ROCO launches eclectic new season on a grateful, fun note – Preview | Houston

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ROCO in concert

Photo: Photo courtesy Blueprint Film Co

After nearly two decades of connecting classical music to the community in unorthodox ways, ROCO founder and artistic director Alecia Lawyer knows exactly how to piece together a new season. And how to talk about it.

“I just think about how to stitch a quilt,” she says. “What square do I need in this spot, and who wants to stitch it themselves and let me then incorporate it into the bigger piece? I think that’s the most fun thing ever.”

Every self-respecting quilt needs a name, though. For ROCO’s 18th season, Lawyer landed on “Grateful,” seizing the opportunity to underscore the importance of the erstwhile River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s relationships with its composers, its musicians, and especially its audiences.

“I think the past few years have made us all realize what we value, and I think that’s the human connection,” says Lawyer, who is also ROCO’s principal oboist. “That’s what ROCO’s based on: connection and really using music as the language it is to reach all people, and weaving it through our city and our world. I think we just feel grateful for that.”

Luckily for ROCO’s graphic designers, the ‘f’ in ‘grateful’ also made an ideal hook for the four full-orchestra performances that make up its flagship In Concert series. This season’s entries are labeled Family, Fortune, Friends, and Future because, says Lawyer, “we tried to brainstorm the things that we are most grateful for.”

ROCO: Family

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 23 and 5 p.m. Sept. 24
Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. (Friday); Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd. (Saturday)
Details: Concerts are pay-what-you-wish; roco.org

Conducted by artistic partner Mei-Ann Chen, the season-opening Family concert is a two-night affair, starting Friday at Miller Outdoor Theatre and repeating Saturday at Church of St. John the Divine. (ROCO’s annual Revelry gala, held this year at River Oaks Porsche, follows Saturday’s concert.) The program reveals much about ROCO and its home city: Juan Pablo Contreras’ “Mariachitlán” features a mariachi band; filmmaker Jordan Peele’s preferred composer, Michael Abels, debuts his Guitar Concerto featuring soloist Mak Grgic; the traditional Vietnamese folk song “Bèo dạt mây trôi” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony round out the bill.

Mindful of ROCO’s long-term future — “it has to live beyond one person’s vision and ideas,” she says — Lawyer invited longtime concertmaster Scott St. John to join Chen as an artistic partner this year. “He embodies so much of ROCO: the grace, the kindness, the out-of-this-world talent,” she says. “He doesn’t wear it as a mantle, he just is that, and that’s what’s great to me.”

St. John will also conduct February’s Friends concert at Rice University’s new Brockman Hall for Opera, and join fellow violinist Pasha Sabouri at the April installment of ROCO’s Unchambered series, in which selected musicians program their own concerts. Other Unchambered entries this season will feature trombonist Thomas Hulten and bassoonist Kristen Wolfe Jenkins, whom Lawyer says plans to bring along her students for the concert’s second half. 

“You’re going to have a 15-bassoon concert,” Lawyer says. “I find that hilarious.”

Much of ROCO’s reputation for playfulness and innovation rests on its Connections series, the season’s final thread. In October, Musical Trick or Treat will station musicians in a handful of The Heritage Society’s historically preserved buildings in Sam Houston Park, leaving the audience to circulate among them at will. Other concerts are carefully tailored to the musicians’ interests and personalities: Clarinetist Nathan Williams’ Seen next month at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with music inspired by the museum’s portraiture archives; and Here, There, and Nowhere, violinist Min-Jeong Koh’s musical account of her journey from Korea to the U.S., which arrives next March at Asia Society’s Texas Center. 

In April’s Simple Gifts concert at Rothko Chapel, ROCO composer-in-residence Adam Schoenberg will unveil a companion piece to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, presented alongside the latter’s original 13-piece arrangement and a new work from Houston Contemporary Dance Company. Other new commissions this year come from Brian Raphael Nabors, Vivian Fung, and Pulitzer winter William Bolcom.

By season’s end, ROCO will have performed at nearly 60 different locations across Greater Houston over its 18 years. Also going strong is ROCO On the Go, an initiative which has placed QR-coded playlists at some 250 area locations; Baylor College of Medicine recently came online. To date, ROCO’s QRs have been scanned more than 25,000 times.

It’s difficult to think of another classical-music organization where “fun” factors so prominently in the decision-making, but Lawyer will be the first to point out she’s hardly done it alone.

“It’s just being blessed,” she says. “That’s all it’s about. You distill down what you really value and when it’s people, really powerful things come from that.”

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.

 





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