2019 Pride Concert Preview: Sightlines

Singing Pride: The work of LGBTQ composers celebrated in a free concert

By Sightlines – July 6, 2019

For 11 years, the Austin Chamber Music Festival has presented a free concert that celebrates the creative contributions of LGBTQ composers.

Composer Russell Reed curated and presented the annual and increasingly popular event for its first 10 years. But with Reed’s relocation from Austin to Mexico City, the concert is this led by composer and arranger Brent Baldwin, artistic director and conductor of classical/alt-classical choral group Panoramic Voices.

And as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising is celebrated this year, vocal music occupies center stage. The Pride Concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. July 9 at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center, 1165 Angeline St. Admission is free.

Baldwin created “Absolutely Cuckoo: A Magnetic Fields Medley,” an arrangement of songs by Stephin Merritt, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and frontman of indie pop The Magnetic Fields.

“It’s heartbreaking and hilarious from moment to moment, and Merritt is one of the most brilliant songwriters on the planet — a modern day Cole Porter,” says Baldwin.

Baldwin will also conduct John Cage’s “Four²,” a late work of the composer’s written in 1990, just two years prior to his death. “Four²” uses a cappella chorus to produce overlapping tones with independent durations.

He’ll also lead musical visionary Pauline Oliveros’ “From Unknown Silences,” a Cage-inspired work from 1996. “Oliveros quotes Cage in her piece and creates a quiet and hauntingly meditative texture, with her concept of Deep Listening at its core,” says Baldwin.

And the Panoramic Voices singers celebrate some classic Americana, with Aaron Copland’s “At the River.”

Also on the Pride Concert program: much celebrated mezzo-soprano Liz Cass teams up with pianist Jim James for songs by Russell Reed and Austin-based composer Graham Yates.

Soprano Katrina Saporsantos will perform the Texas premiere of Robin Estrada’s “Duayya,” a work for solo soprano and for percussion which Saporsantos will play.

Black Composers Concert Preview: Sightlines

A Concert of African Diaspora Composers, from the 18th Century to contemporary Puerto Rico

For this year’s award-winning Black Composers Concert, curator Artina McCain taps composers of African descent from Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States.

By Dana Wen – February 1, 2019

Last year, the Boyd Vance Theatre at the George Washington Carver Museum was so packed that ushers had to cart in extra chairs. The crowd, a sea of diverse faces, included parents with small children in tow, chit-chatting grandmas, and young couples. All of them had braved the cold winter day to hear some chamber music, specifically a program featuring Black female composers.

Every February, the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Black Composers Concert provides a midwinter musical treat after the blizzard of the holidays. Curated by pianist Artina McCain, the annual chamber music concert celebrates the contributions of Black composers from around the world. Now in its 16th year, the annual tradition was a bit of a local secret until recently.

“We’ve been standing room only for the last three or four years,” says McCain recently, still sounding a little surprised at the project’s runaway popularity.

But after listening to last year’s carefully-crafted program, it’s easy to see why the crowds keep coming. Each Black Composers Concert focuses on a central theme, providing a common thread to draw the audience in. This helps McCain expertly guide her listeners through a program of music that may be unfamiliar or completely new to them.

Clearly, it’s a journey of learning and musical discovery that audiences find thrilling. Along with the full auditorium, last year’s concert, titled “The Black Female Composer”, garnered McCain a 2018 Austin Critics Table Award for Best Classical Instrumentalist.

This year, McCain has set her sights on a global scale. “The African Diaspora”, the 2019 Black Composers Concert (performances on February 9 and 10), features composers of African descent from Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. The global focus ties in with “Landscapes”, the theme of Austin Chamber Music Center’s current concert season, which explores ideas of heritage and homeland around the world.

Since previous Black Composers Concert programs focused primarily on the African-American experience, McCain relished the opportunity to represent an even-wider range of musical viewpoints in “The African Diaspora”.

“There are so many composers of African descent all over the world, and their music isn’t programmed that often,” she laments. “That led me on this journey of learning about all these composers that lived in different parts of the world. This has been a really interesting and fun program (to curate) because the pieces are so different from each other, but all of the composers were classical or formally trained.”

