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Texans like to think big, but a growing number of Texas musicians have discovered that less is more. They are daring to play chamber music the way it was meant to be performed—in small halls before small audiences.
Too often chamber music is presented in large auditoriums in a style more concerned with projecting to the back rows than with intimacy. But on the next few pages you will find excellent local musical groups that perform regularly in intimate spaces. Ironically, this roundup of world-class Texas musicians includes some that out-of-state audiences may know better than we do. Some tour regularly; several have recording contracts.
Just imagine: Although ticket prices range from modest to free, some of these dedicated groups have trouble attracting a full house. Could it be that people undervalue music they haven’t paid big bucks to hear? Maybe the word hasn’t spread about how good these groups really are. But we’re about to fix that. Ladies and gentlemen, meet some of the country’s most accomplished, underappreciated musicians.
Harrington String Quartet
Many know Midland-Odessa as the home of the Thouvenel String Quartet, a spirited ensemble celebrating its fifteenth season. But Canyon, that Panhandle community of 13,112 music lovers, is surely the smallest city with a resident string quartet. The members of the Harrington String Quartet all teach at West Texas State University in Canyon.
Canyon owes its luck to a $1.6 million endowment from philanthropist Sybil Harrington to establish the quartet in 1981 (her other major musical beneficiary is the Metropolitan Opera in New York City). Although the quartet’s membership has changed completely since then, the two violinists and the violist have played together for six years. That long association fortifies their sense of ensemble. The quartet’s main problem has been in keeping a cellist. At press time, the search was on once again.
“We play everything,” says violinist Dawn Harms, but she admits a fondness for the music of American trailblazer Charles Ives and the romantics, especially Mendelssohn. And the Harrington players cover a lot of territory. They are planning an Asian tour next May, and in June they and the Thouvenel will storm the Kennedy Center in Washington to perform Mendelssohn’s Octet. But unless you happen to be skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, around December 1, your next opportunity to hear the Harrington will be in late January at Amarillo College or in early February at the Texas Music Educators meeting in San Antonio. Although many small Texas cities have music series—the Harrington was pleased to be invited to Borger last year—Harms says, “They seem to prefer to hear groups from New York.”
Other quartets are prominent in the musical life of Texas’ major cities. The two-year-old Austin Quartet entertained appreciative Capital City audiences in a summer series at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church this year. Houstonians were delighted to hear that two former members of the Lyric Art Quartet had formed the Texas String Quartet. The Dallas Quartet, made up of four Dallas Symphony Orchestra members (including Russian-born violinist Emanuel Borok and homegrown cellist Christopher Adkins), has a real affinity for late-nineteenth-century music.
Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra
The Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra is unique in the United States as the only black community orchestra dedicated to performing the work of black composers. Founded in 1983 by music director Anne Lundy (who also serves as the music director of the orchestra’s umbrella organization, the Community Music Center of Houston), the orchestra culminated seven years of musical development this past summer in an outdoor concert with the Houston Symphony. The event featured music by Texas-born composers Scott Joplin and Frederick Tillis; Joplin’s syncopated rhythms had some enthusiastic concertgoers dancing in the aisles.
A multifaceted musician with a flair for organization, Lundy is violist with the William Grant Still String Quartet, which she founded in 1981, and oversees four other ensembles connected with the center. Considering that they present work seldom heard in concerts anywhere—and perform it well—this group is an invaluable asset to Houston.
The orchestra’s next concert will be a musical tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., involving vocalists and a narrator on January 13 at 4 p.m. at Houston Community College’s Heinen Theatre.
Nova Saxophone Quartet
Saxophone quartets seem to have sprung up all over the map. One of the most appealing is Austin’s Nova Saxophone Quartet, which not only plays the repertory written for the first sax quartets by the Paris Conservatory composers in the forties but also actively solicits new compositions. Some arrangements reach back to the baroque masters; others stake classical music’s claim to jazz greats Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.
