There's something about oboists, a je ne sais quoi, perhaps brought on because they are the center of musical attention at the beginning of every orchestra concert — everyone tunes to their pitch, be it dead on point, sharp or flat. Or that regardless of how thunderous a full orchestral texture may be, the poignant timber of this unassuming double reed instrument cuts through with ease.
Add the archetypal stereotypes of redheads — feisty, fearless and independent — and here comes principal oboist Alecia Lawyer, a femme-musicale-cum-founder of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, who has bestowed Houston with a classical music cultural gem that's as badass as every player in the ensemble. And that's on purpose; Lawyer hand picks musicians who have an innate ability to communicate, collaborate and energize.
Now that there's another ginger gal in the mix, that would be general manager Terri Golas, that the announcement of ROCO's 2012-13 season, titled "Feast Your Ears," is a tuneful banquet is something that the group's subscribers and fans have become accustomed to since the orchestra's inception in 2005. Seven years later, it's full speed ahead for the 40-member troupe.
Promising "a full season of delicious programming and delightful performances," ROCO brings new conductors and fresh concertmasters to the stage.
"My goal in programming concerts is to allow the conductor, soloist and orchestra to bring something personal to audiences each concert," Lawyer says about her strategy. "I have a running list of pieces that individuals in the orchestra want to perform. I figure out whose turn it is to solo with the group — which in ROCO's case, that's an instrument other than piano as the soloists are from the orchestra — and ask them which pieces they want to do.
"I then speak with the conductor for that program to find out what personal favorites he or she has or pieces that have special meaning to him or her, and we tie the program together. I love the distinctly personal flair that comes out of this process for each concert."
"My goal in programming concerts is to allow the conductor, soloist and orchestra to bring something personal to audiences each concert."
Concertmaster Brian Lewis, professor of violin at the Sarah and Earnest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, has been a dominant force leading the ROCO's sound. But as his travels and solo engagements continue to take off, Lawyer has invited others to share in that first chair.
Among them are Ellen DePasquale, acting associate concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, assistant professor of violin and viola at the University of Nevada, Reno; Joseph Swensen, conductor emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; and Amy Schwartz Moretti, director of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Georgia.
"We are not looking at this as a chair to fill, but as another wonderful set of artistic collaborators that could take us in many different directions in form and function," Lawyer explains.
Lewis will receive the title of lifetime ROCO member.
ROCO in concert orchestra series
The "Fiesta!" opening bang (Oct. 6-7) with zestful Spanish maestro Josep Caballe-Domenech, last seen with the Texas Music Festival this summer, hones in on Argentine works by Arriaga, Ginastera and Turina. Piano soloist Anne-Marie McDermott, whose take on Debussy's L'isle joyeuse as part of Da Camera's "Debussy Paris" in March was nothing less than impressionistic fantasy, returns for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20. The encore presentation is at a new venue for ROCO, the historic Crighton Theatre in Conroe.
"Musical Melange and Organ Solo" (Nov. 17) spotlights organist Paul Jacobs in Felix-Alexandre Guilmant's Symphony No.1 for Organ and Orchestra. Edwin Outwater, music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada, who has been hailed as creative, dynamic and engaging, guides this playbill which includes a piece by Shepherd School of Music faculty Pierre Jalbert and a timeless Haydn symphony.
Listeners will be hard pressed to find a dirigent on the podium for "A Timeless Feast and Brandenburg No. 2" (Feb. 9-10, 2013). Though Swensen is more than capable with a baton on his hand, he'll use his bow for this conductor-less show, one with familiar and obscure opus like Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, Sibelius' Belshazzar's Feast Suite, Handel's Alexander's Feast Overture and Haydn's Symphony No. 101 "The Clock."
"ROCO is a full 40-piece chamber orchestra that we reassemble as various chamber ensembles. The combination creates a range of exciting experiences and allows audiences to get to know individual musicians."
ROCO's finale, "Big Bang" (April 20-21, 2013), is appropriately named for the premiere of another commissioned piece. This time, composer Jonathan Leshnoff pens a "bombastic" showstopper for percussionists Matt McClung and Todd Meehan. Maestro André Raphel, music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, is into works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
Chamber series, Lego style
"The 'Lego orchestra' strategy we announced last year is coming to fruition this season in major ways," Lawyer explains about the approach in amassing chamber groups. "ROCO is a full 40-piece chamber orchestra that we reassemble through the season as various chamber ensembles, including a string quartet and brass quintet, a flute-viola-harp trio, oboe-cello-flute trio, and so on.
"The combination creates a range of exciting experiences, from big sound to intimate musical conversations, and allows audiences to get to know individual musicians."
Gremillion & Co. Fine Art recitals (Oct. 21, Jan. 6, 2013 and March 3, 2013) feature bassoonist Daniel Chrisman, principal bassist Sandor Ostlund and principal trumpet Joseph Foley. At the University of St. Thomas' Cullen Hall, the ROCO String Quartet performs on Nov. 1, Feb. 21, 2013 and April 4, 2013.
Back this year are the popular "Beer and Brass" at Saint Arnold Brewing Co. (Sept. 18); "Musical and Literary Ofrenda" with Musiqa, Inprint and Lawndale Art Center as part of Dia de los Muertos (Oct. 30); and three performances of Peter and the Wolf with InterActive Theater Company at the Houston Zoo (Jan. 20, 2013).
Subscriptions to the four Saturday concerts at The Church of St. John the Divine are $90 and $40 for students; subscriptions to the six chamber concerts at Gremillion & Co. Fine Art and University of St. Thomas are $100 and $50 for students. Families can also add on the ROCOrooters Childcare & Music Education program starting at $140 for one child. Tickets and subscriptions are available by calling 713-665-2700 or online.