As a young piano student with traditional conservatory training, McCain noticed that Black composers were often left out of history classes and concert programs. She took it upon herself to learn more, uncovering a treasure trove of rarely-performed repertoire. What began as a sense of curiosity led to a lifelong passion, resulting in a doctoral thesis (on African-American composer George Walker) and eventually her current role as curator of the Black Composers Concert – the ideal platform for exploration and sharing.

“I had played so many Black art songs and Black spirituals, which more people are probably familiar with,” explains McCain. “But I wanted to learn more about the concert repertoire, more about Black composers’ contributions to Western music.” Often, these are the stories that don’t make it into the history textbooks and symphony halls.

A prime example of this is George Walker, whose Sonata for Cello and Piano is featured on the “The African Diaspora” program, performed by McCain and cellist Elizabeth Lee.

A talented pianist, Walker graduated from Oberlin Conservatory and Curtis Institute of Music in the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when opportunities for Black classical musicians in the U.S. were slim. Despite this, he built a distinguished career as a performer, teacher, and prolific composer, producing works for piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra. Though Walker’s music draws primarily from his training as a classical pianist, it includes elements of jazz, gospel hymns, and other uniquely American musical forms.

In his later years, Walker began to gain wider recognition for his contributions, winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music. He was the first Black composer to receive the award. By the time of his death in 2018, Walker’s music had gained popularity, though he remains far from a household name.

McCain would like to change that. “I wanted to pay homage to George Walker because he is, in my opinion, one of the great American composers,” she says resolutely. “I believe he probably doesn’t have the same status as George Gershwin or Aaron Copland because Blacks were not celebrated in that way in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. A lot of Black musicians have always known and respected his music, but I find as far as mainstream classical performers and (ensembles) go, many people don’t know his works or don’t program them.”

Another 20th century composer featured on the “The African Diaspora” program is violinist Noel DaCosta. Born in Nigeria in 1929, DaCosta spent his youth in Jamaica and eventually moved to New York City, where he established his musical career.

Like Walker, DaCosta drew upon jazz rhythms and harmonies when writing his compositions. For “The African Diaspora”, McCain chose the blues-influenced “Walk Around ‘Brudder Bones’,” a thrilling and demanding work for unaccompanied violin, featuring soloist Christabel Lin.

Along with presenting music from a variety of countries and cultures, McCain also chose works to represent different periods in Western music history. It’s a way to underscore that Black composers have been prolific, if not widely recognized, throughout the centuries.

Joseph Bologne (typically known by his noble title, Chevalier de Saint-Georges) was one of the earliest known classical composers of African descent. A movement from his Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano will be performed by McCain and Lin.

Born in 1745 in Guadeloupe, a French colony in the Caribbean, Saint-Georges was the son of a wealthy French landowner and an African slave. He spent much of his youth in Paris, where he received a noble’s education and developed a reputation as a master fencer. Eventually, the young Saint-Georges turned to music, becoming a prolific composer and conductor (while still finding time for swordsmanship activities and military campaigns).

As a curator, McCain rarely misses the opportunity to present something new. One highlight of “The African Diaspora” is a medley of Puerto Rican bomba y plena tunes performed by local percussionist Samuel López and members of his ensemble.

A signature feature of Puerto Rico’s musical landscape, bomba y plena encompasses a series of rhythmic patterns that trace their ancestry back to African tribal music. Throughout the past 400 years, bomba y plena has been used to evoke the Puerto Rican experience, from slavery and political protest to occasions of celebration and dance.

“We’ve never had a percussionist on the program, so that’s going to be a great surprise,” explains McCain excitedly. “I really wanted to include music from Puerto Rico (in the program). Sammy’s an amazing musician, so I just step back and let him do what he does best. I will be listening to the music for the first time at the concert, along with the audience.”

Along with her role as curator for the Black Composers Concert, McCain juggles a busy schedule as a professor, lecturer, and touring artist. Though many of her performances feature “mainstream” favorites from the classical repertoire, McCain is pleased that her work with the Black Composers Concert has generated interest and demand for lesser-known music by composers of color. In 2019, she will present several “encore” performances of last year’s “The Black Female Composer” program alongside baritone James Rodriguez.

An album of solo piano music is also in the works. Titled “Heritage: An American Legacy”, the collection draws inspiration from McCain’s work with Black composers and her love of American music.