Clearly Nova plays for fun rather than profit. With or without a gig, says alto player Richard Lawn, “We practice every Sunday.” Because all the members teach—Lawn is the chairman of the music department at the University of Texas–Austin, soprano player Douglas Skinner is associate chairman and teaches studio saxophone at Southwest Texas State University, James Warth (baritone) and Gregory Wilson (tenor) work in the Round Rock school system—there isn’t a lot of time to tour. The quartet depends on word of mouth and its Musical Heritage Society recording for its bookings, which are usually on college campuses and at music conferences. Wherever it plays, the audience comes away pleasantly energized.
In November Nova presented recent compositions at the New Music Symposium on the SWTSU campus in San Marcos. Greg Knapp’s Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, slated for the group’s next recording, was a real treat. Spring recitals are planned in Austin and in other college towns.
If you have to miss Nova’s dates, watch for the Harvey Pittel Saxophone Quartet (Pittel is the professor of saxophone at UT-Austin) or the Texas Saxophone Quartet from the University of North Texas in Denton. If brass is more appealing, the Lone Star Brass Quintet is a promising group that recently made its Dallas debut with a festival fanfare for the Midland-Odessa Symphony’s appearance at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
Voices of Change
Voices of Change is an evocative but confusing name for a bunch of musicians. Although some have assumed it is a choir, Voices is actually an independent contemporary chamber music ensemble that was originally formed by musicians associated with Southern Methodist University. And although it is still an ensemble-in-residence there, in the last few seasons the group has raised its music-making to a national level with the help of violinists Emanuel Borok and Robert Davidovici, concertmasters of the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies. Soprano Christine Schadeberg, always one of the group’s major assets, has a substantial career based in New York but returns for Voices’ concerts. Another major asset is SMU’s Caruth Auditorium, the site of most Voices of Change concerts. The 521-seat hall conveys every nuance.
Artistic director and pianist Jo Boatright programs a challenging mix of new pieces (many by Texans) and works by established contemporaries, as well as twentienth-century classics by such masters as Schoenberg and Bartok. At virtually every concert, the composer of one of the works has overseen its rehearsal. In recent years Voices has invited composers ranging from Toru Takemitsu, the epitome of Japanese subtlety, to John Cage, the granddaddy of anarchic experimentalism.
This season’s programs include a world premiere commissioned from Hale Smith (an associate of jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry) and visits by trendy but rather conservative American composers John Harbison and John Corigliano. Corigliano will be the guest composer for the group’s next scheduled concert on February 11 at 8:15 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium. Two days later at the Meyerson, Voices will join with the SMU Symphony, the Turtle Creek Chorale, and the Dallas Women’s Chorus in what amounts to a Corigliano minifestival.
Texas Baroque Ensemble
The Texas Baroque Ensemble lives up to its name: It’s the only musical group in the state that consistently unites performers from all over Texas. And the ensemble performs all over Texas too. All the more wonder then, that the TBE is devoted to a comparatively arcane pursuit like playing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music in proper historical style on historically correct instruments.
TBE artistic director Susan Ferré, who leads from the organ or harpsichord, lives in Garland with her husband, Charles Lang, a doctor who also is a whiz on the baroque cello and the viola da gamba. Ferré and Lang are the roots of the group musically and organizationally. But they have had the luck to build a core of world-class singers who really know baroque style—Houston’s Patti Spain, Garland’s Dale Terbeek, and Abilene’s Karl Dent—among the sixteen singers who perform with them regularly. And they have found (and sometimes have helped to develop) baroque instrumental specialists like violinist Rebecca Dodson, who lives on a farm in East Texas, and oboist Mark Ackerman, who plays first oboe in the San Antonio Symphony.
The ensemble’s Dallas-area subscription series folded a couple of years ago. But this season it will bring its sensitive, alert, and superbly stylish performances to Abilene, Houston, Fredericksburg, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Plano, and Round Top through local sponsorship and grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
One of the fruits of the decentralization of the TBE’s work is the impetus it has given to local baroque performance practice. “Our goal,” Ferré says, “is to work ourselves out of business—to foster early-music communities in all the Texas cities.” Twenty years ago the ensemble’s style of playing could be found only in a handful of European cities. The idea of such groups playing in every Texas town is an amazing—but certainly welcome—prospect.
