Classical music with a capital “C” is a diverse genre some think of as narrow. Recent and passionate discussions regarding the KTRU sale have certainly uncovered some misconceptions about its relevance and importance in defining Houston’s art identity.
Houston’s rich classical music heritage
Began and supported by Ima Hogg aka the “First Lady of Texas,” the Houston Symphony is one of the oldest performing arts organizations in the United States. The Symphony will celebrate its centenary in 2013, which happens to coincide with the end of Hans Graf tenure as music director to become Conductor Laureate. A time of new beginnings, turning 100 is a milestone not many reach.
The Houston Grand Opera was founded in 1955 and has been regarded as one of the world's leaders in commissioning and producing new works. To be exact, HGO’s 40 world premiers (soon to be 41) and six American premiers have earned it a Tony Award, two Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards, and a Grand Prix du Disque. This achievement elevates HGO as the only opera company in the world to have won all four honors.
Also in 1955, the Houston Ballet Academy was established. In 1969, it evolved into a professional company and it is now the fourth largest in the country. Ballet without a live orchestra? For some contemporary works that is the norm. But picturing the Nutcracker without it is like a margarita without tequila: What’s the point?
Whether rocking out to an obnoxious loud movement of a Shostakovich symphony, feeling like the woodwind section is nearing spontaneous combustion while maneuvering through the virtuosic passages at the end of Ravel’s "Daphnis and Chloe," or enjoying the seeming lightness of technical hell in Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" — I can’t help it, I’m a flutist — listening to a full-size symphony orchestra perform, sometimes with chorus, is akin to watching a virile football team charge the field with raw forcefulness. Plain sexy.
Classical music is more than symphony concerts
Small ensembles and solo recital performances allows the listener to get up close and personal. In chamber music, like being naked lights on or off, there is absolutely no nuance that is missed or forgiven for that matter.
The stakes are high and the experience can be transcendent.
There is beauty in the intimacy between listener and performer and a playful spontaneity that evolves out of the interaction.
Curious to explore the scene? Get out and experience it. Here are some suggestions.
The Webster Trio — Shepherd School of Music at Rice University
All Webster Trio performances are enchanting. They include something familiar, something new, something traditional, and something that will challenge your musical ear.
Perhaps it is after 23 years of marriage that Leone Buyse, flute professor, and Michael Webster, clarinet professor, have developed a musically delicious chemistry that teases the ear between the virtuosic and the sublime.
Often blending colors to perfection, their sound be endearingly described as a “clute” or a “flarinet.” Pianist Robert Moeling collaborative style is transparent at times, allowing the winds to sail through, and rich at others, taking a more predominant role when the work requires it.
On Sept. 18, the trio will perform music by Houston composers Arthur Gottschalk and the Houston premier of Karim Al-Zand’s “Cabinet of Curiosities for Clarinet and Piano,” which recalls a repository of exotic and unusual objects. Also on the program is an arrangement by Webster of Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants (Children’s Games) original for piano four-hands and the Martinu Flute Sonata, a standard in the repertory of most pipers.
“Music with Camera” — Musiqa
In collaboration with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Loft Concert Series are intimate and tie in music with the what is on display at CAMH. The first Loft Concert of the fall season is on Sept. 23 and will merge live modern classical repertoire with with video artists Be Johnny.
Musiqa’s aesthetic makes contemporary music accessible by allowing listeners diverse entry points into the piece. Perhaps it is the familiar video format combined with the relaxed ambience of CAMH that makes the Loft Concerts hip. Or maybe, I'm just into cool art in cool places.
Need a dose of local music? Musiqa programming includes works from composers living right here in Houston, their influences, and works that tie to the evening’s theme.
Richard Belcher, Cello — River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
Aside from their interactive concert programming, ROCO Solo performances are free recitals given by musicians who regularly play in the orchestra at Dowling Music. Richard Belcher, cellist, kicks off the season on Sept. 26.
I first met him while we were both students at Rice. While its true that most wind players are somewhat in awe of string instruments’ versatility, Richard’s playing is sublime with an inexhaustible range of colors, textures and personalities that extend the instruments physical capabilities. Or maybe it’s the charming New Zealand accent?
Although you can hear Belcher in many recordings with the Enso String Quartet — recently nominated for “Best Chamber Music Performance” for their recording of the Ginastera String Quartets — an opportunity to listen to him, solo, is on my list of must dos.
What’s on the program? It doesn’t matter. It will rock. Families are welcome also.
Kris Becker — Impulse Artist Series
Houston’s Kris Becker is as comfortable whipping through a Chopin impromptu with gentle and warm virtuosity as he is composing and performing his own classical, jazz or multi-genre works. As Jade Simmons, executive director of the Impulse Artist Series whimsically puts it, Becker is “a white guy with ridiculous rhythm.”
Seeing Becker perform is understanding what it means to create art in the moment. There is something fresh and spontaneous about his approach, like the piece is taking shape in the present and the audience has the privilege to be a witness to this experience.
Featured in the “Alter Ego” series of the Impulse Artist Series, catch Becker on Nov. 12 for his classical performance (venue TBA) and his club gig with Frozen Heat and his band the Literary Greats on Nov. 6.
The 5 Browns — Society for the Performing Arts
Because one piano is never enough, five is an indulgence that must be experienced live. Following in the music steps of too-close-for-comfort sibling ensembles like the Ahn Trio or the Ying Quartet, The 5 Browns tear any preconceived ideas of classical music.
Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae were all admitted to Juilliard simultaneously; a first for the famous school. From Bach to Star Wars, their program is varied and will be presented on Nov. 6 at Jones Hall.
Not familiar with SPA? You should be as they are almost always successful in finding and bringing exquisite, vibrant and unique talent to Houston in all art disciplines.