And she’s already looking ahead to the 2020 Black Composers Concert, hoping to shine light on living composers who are still actively contributing to the musical fabric of the 21st century.

Through all of this, McCain cites a desire for equality as her driving factor.

“I want to see people of different shades, hues, ethnicities, and (genders) on the stage performing equally on every program and in every orchestra. That would be a dream.”

Review: Beauty on Water

Review: Beauty on Water
‘Beauty on Water’ Kicks off Season for Austin Chamber Music Center
by Rebecca Johnson, Arts Around Austin
October 3, 2018

This past Saturday, I checked out Austin Chamber Music Center’s season opener, “Beauty on Water” at Northwest Hills United Methodist Church. It was first of a season dubbed Landscapes, in which each performance will highlight works from a different culture or country. This program featured the music of Scandinavian composers.

Performers included guest artist Håkan Rosengren from Sweden on clarinet, violinist Charles Wetherbee, cellist Bion Tsang, and the center’s artistic director Michelle Schumann on piano.

“Beauty on Water” included works from the Dane Emil Hartmann and Swedes Tor Aulin and Elfrida Andrée, as well as a work by Beethoven. All of the Scandinavian composers were new to me, and I really appreciated this exposure to a different culture.

I was particularly thrilled to meet Elfrida Andrée. Not only was her piece my favorite of the night, with a full, dramatic sound, but her life story turned out to be fascinating!

Throughout the evening, Michelle Schumann provided a brief commentary on each selection. Prior to Andrée’s Piano Trio No. 2 in G Minor, Schumann told the audience that Andrée had been a gifted organist in nineteenth century Sweden, where it was illegal for women to hold official organ posts in churches. Andrée and her family sued the government over this, and won. Andrée soon became organist at Gothenburg Cathedral, the most coveted organ post in the country. And as evidenced by Saturday’s performance, Andrée was also a gifted composer.

In addition to professional performances, the Austin Chamber Music Center offers chamber music coaching to students of all ages. Saturday night, as a pre-show treat, violin student Weiran Jiang performed a delightfully lyrical piece, accompanied by Schumann.

Landscapes runs through the end of April. Programs include Nostrovia, featuring Russian composers; It’s All Greek to Me East Meets West and The Melting Pot. Concerts are given twice, once on a Friday night in a private home, and then again on Saturday night at a public venue. The Friday concerts are sold out, but tickets remain for all Saturday performances. Prices for these run $25-$45.

Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival

Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival
How the Attacca Quartet, Emerson Quartet, and invoke played
by Robi Polgar, Austin Chronicle
July 17, 2018

This year’s Austin Chamber Music Festival features three weeks of what Artistic Director Michelle Schumann calls “hardcore chamber music,” as a stellar array of performers explores a range of works, periods, and genres in performances large and intimate as well as in inspirational workshops for young musicians (of all ages).

Attacca Quartet, Bates Recital Hall, Sun., July 8
Among the young, though now well-established and internationally acclaimed, the Attacca Quartet rounded out the festival’s first weekend with a program of their favorite string quartets.

First was Beethoven’s summery, Mozart-influenced Opus 18 No. 5 in A Major. Yes, “summery,” for this is Beethoven conjuring the liveliness and joy of his predecessor with exuberant flourishes matched with the composer’s familiar bolder strokes, a dichotomy that had the quartet bouncing in their seats at the buoyant energy with which Beethoven infused this work.

The second piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73, constructed as a wartime narrative, began in (brief) innocence, darkened ominously, then launched into battle — a chaotic scene of driving, thrusting bowing — before resolving in the uneasy calm of an existential question. The quartet’s superb control was evidenced in the “Moderato con molto,” a haunting march so delicate it took one’s breath away, and by the musicians’ commitment to the vicious power of what violist Nathan Schram described as Shostakovich’s “heavy metal” emotional oomph.

Robert Schumann’s Quartet in A Major, Opus 41, No. 3, was third, the composer dedicating the piece to his wife Clara, a traveling pianist who was away on tour. Peppered throughout the first movement, a two-note down-stroke (the “Clara motif”) that echoed her name, sometimes plaintive, sometimes with delight, always heartfelt. The most “classical” of the three selections, this offered melodic shades of Mendelssohn and a churning longing that finished with a galloping, sprightly flourish.

