Houston is home to numerous chamber music ensembles that have thrived alongside each other, carving out their own niches with unique visions of how to present music and connect with audiences. After a challenging pandemic year when there was little work for musicians and existing groups could not do what they normally do, what does the landscape look like now? In this series, I caught up with musicians from nine distinctive ensembles in Houston to reflect on the past year and look to the future. In Part Three, I visited with the Axiom Quartet, Houston Brass Quintet and Texas New Music Ensemble. (Enjoy Part One and Part Two as well.)
The four members of Axiom Quartet, violinists Dominika Dancewicz and Ingrid Gerling, violist Katie Carrington, and cellist Patrick Moore, pondered a few ideas for remote recording in the early days of the pandemic, but quickly realized that technology could not satisfy their hunger for working together again.
The quartet waited until after summer 2020 to rehearse in person, masked up and socially distanced. “It brought a lot of challenges,” recalls Dancewicz. “As a string quartet we rely on close eye-to-eye and ear-to-ear communication, and being distanced made that difficult. The masks also eliminated a lot of the facial expressions we normally rely on.” Despite the challenges, the idea for an entirely digital season emerged, cleverly titled Hindsight is 20/21, a double word play.
They divided the season into six parts, producing a professionally recorded string quartet each month, with each movement released on each Sunday of a given month, using Facebook Premiere and the new digital performance platform A440. The stand-out programming included music by women composers Germaine Tailleferre and Stacy Garrop, and a string quartet by Houston composer and Rice University Shepherd School professor Pierre Jalbert.
Axiom is equally comfortable jamming to pop tunes. Its Jukebox Concerts have been quite successful in connecting with audiences. Outdoor shows at Cafe Brasil, where audience members get to choose their favorite tunes from an extensive list of over 400 songs, have been tremendously popular.
Axiom’s digital season concludes in May with the release of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2. The quartet will also embark on their first tour since the pandemic in May, co-sponsored by the Texas Touring Roster.
Dancewicz is looking forward to returning to concert halls for live performances. “We know that interacting through the screen is not the best way to transmit and communicate music,” she admits. “But we are grateful that creating interesting, exciting programs for this season has kept us engaged artistically, regardless of circumstances. Just being in the same room together gave us a sense of purpose during the pandemic.”
Houston Brass Quintet
Founded in 2014, the Houston Brass Quintet (HBQ) is made up of trumpeters Sarah Perkins and Russell Haehl, trombonist Ryan Rongone, hornist Mary Gold, and tubist Allyn Lindsey. HBQ was about to embark on the biggest project in the ensemble’s history when the pandemic put a stop to its plans. In partnership with the Downtown District and the Houston Arts Alliance, the DiverCity Project would have brought a series of six live concerts to various locations in Downtown Houston between March and May of 2020. Each concert was meant to be a celebration of a different culture through its music, a veritable sonic tour that reflects the diverse communities within the city of Houston.
“We had been planning this series for an entire year,” explains Sarah Perkins, Managing Director and trumpeter of the Houston Brass Quintet. Fortunately, HBQ was eventually able to live-stream five of the six planned concerts to a large viewership online. They rehearsed weekly in car parks to keep the ensemble in top shape.
In five concerts, the quintet explored the African roots of Jazz, jammed with artists from EuroFest in a German-inspired show from St. Arnold’s Brewery, danced to Latin beats with singer Cecy Duarte and percussionist Jesus Pacheco Manuel, took a journey to India with the amazing tabla player Shantilal Shah and sitar player Shane Monds, and premiered Houston composer Stephen Bachicha’s City Moves on the grand finale concert from the rooftop of Hotel Icon.
Bachicha’s work tells the story of a young man’s discovery of Houston through its music, from watching folk dances at Greek Fest to experiencing gospel music in the Wards, to celebrating Oktoberfest with a polka band and dancing at a salsa club. His mind is blown by all that the city has to offer. The funky groove of his musical motif is influenced by what he has experienced and evolves throughout the piece. The last movement is a portrait of a resilient city after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. It’s a fun and meaningful piece, a fitting culmination of the DiverCity Project.
“The quintet has really been the main artistic outlet for everyone in the group,” reflects Perkins. “We’ve spent so much time together this past year. It’s really helped us bond more.”
Look for the Houston Brass Quintet at their next outdoor Night on the Bandstand concert at First United Methodist Church in Missouri City on May 16.
Texas New Music Ensemble
The only composer-centric performing arts organization among this group, Texas New Music Ensemble’s (TNME) key mission has always been to support the creation and performance of new works by Texas composers. When multiple scheduled concerts at Texas colleges and universities around the state were cancelled within the same week, Chad Robinson, Artistic Director of TNME, knew he had to find a different way to continue the work of the organization.
“In thinking about virtual concerts, I was worried that it would become something less,” explains Robinson. “If you just film a concert and put it out there, then it is inherently less than being there live at the concert. So, I tried to think of what would make it into something more than a concert.”
The result was 12 commissions of new works for solo piano from 12 Texas composers, each one a snatch of their view of 2020. Some were about isolation, some about the pandemic, and others were about civil unrest and social justice. The season’s theme, “No Time for Silence,” reflects Robinson’s belief that especially in these difficult times, artists go to work, dispelling despair and lending a voice to change.
Robinson chose solo piano as the instrumentation for the entire season out of a sense of precaution during the pandemic. But the extraordinary artistry of pianist Yan Shen gave special life to these pieces. Over four sessions, Shen recorded all 12 pieces, three pieces per session with two released in the fall and two in the spring. Each composer speaks about the inspiration behind his or her work before the performance. The last video release will occur during the first week of May.
Composers, musicians, and listeners have all struggled to find meaning in the difficult year we have weathered together. On January 6, as Houston composer and University of Houston professor Rob Smith watched the insurrection at the U. S. Capitol unfold in real time on the news, he knew what he needed to write. “I couldn’t stop composing, but I couldn’t turn off the news,” Smith says. His solo piano work, Let Freedom Ring, was a direct response to current events and the multiple crises we have been reckoning with as a country. As a familiar patriotic song takes on an increasingly aggressive and dark resonance, the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” slowly emerges, an anthem of hope in the midst of riotous chaos.