages. The program, COMMISSIONED, consisted entirely of works written in the 21st century, were world premieres, and had all been commissioned by Baker aka Duo Scordatura.

"I love to collaborate with anyone and everyone, especially composers." Baker would tell me later. "Our world is all about meeting people, working together, and collaborative creation." 

 "I love to collaborate with anyone and everyone, especially composers. Our world is all about meeting people, working together, and collaborative creation." 

 I was struck by how easily Baker moved between addressing the audience and playing some very technically demanding music. Baker and sometimes Jones spoke before playing each piece, and even asked the composers in attendance to chime in as well. That whole left-brain verses right brain thing is real, by the way. At my own performances, I’ve always found it hard not to sound like a space cadet when introducing the music I'm about to play. But Baker was very much at ease in his role as public advocate and virtuosic performer. In person, he’s even more personable, His love of the violin and enthusiasm for new music is contagious.

A network of composers continues to grow

Since that concert, Duo Scordatura, now known as the Scordatura Music Society, has grown with the scope of its ambitions and perhaps more importantly in the size of its audience base. Violist Lynsey Anderson has replaced Jones who has relocated to Boston, and a network of additional guest musicians provide more possibilities for instrumental combinations.

Baker's network of composers with works to premiere continues to grow.  Scordatura Music Society's inaugural concert on Sept. 11 at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church drew an impressive 650 people, an excellent turnout for what was a concert of mostly brand new music. The concert, programmed with the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in mind, featured three newly commissioned works by Jordan Kuspa, Joel Love and Jason Turbin as well as a previously commissioned and premiered work by Alexandra T. Bryant for combinations of violin, viola, organ and soprano voice. Works by Mozart, Arvo Pärt ("Fratres" arranged for violin and organ) and Josepf Rheinberger rounded out a peaceful yet powerful evening of music.

The concert’s success also provided some funding for Baker’s next and most ambitious commissioning project.

The Commissioned Project: 12 x 7

A serendipitous meeting with visual artist C. Gregory Gummersall provided Baker with the idea and the means to produce the Scordatura Music Society’s latest commissioning project. Gummersall agreed to donate six brand new works on canvass to six composers including George Heathco, Jordan Kuspa, Alexandra T. Bryant, Federico Garcia, Paul Dooley and Ali Helnwein, who will each compose a piece of music inspired by the gifted art. The new compositions will be presented, alongside the respective paintings, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. at Memorial Drive Methodist Church. Six paintings, one visual artist, and six composers gave the project its name: 12 x 7.

Baker is documenting the steps leading to a world premieres using video and the now ubiquitous platform YouTube. Each of the participating composers will blog via video as they conceptualize and begin the process of composing and rehearsing their respective works. Baker utilized video before in earlier commissioned projects, and it's exciting to see this relatively inexpensive medium being used by so many musicians and composers. Violinist Hilary Hahn for instance has contributed a series of video interviews with composers, including one with Mark Adamo, for the popular classical music blog Sequenza 21.

The videos posted for the 12 x 7 project are endearing, offering some intriguing clues to each the composers’ creative processes. In his first 12 x 7 video, Houston-based composer George Heathco references the Japanese creative concept of shibui when describing the Gummersall painting he will respond to compositionally.

“I have a tendency to make some overly complex things,” Heathco confesses. “The added challenge to this (project) would be to make a work that touches in to that shibui simplicity.”

Videos featuring each of the commissioned composers can be found on the Scordatura Music Society website.

"My early years of performing and exploring new music was for the simple fact that I wanted to be one of those cool guys who performed new music," says Baker. "Like a classical violinist playing with a jazz band or rock group."

Or perhaps, like classically trained musicians who founded such ground breaking new music ensembles like Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, or The Paul Dresher Ensemble to name just a few. Since then, Baker has realized that "to commission and perform new works is very important to the survival of art music." And he feels responsible for not only bringing the new work to fruition, but helping it to become a part of standard contemporary repertoire.

While in Pittsburg later this month to guest conduct that city’s new music ensemble Alia Musica, one can be sure Baker will be spreading the good word about Houston’s contemporary classical scene. In the meantime, check out the 12 x7 website, follow the project on Twitter, and like them on Facebook. By doing so, you become a part of a creative process.