Emerson String Quartet, Bates Recital Hall, Fri., July 13
If the performance of the Attaccans was intense, connected and physical, the overwhelming sensation of the following Friday night’s concert by the Emerson String Quartet was one of four musicians so accomplished in their craft, so monastically attentive to every nuance of the score, that the Beethoven works they played seemed to hang in the air over a packed Bates Recital Hall as if the music had achieved tangible form — the music seemed to be playing itself.

Among the last pieces the composer wrote, Beethoven’s String Quartets No. 13 and No. 14 transcend what one might consider their Beethoven-ness, or perhaps this was hyper-Beethoven, such is their scope. Schumann, introducing the ensemble, suggested we were about to hear something “more than music; something holy.” Indeed, this was the perfect union of veteran performers and, arguably, classical music’s greatest composer; the ease with which the former played this most sublime music evoked “a spiritual journey,” as Schumann put it.

From the first bow strokes of the “Adagio” of the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, delicate as an intake of breath, to the swaggering drama of the “Grosse Fuge” that brought the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major to its conclusion, the Emersons explored every nook and cranny of this pair of extraordinary works.

Through it all, a feeling of Beethoven at play pervaded, the composer distilling pleasure — even fun — between the monumental, the energetic, the tense. There is dance, too, in these pieces, whose weight, color and balance as interpreted by four consummate musicians offered a glimpse of artists at the top of their game.

invoke, The Adventures of Prince Achmed with Original Live Score, AFS Cinema, Sat., July 14
Fun and games of a different variety were on display when the ever playful invoke — Austin-based purveyors of chamber music that busts through genres in the quartet’s spicy performances — performed an original score to accompany a screening of the oldest extant animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. German director Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 fairy tale uses her silhouette animation technique to tell an evocative story of an adventure-seeking prince who finds, loses, then recovers his beloved. In the course of his adventures, he combats a wicked magician, aided by a powerful witch and Aladdin and the genies of the magic lamp.

Flanked by workshop students — a phalanx of violins and a bassoon to one side, four cellists, a keyboardist, and percussion on the other — invoke and company embarked on their own musical adventure, exploring chamber music to its edges, querying just what it means to be a “string” quartet. No surprise, then that the ensemble found opportunities to add mandolin, zither, and even a banjo to their enchanting aural escapades, their music soaring along with the animated mechanical flying horse or dropping into the sonorous depths of the dark cave where Aladdin’s lamp was discovered.

For adventurers of chamber music in all its forms, there are still discoveries to be made in this final festival weekend. The remaining performances are:

Schumann Chamber Players play a program of Smetana and Dvorak, Fri., July 20, 7:30pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman, UT campus.
Brooklyn Duo perform covers of pop songs and traditional music, Sat., July 21, 7:30pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman, UT campus.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a collaboration between the Austin Chamber Music Festival and Austin Shakespeare, featuring actors performing scenes from Shakespeare’s play and festival artists performing music inspired by the story, Sun., July 22, 4:30pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman, UT campus.

Pride Concert Preview: Sightlines

Julius Eastman to The Fullest

For its annual Pride Concert, Austin Chamber Music Festival presents “Femenine,” a masterpiece of the late queer, Black composer who was once all but forgotten

By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
July 5, 2018

When minimalist composer Julius Eastman died in 1990, the 49-year-old had been homeless for nearly a decade. He’d long lost most of his possessions, including many of his scores, when he was evicted from his East Village apartment.

And though Eastman had once been a fixture in the New York music scene — an unforgettable presence who was brilliant, unapologetically queer and black; a collaborator of Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson and Pierre Boulez (no less) — almost no one knew he passed away of heart failure, alone, in a hospital in Buffalo, New York. The Village Voice was the first to run an obituary, eight months after Eastman had died.

“What I am trying to achieve,” Eastman said in a 1976 interview. “Is to be what I am to the fullest. Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

During his lifetime, Eastman’s music — pulsating, challenging, political compositions with provocative titles like “Crazy Nigger” and “Gay Guerrila” — was never commercially recorded. And the lonely circumstances of Eastman’s death threatened to erase the composer and his music from the canon.

