Though the future of the arts in general is in question and classical music and many symphony orchestras nationwide are on shaky ground, a new breed of the classical milieu is taking shape in Houston's original streetcar suburb.
The Heights is getting its very own shiny and effervescent 35-piece symphony orchestra, not to be confused with the traditional community classical ensemble.
Community orchestras mean well, but often end up with all sorts of problems and zany player politics due to overinflated territorial egos, having to bring in ringers to fill out sections and morphing what was designed to be a collaborative and entertaining player experience into mediocre music-making, at best, that's bubbling with drama.
This is different.
"The Houston Heights Orchestra is a neighborhood orchestra," Jaemi Blair Loeb, artistic and music director, explains. "I changed the vocabulary to represent my vision of melding the best elements of community, college, youth and professional orchestras in hopes of luring a mixture of grad students, professionals and amateurs. I would love to be able to lead collaboratively."
That means lots of spirit, open seating and lots of rotation — including the wind section — to keep those egos in check. It's about ensuring that everyone involved enjoys the process as well as the product. It's about playing beautiful music with a social component by facilitating what Loeb calls "a classical music neighborhood gang" — a bowling team with instruments and the same amount of beer.
Having finished her Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA) at the University of Houston's Moores School of Music, Loeb had plenty of local connections to players looking for another venue with which to share their skills.
"I graduated in May with a degree, no part-time job, no full-time job, and as a resident of The Heights with my connection with the arts, it seemed natural to begin a crazy project like this," Loeb says.
What began as a casual idea on the back of the proverbial cocktail napkin caught fire when sharing her ideas with friends, colleagues and classical music supporters. It wasn't too long before Apollo Chamber Players — known for classical repertoire that intersects with folk traditions — and WindSync wind quintet — an interactive genre-defying chamber ensemble — became the neighborhood orchestra's in-residence performers, and in a way, advocates.
To ensure the organization's longevity, Loeb is being realistic with fundraising goals and development strategy.
"We are reaching out for help at every opportunity," Loeb says. "Understanding the problems with arts funding, we are running everything on a shoestring budget and stretching the resources we have in place. It's all very modest."
In the midst of planning to apply for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, the orchestra is beginning to strategize the growth of its board of directors, aiming to achieve a balance between members that are willing to do grunt work and those that can open up connections and secure cash. When financially appropriate, Loeb is hoping for a salary for herself as well as for staff members, although right now, everyone is volunteering their time and talent. That includes Candace Hudson, director of marketing and Ryan Frenk, manager of operations — both students at the voice department at Moores.
"I can't pay them, yet," Loeb smiled. "But I can pay them in fancy titles."
For its inaugural program, Loeb is concentrating on the classics, beginning with Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D Major "Haffner," followed by chamber selections from both ensembles-in-residence. Think of it as a one-hour variety show with a party atmosphere, mingling audience and players fueled by Saint Arnold Brewing Co. suds.
Future performances will also consider contemporary repertoire, luring composer-in-residence Richard Ford to the Houston Heights Orchestra.
"New music will also be an important part of what we do," Ford says. "So much good music does not get space in the programming of larger ensembles. So we are looking at small organic theater and dance company models for our own infrastructure, all while staying very liquid as we evaluate the orchestra's first full season. It's about having a liquid and flexible model."
"I envision the Houston Heights Orchestra as a forum where everyone enjoys taking a partial leadership role in the music-making," says Jennifer Dennison, clarinetist and board member. "Show up on time because you love being here. Fix passages on your own because you want them to sound great."
The Heights is no stranger to classical arts. Opera in the Heights' opening gala in 1996 with a Straussian Fledermaus-esque theme set the tone for the quaint regional company, which recently hired a new conductor in the midst of a very successful and nearly sold-out season. Street festivals like White Linen Night — during which Houston Heights Orchestra had its first social gathering — and First Saturday Arts Market are more colloquial in nature but point to a general interest in all things artsy and cultural.
The ensemble is looking for players. Interested musicians should click here to learn more.
The Houston Heights Orchestra will begin rehearsals Monday, Aug. 29 at All Saints Catholic Church on 10th and Harvard Streets. It will give its inaugural concert on Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 at Divergence Music and Arts, located inside Spring Street Studios. Tickets are $5. Keep up with Houston Heights Orchestra on Facebook and Twitter.