Blame geography. Or the hassle of traveling. Or the ignorance of smug urbanites living in the cultural bubbles of Houston and Dallas—Fort Worth. But to many Texans, El Paso is a faraway place that might as well be part of Mexico. Although the state’s fifth-largest metropolis doesn’t lack for attractions, it’s never generated a lot of buzz either. Which is why Zuill Bailey, an accomplished cellist known for his charismatic performing style, has been busy hyping one of the city’s signature events: El Paso Pro-Musica’s annual Chamber Music Festival.
As the artistic leader of the EPPM, a 32-year-old organization devoted to the baroque sounds of such composers as Bach and Haydn, it falls to Bailey to drum up excitement for this citywide celebration of sonatas and quartets. It’s no small task, given that the niche genre isn’t exactly modern or flashy: Chamber music features a few select instruments—typically a violin, viola, cello, or piano—with no conductor or striking effects. But as Bailey, who is from Virginia and was trained at Juilliard and the Peabody Conservatory, learned when he first arrived, in 2001, there is a surprisingly rich classical community in the area. And clamor for the festival has only intensified over the past few years as it has expanded to cover the better part of thirty days.
In spite of its growth, the festival, now in its nineteenth iteration, remains an intimate experience. A large part of chamber music’s appeal, explains Bailey, is that it’s meant for smaller audiences. “I want everybody to be close enough to see the perspiration on the pianist’s brow, the rosin pluming off the violinist’s strings. I don’t want someone sitting in row GG just reading the program.” Patrons are encouraged to come early and stay late to chat with the performers, and the talks often spill over into impromptu after-parties at local watering holes.
Luckily for the EPPM, Bailey travels extensively as a concert cellist, so he’s always scouting for new talent to bring back to El Paso. This year, he’s pulled in a number of big names, including pianist Awadagin Pratt, violinist Paul Rosenthal, and the Biava Quartet. The boundary-breaking violinist Rachel Barton Pine will be “tearing the house down” with her Mozart-to-Metallica repertoire at a local motorcycle dealership, and as a special treat, the soon-to-retire Guarneri String Quartet, a revered ensemble that has been touring for 45 years, will be playing in a historic church. There’s also the festival’s most popular mainstay: trio performances by Bailey with pianist Navah Perlman and violinist Giora Schmidt. In a region more commonly associated with the sounds of Ramón Ayala than of Beethoven, Bailey’s efforts are proof of how broad El Paso’s artistic scope is. And it is Bailey’s hope that as more high-profile musicians are lured to the festival, more Texans will make plans to attend. “I want El Paso to become the art and culture destination,” he says. From January 7 to February 1; 915-833-9400, eppm.org
In hallettsville, the fourth Sunday of January is a holy day of obligation—for serious dominoes players, that is. Every year, dozens come to the Czech-German town from miles away (some even cross state lines) to vie for the top prize at the Texas State Championship Domino Tournament. Though the winners walk away with $300, there’s far more at stake. Ever since five locals founded the competition, in 1951, the tourney has been known to bolster or shatter many a reputation at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
The game is straight dominoes. The rules are nonnegotiable. Play starts at 9 a.m. sharp with teams of two squaring off in a double-elimination series. Each player picks seven dominoes (or rocks, in official parlance) from a facedown pile (the “boneyard”) and then takes turns laying them end to end, matching the dots in multiples of five. There’s no talking, no signals, and no spectators. By the time the field is down to two teams, it’s often midnight or later. “We’re domino drunk by then,” says event judge Kenneth Henneke, who puts the average age of the participants at fifty.
About 270 domino masters are anticipated this year, a number that has been slipping since the late sixties, when attendance peaked at 396. “We’re dying off,” says Henneke. “I don’t know how else to say it.” Seems that kids these days, who learned how to count on computers, prefer the faster, less strategic game of 42. Whether or not dominoes is dying—maybe it’s always been an old man’s diversion—the locals are quick to point out the town’s long-held command of the game. “To win, you have to have some luck,” explains Henneke, “but if you beat somebody from Hallettsville, that’s saying something.”