And yet, the last few years have seen a veritable “Eastmania” as an upwelling of interest in the composer expands.

On July 10, Austin composer Russell Reed will present Eastman’s “Femenine,” a 70-minute piece now recognized as one of the composer’s masterpieces. “Femenine” is performed as the Austin Chamber Music Festival’s “10th Annual Pride Concert,” a free concert that Reed has curated from its inception.

Reed has programmed Eastman’s music before as part of the Pride Concert. And we asked Reed to expound on the Eastman revival and choosing to perform the complex “Femenine” with an added role for a performance artist.

Sightlines: Why do you think Eastman’s music is enjoying a renaissance?
Russell Reed: I think his music is having a sustained renaissance for many reasons. The first is that it is really interesting and provides a different direction for minimalist music. His pieces rely heavily on improvisation and performer interaction. He sets up the guidelines, but the performers must work together, listen and choose the path of the music. That is part of the organic quality of his work that he often talked about — each new section adds material while keeping material from previous sections. His basic motives also have a sort of jazzy, dancey, groovy energy that is infectious, like a pop hook or riff that you can’t get out of your head.

S: As a composer, what interests you about Eastman’s music?
RR: I’ll admit that I am not the biggest fan of minimalist music. I certainly appreciate it, and for me listening to a piece like Riley’s “Music for 18 Instruments” or “8 lines” is like watching a set of giant pastel-colored screens pass slowly through one’s field of vision. It’s certainly interesting, but I’m always left feeling a bit cold, like I wasn’t really invited to participate in the emotion of the piece — if there even is any. Eastman’s music is different.

A page from Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla score. Photograph: Andrew Przystanski and Bennington College
But Eastman’s pieces like “Stay On It,” “Crazy Nigger,” “Gay Guerrila” and “Femenine” seem to have a sense of longing, striving, and even anger — like a feeling of looking to get out of oneself or express a deep anxiety, pain or need for human connection. I call that feeling in a piece of music “Life Power” and for me it is a sort of miracle because it lives past the life of the one who created or gathered it. Eastman’s music reminds me of the work of Keith Haring and the Russian artist Timur Novikov. They worked with a type of minimalism but the results are not flat — they are emotional and produce as many feelings as they do thoughts.

I also think that the fact that Eastman was African-American and gay has something to do with his renaissance. Just speaking as a gay composer myself, I love all of the great composers, and I love music, so it is hard for me to dislike anything that seems done in earnest. But in a composer like Julius Eastman I see myself, I see my own imagination, my own existence in a culture — both broadly and in the gay culture. It’s completely irrational, but I feel like Eastman is a friend and compatriot, and we understand each other in a way that Debussy and I, for example, will never be able to.

S: A lot Eastman’s scores were not well preserved. Have you had to do an archival work or re-arranging of “Femenine?”
RR: Four years ago when we did “Stay On It” (for the Pride Concert) I was able to download the snippet of extant music from Mary Jane Leach’s website. A composer and vocalist Mary Jane was a friend of Eastman’s from the downtown New York music scene and she collected every score of Eastman’s that has been found and made it available for free to the public. We used that score and the recording to reconstruct the basic outline of the piece. Now most of Eastman’s music has been formally reconstructed by various groups and/or composers. Schirmer has bought the rights to all of his music and will be publishing it sometime in the future. Mary Jane sent me the reconstructed score of “Femenine,” done by Bower Bird Ensemble. Even with this “real” score we have had to go through and make some decisions about how we are going to structure the piece. It’s long, about 70 minutes, and the score that came out of theBower Bird Ensemble recording doesn’t exactly match the original performance. So needless to say there is room to shape the work as needed; that’s part of the process.

S: How would you describe the music of “Femenine” and why chose this piece in particular?
RR: This may sound cheesy, but I tear up every time I start listening to “Femenine.” The whole piece is structured around one simple statement from the vibraphone that is repeated throughout the piece. The other players gradually enter and begin the process of continuously expanding the music for the next hour. There is a definite sense of opening, expanding, of listening. Such freedom all within a tightly structured and economical basic statement. It’s like breathing. It’s like opening up to sound.

At the original 1974 performance of “Femenine” Eastman showed up wearing a dress and insisted that everyone be fed soup, which he had made himself. I love that freedom. In that same spirit I think having Austin artist Michael Anthony Garcia contribute his visual and performance work during the piece is something Eastman would have certainly been down with.