December is an especially good month to hear the Texas Baroque Ensemble in Central Texas. On December 9 at 4 p.m. the TBE will offer a free Christmas concert featuring Telemann’s Christmas Cantata at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fredericksburg. On December 23 at 7 p.m. the TBE presents another free concert at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio of Handel’s Messiah with Spain, Terbeek, and Dent. This is an experience of that familiar masterpiece not to be missed.
Richardson Chamber Music Society
In the five years since its founding, the Richardson Chamber Music Society has developed a loyal audience, but the metropolitan newspapers have all but ignored the series. Played in St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church in suburban Richardson, just fifteen miles north of downtown Dallas, the concerts deserve both the wider acclaim and the larger audience that a measure of attention might bring.
Five times this season, artistic director Philip Lewis will assemble four to seven instrumentalists from around the country for the Saturday evening performances. About a third of the players are Lewis’ colleagues in the large and respected music department at the University of North Texas in Denton. The others include international prizewinners based in Texas—Austin pianist Gregory Allen, for instance—and the likes of world-class musicians such as violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
A key to the quality of the music they present is that the players know each other well enough to nourish each other musically, but not so well that they have lost their sense of spontaneity. Some of the world’s crackerjack full-time chamber music ensembles have achieved once unimagined levels of group virtuosity but at the cost of sounding like eight-armed mainframe computers. The ad hoc groups of distinguished musicians who perform with the Richardson Chamber Music Society are playing for the love of music—and you can hear that in their Mozart, Schumann, and Brahms. The next opportunity to catch a concert will be at 8 p.m. on January 19, 1991, at St. Barnabas Church.
In Houston, some of the city’s most appreciated musicians get together to perform in the Da Camera Series. Music Umbrella of Austin’s Salon Concerts and the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Intimate Concerts offer the purest versions of the idea, with area musicians performing in private homes. In fact, almost every town with a music department at the local college boasts some sort of chamber music program. But Central Presbyterian Church in Austin has a ten-year old series that may be unique: The brief noon-time concerts by the town’s many chamber groups are free every Thursday.
Texas Bach Choir
This year San Antonio’s Texas Bach Choir will celebrate its fifteenth season—which in these post-boom times gives it a certain seniority among independent serious choral groups—but for the first time under a new musical director. Over the years the choir’s founder, respected conductor and organist Robert Finster, had given Bach his due but had also taken audiences on a musically satisfying Cook’s tour of the large-scale sacred choral literature from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 to American composer William Albright’s Song to David of 1983. Critics praise the high quality of the TBC’s performances, and the choir has a loyal following. But after years of continuous struggles to gather funds to support such ambitious projects, Finster left the choir last spring.
If those frustrating money worries can be overcome—similar woes sank the dynamic Houston Chorale two years ago—TBC’s new artistic director, David Stevens, will no doubt continue the choir’s tradition of high quality. As a co-founder of Austin’s elite sacred music choir, the Austin Handel-Haydn Society, Stevens has a five-year reputation for excellent results. Most important, as a tenor soloist with the TBC for the last few seasons, he knows the choir intimately.
San Antonians sampled Stevens’ precise style in October at Grace Lutheran Church with Schubert’s Mass in E Flat. On December 16 at the old German-Catholic St. Joseph’s Church, the centerpiece for the Texas Bach Choir’s Christmas Festival will be R. Vaughan Williams’ Magnificat. Don’t settle for the compact disc version of these works. No matter how good those speakers sound, they can never duplicate the emotional impact of a superb choir performing in the proper setting.
Excellent choirs abound all over the state, many of them under the aegis of universities, and they are generally well appreciated. One choir in Houston offers a more intimate experience than most: On Sunday afternoons in December the J. S. Bach Society presents choral music in its liturgical context at Christ the King Lutheran Church near Rice University. In Austin the Bach Aria Group delivers loving performances selected from Bach’s enormous cantata and chamber music literature. Among Texas’ many civic choruses, one recommendation might come as a surprise: Experts say Mesquite’s is first-rate.