People First: ROCO Celebrates 20 Years of Fostering a Culture of Connection

Let’s do the numbers. Houston’s premiere chamber orchestra ROCO will have reached a staggering 150 world premieres by the end of its 20th season. The ensemble has performed in 70 venues in Houston alone, adding four more next season. Its iconic QR codes are all over the city, logging up 45,000 scans in 38 locations. ROCO was live streaming long before the pandemic, offering to a world-wide audience free access to all its concerts since 2013. Recently, ROCO was recognized as number one among orchestras in the nation in programming women composers and number two for programming composers of color.

Founder and Artistic Director Alecia Lawyer and her team have done hundreds of podcasts and interviews all over the country, spreading the joy of making true connections through music. “It’s about how to make something very human and people-first,” says Lawyer, “and when you develop art that way as a true connection, then you don’t have to try to get these kinds of awards, you just have connections in the community. ROCO is 40 musicians from all over the country at the top of their game who take great delight in what they do and really connect and are vulnerable with the audience in a shared space.”

Even a quirky detail like having the house lights up for concerts is part of ROCO culture. “It makes us happy to see the whites of your eyes while you are sitting here. It becomes personal.”  And for the audience, “it’s taking the filters away, and giving people a more visceral experience.” Lawyer wants audiences to see through the ROCO lens, which just means looking with curiosity. “I feel like so many people just don’t give agency to the audience. They don’t give them agency to hate a piece, or love it. That’s my point, just staying in a curious space, and that’s for the musicians as well.”

Lawyer has surrounded herself with a team of eight remarkable women, whom she affectionately refers to as “Ocean’s Eight.” “We don’t do a bank heist,” laughs Lawyer. “Yes, I have wacky ideas, but the most important thing is to bring in people who can tell you no, but who will then talk about how we can do it.” That’s how the incredibly successful ROCO on the Go QR code project became a reality, giving every Houston community free access to music where they are.

“Growing an organization is messy all the time,” says Lawyer. A self-described geek, Lawyer draws an interesting comparison: “It’s like a great video game—you are on a quest and the person comes to help you who is just what you need at that moment. You could have your posse. It’s so exciting to discover people’s talents and strengths, and then find ways to amplify them as much as they amplify me.” She credits Managing Director Amy Gibbs as the Yin to her Yang, with a gift for strategic planning and the ability to give structure to dynamic creativity. She describes Director of Development Paige Conway as “relationship driven, and all about matching people’s passions with resources,” and Greta Rimpo, Director of Marketing and Communication, as a nerd (in the best way) who can understand and bring out the personalities of each of ROCO’s many collaborating composers. “We do so many commissions that it’s almost become blasé to the press in some ways,” says Lawyer. “Greta is able to see the composers for who they are and value them, as opposed to treating it just like another commission.”

The sense of connection was evident at ROCO’s announcement event for Season 20. The musicians exuded total joy and engagement in their performance. One could feel the love, respect, and camaraderie among all the performers, and the reciprocal good energy between patrons, staff, and musicians. The vibe in the room was electric and fun. Even the season announcement video had its own backstory of connection, highlighting the work of an important access and creative partner, Spectrum Fusion, a non-profit organization that supports adults with autism and helps them build life and job skills. ROCO has been working with a multi-media team of young adults for the past few years to produce promotional videos on social media.

Season 20 is simply called “This is ROCO.” It is not only a celebration of the ensemble’s 20 years together but also “an invitation to explore, engage, and be part of the ROCO experience.” ROCO is all about access and inviting people in. Lawyer likes to say “there is always a way in,” but she doesn’t like to use the word “outreach” when it comes to the mission of performing arts organizations. “Access is invitational whereas outreach is reaching into communities you weren’t invited into in the first place. It’s not semantics. It’s a true attitude.”

ROCO will be going even deeper into communities with the launch of Musicians with a Mission, the details of which will be revealed later in the season. The national service organization Advisory Board for the Arts will be studying this pilot project with ROCO. The goal is to reimagine what true authentic access can be for all performing arts and develop a blueprint for an integrated human-first approach to bringing people in.

Commissions are still the driving force of ROCO concerts. Celestial bodies and musical expression converge in composer-in-residence Viet Cuong’s latest creation Constellations, one of several world premieres featured on the season-opening concert (Sept. 27-28, 2024 at Miller Outdoor Theater and St. John the Divine). Cuong has layered various constellations on top of the orchestra map, with musicians mirroring the stars when viewed from above. Cuong is also writing a deeply personal song cycle inspired by his family’s escape from Saigon. Its premiere at the Asia Society (March 27, 2025) will feature the brilliant tenor Nicholas Phan.

The popular Day of the Dead concert (Nov. 2, 2024) will be anchored by another ROCO commissioned world premiere. Mexican composer Juan Pablo Contreras was inspired by the Día de los Muertos tradition that first started in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, where his grandfather was born. He remembers taking part in the celebrations as a child, riding in a small boat to the nearby island of Janitzio, spending the afternoon dancing, singing, and eating, then gathering at midnight at the cemetery to visit the graves of his ancestors. Alma Monarca is a sonic remembrance of these childhood memories. The title refers to an indigenous legend that says the souls of the dead turn into Monarch butterflies and start their migration journey on the Day of the Dead.

The third concert (Feb. 8, 2025) will coincide with a mini-residency by the multi-faceted Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad. Her piano concerto Total Eclipse, inspired by the solar eclipse North America just witnessed this April, is a journey from light to darkness and back again. It is also an emotionally intimate work born of the friendship between Assad and the piano soloist Lara Downes, who will perform the work, reflecting on the events of joy and sadness, birth and death, which have shaped the lives of both women in recent years. Assad’s Evolution of AI will also receive its Texas premiere on the same concert. Bulgarian-born conductor Delyana Lazarova, ROCO’s newly named artistic partner, will be on the podium.

The season finale (April 26, 2025) will be a brilliant orchestral showcase, featuring Marlijn Helder’s epic rescore of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as well as another ROCO commissioned world premiere, Mancini Mashup by one of Jazz Houston’s founders, Vincent Gardner.

ROCO will venture out to four new venues this season with its Connections Series, the DeLuxe Theater, Horizon on Sunset Art Gallery, Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, and the newly renovated River Oaks Theater, where the orchestra will provide a live soundtrack for Buster Keaton’s silent film The General, one of the most revered comedies of the silent era.

20 years is a significant milestone for a performing arts organization. Lawyer doesn’t think too much about the numbers. Instead, she talks about what it means to be a human and to be an artist, and how to integrate the two to truly explore a connection with other people. “ROCO has brought me back to my authentic self. I was a child who would speak to any human and always say there’s a friend I haven’t met yet. And now I very much feel that way. It’s meeting people where they are.”