Festival Review: St. Lawrence String Quartet

Austin Chamber Music Festival: St. Lawrence String Quartet

This concert was a lesson in active listening from an active, assured, exceptional ensemble
By Robi Polgar, Austin Chronicle
July 21, 2017

What is “active listening”?

A lesson: As explained – nay, taught – by Geoff Nuttall, violinist and charismatic spokesman for the St. Lawrence String Quartet (a “democratic institution”), “You don’t need to know anything [about music] to be affected, but only if you’re listening.” So, before experiencing SLSQ’s Austin Chamber Music Festival program of string quartets by Joseph Haydn and R. Murray Schafer, Nuttall and his peers – Owen Dalby, violin; Lesley Robertson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello – highlighted sections of what was to come and encouraged the house to chime in with a vocal, emotional response (grumbling, sighing, “grrr“s and “aah“s).

Under the microscope was Haydn’s “devastating” String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20 No. 5, one of a half-dozen quartets he wrote as Op. 20 which revolutionized the form. Haydn exploded the concept, personalizing the quartet, democratizing it, imbuing it with emotion and open expression – shocking for the time. He explored character and storytelling, adding the color of folk rhythms and melodies. And when the ensemble played the piece, there it was: the first movement’s sinister opening theme, followed by its sunnier complement (“grrr!” vs. “aah!”), two characters in conflict coming to a tense compromise. The second movement, a minuetto, a waltz, with breaths of silence among dainty and dramatic steps, a little air before the dance resumed. A love song next, an adagio, featuring moments of “butterfly improvisation” by Nuttall as Dalby assumed the melody line. Last, the fugue, a complex, follow-the-leader bit of brilliance flicked into motion by Robertson before pinging around the energetic quartet, a band that can’t sit still, such is their enthusiasm for the music. Call it “active performing.”

After intermission, Costanza introduced Schafer’s masterful Quartet No. 3. He began the first movement, a solo that evolved into a theatrical coming together of the quartet, the three other strings appearing out of (almost) thin air over the course of an ethereal piece of music. If Haydn liberated the string quartet, Schafer takes full advantage of this freedom, concocting a three-movement oeuvre that defies and delights. Droning strings and sliding shifts of notes; the performers adding yelps and shouts to a second movement that demands “maximum physical energy”; a final movement of strange tunings, rhythms, and buzzing, resolving to an ultimate peace. If George Harrison had heard this, he’d never have bothered to go to India.

The finale was Haydn’s second string quartet from Op. 20, in C major. Here was a ferocious start, with moments of respite, pitting the two violinists against the world. The selection brought more drama to an evening that had everyone on the edge of their seats, an active audience.

When commanded by the rapturous crowd for just one more selection, Nuttall held his score aloft and said, “We have the whole book of Opus 20,” and more than one in the house hoped the quartet would play every note. In the end, we had to settle for an encore of Quartet No. 1’s first movement, listening actively, delightedly, to a consummate quartet performing outstandingly good music.

Here endeth the lesson. Save for this:

When Austin Chamber Music Center Artistic Director Michelle Schumann introduced the quartet for this, its first appearance here, she noted how excited the group was because of its anticipated, as yet unconfirmed, return to town next summer. Apparently, a clause in the artist contract states that in the event of rain on the day of the performance, that artist or ensemble automatically gets asked back to the following year’s festival. Schumann delivered this news in a mock rueful tone, because everyone wants them back, because it did rain a little, somewhere (please), and because, if the SLSQ makes good on its desire to return, eager attendees have time to ensure they have tickets for the next lesson in active listening by this active, assured, exceptional ensemble.

Festival Overview: Austin Chronicle

Chargaux at the 2017 Austin Chamber Music Festival: This dynamic Brooklyn-based string duo proves that the Austin Chamber Music Festival has many more colors than its name suggests

By Robert Faires

Tight shot of a violin and a viola – standard-issue instruments in every orchestra and string ensemble across the globe. Make whatever assumptions you choose about the music made with these instruments and the musicians who play them.

Now pan out to reveal the owners of these old-school music makers: two African-American women in their 20s, both with impeccably styled makeup and hair (which could be bright magenta or lemon, elaborate box braids or tight flapper curls) and chic outfits looking not just on trend but ahead of trend.

Keep panning out until we can see them in a metropolitan setting – possibly the Boston street corner where the two met by chance in 2010, or a Brooklyn subway where they spent four years honing their chops as a musical duo and finding their voice as composers – and see them surrounded by restless urbanites, stopped in their tracks to listen to the pair, to capture them in photos and on video, to ask them where their music can be purchased.

Now cue the music: violin and viola intertwining in dreamy melodic lines, repeated with synth underscoring and drum machine beats, spiced here with Eastern airs and there with hip-hop rhythms, and maybe some spoken lines or softly sung lyrics that add to the alluring, mesmerizing, and thoroughly fresh spell cast by their original compositions. Unless, that is, they’re covering, say, Kanye’s “FML” or Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Beyoncé’s “Partition” or Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” in which case their musical magic turns alchemical, transforming a song you knew into one that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before.

Pan out far enough and you’ll be able to see Kendrick Lamar, who included their strings in his hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”; fashion label Opening Ceremony, which featured the duo in one of its runway shows; J. Cole, who had the pair contribute vocals and string arrangements to his album 4 Your Eyez Only; and Michelle Obama, who brought them to the White House to perform for her Reach Higher initiative’s Fashion Education workshop.

That’s Chargaux – as in Jasmin “Charly” Charles and Margaux Whitney – the Brooklyn-based art collective that’s been defying expectations in the musical, fashion, and visual art worlds for the past seven years. Whatever preconceptions may have been prompted by seeing their instruments – I’m guessing stodgy old white dudes in tuxes, hopelessly mired in music of the 18th and 19th centuries – the fact is, classical music is a bigger, broader, even wilder world than we often imagine it to be. And the fact that Chargaux is a featured act at this year’s Austin Chamber Music Festival should also indicate that there’s more to a festival by that name than you might think.

Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center and festival director for the past decade, has always sought to fill the annual summer event with ensembles and programs that reveal the full spectrum of colors in what’s considered chamber music. While never one to ignore the traditional brand of chamber music that draws on the classical repertoire of the past – she’s brought to Austin such celebrated ensembles as the Emerson String Quartet, Jupiter String Quartet, Brentano String Quartet, and this year’s St. Lawrence String Quartet – she has supplemented the chamber music we might have expected with much that we might not have: the Turtle Island Quartet playing a tribute to John Coltrane, Raúl Jaurena & the Texas Tango Five playing a tribute to Astor Piazzolla, Tosca String Quartet playing a tribute to the Beat poets, chamber operas about Anne Frank and neurologist Oliver Sacks, badass jazz trio the Bad Plus, Third Coast Percussion, Texas songbird Kelly Willis, and Chamber Music Center students-turned-hot-band Mother Falcon. In that varied array, Chargaux represents another vivid hue.

And speaking of hues, it’s worth noting the role that color plays in the art of Chargaux. Violinist Charly has synesthesia, the perceptual condition in which some sensory impressions are associated with colors. As she explained it to an interviewer with the National Endowment for the Arts: “Color for me is an involuntary sense. It’s just as natural as taste, touch, and feel. When I hear music, or when I hear any sound, there’s an aura, or there’s a series of color, or there’s a pattern of color that comes with it.

“When I listen to Alice Coltrane, a lot of her music is red and orange – she has a lot of Easter colors. When I listen to Miles Davis, his music sounds very dark: black, brown, stripes of gold. When I listen to Jimi Hendrix, we see these psychedelic colors that everybody paints him with. I don’t see those colors, but I feel these raw reds and oranges. I feel these swells, these flowers. If you could imagine how a flower feels, that’s what his music sounds like to me. So it’s not just simply a color, it’s also a texture. There might be 30 different versions of yellow that I hear from something.”

Charly goes on to say that when she and Margaux make music, “all the songs we write have a palette, a simple palette that we pull from.” She sees the music of Chargaux as “really purple.” Now’s your chance to discover what colors you see in this duo’s music – and in the other ensembles in the 2017 Austin Chamber Music Festival. You may find more colors than you expect.

Chargaux performs Sun., July 9, 7:30 pm, at North Door, 501 Brushy.

Festival Overview: Austin American-Statesman

Austin Chamber Music Festival reveals stories in the songs: Our original house music includes a strong narrative impulse

By Michael Barnes
July 5, 2017

The latest trend in chamber music — storytelling — might also be the most ancient cultural practice in human history.
Yet as Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, sees it, a new-fashioned style of storytelling is the perfect complement to an intense, intimate and often misunderstood form of music.

“Audiences often crave more from a concert,” Schumann says about the narrative impulse as she expects it to play out during the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival. “They want to take away a deep understanding of the music, rather than just a sonic-emotional experience. They desire a personal connection with the artists and the art they are creating, a narrative that ties together different composers, eras, countries and styles. It gives audiences a context that they can relate to and therefore feel closer to.”

Traditionally, chamber group offerings have been organized around two main genres: string quartets and piano trios, the latter made up of a violin, a cello and a piano.

“In the past, concerts have generally followed a formula of sorts, not unlike symphony concerts,” Schumann says. “A typical program includes a piece from the classical era — Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven — combined with a piece from the Romantic era — late Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Brahms — followed by an early- to mid-20th-century work — say Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartok. Groups sometimes also like to include a more adventurous or new work, maybe commissioned for them.”

The unspoken theme for these concerts: “These are three pieces that we like a lot … and you should, too.”

“Not to take away from the marvel of a string quartet concert by Mozart, Schubert or Debussy, but organizers are fanatics about developing audiences, not only in size, but in depth and commitment,” Schumann says. “Presenting concerts that have a narrative thread or storytelling aspect to them provides a ‘hook’ to interest the audience, and then the chance to reinforce the profound nature of connection that chamber music can allow.”

She shares some examples from the upcoming festival.

• The St. Lawrence String Quartet will lead what it calls a “Haydn Discovery.” First violinist Geoff Nuttall, often referred to as the Jon Stewart of chamber music, will give an insider’s tour of the Haydn Quartet Op. 20, No. 5. Together with the quartet, he will guide the audience through the surprises, inside musical jokes, dramatic impulses, unusual techniques and special phrasing choices to engage them as active listeners.

• The Daedalus Quartet has put together a program called “Kreutzer Sonata,” after Leo Tolstoy’s novella. Together with an actor who depicts Tolstoy’s wife, the quartet weaves in the works of Janacek (the “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet), Tchaikovsky, Taneyev and Beethoven (his Sonata for Violin and Piano dubbed the “Kreutzer Sonata,” arranged for String Quintet), combined with the writings of Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s novella was scandalous when first published — and immediately banned.

• The Lavuta Project, with violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz, presents a modern Gypsy program that combines the virtuoso Franck Sonata for violin and piano with freshly arranged, composed and improvised Gypsy folk tunes from the Balkans, the Middle East, Israel and Eastern Europe, “as well as and our own American Folk Gypsy, George Gershwin.”

• Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s program, “Miniatures from the Americas,” features 10 short pieces from North, Central and South America. Many of them were written for the group, and its personal connection with the composers drive the interpretations.

• The Center’s self-produced programs feature more of these extra-musical narratives: “Animated Shorts” pairs films with live chamber music, and in another concert, scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” will be combined with chamber music by composers from different eras — Faure, Bartok, Piazzolla, Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich — chosen to extend and deepen Shakespeare’s emotional depiction.

Some traditional audiences resist this trend. They believe that the music can stand on its own.

“New audiences, however, love this change,” Schumann says. “They are captivated by the concept of contextualizing music and feel thrilled and intrigued to learn something new with an innovative connection.”

Part of this has to do with the state of music education, she points out, even the state of the humanities in general. Older, more experienced audiences know a lot about the music and the composers, as well as the historical and political context. They already feel connected. Younger and newer audiences don’t necessarily come to the music with this advantage.

Even without these dissonances, Schumann and her colleagues deal with all sorts of misperceptions about chamber music.

“That it’s stuffy, elite, unapproachable and inaccessible,” she says. “Frankly, the worst part is that the name — chamber music — is immediately a term that needs defining. Ugh. What a (expletive) and constant uphill battle.”

She prefers to see it as the original house party music.

“Friends getting together to play with and for other friends, drink wine, tell stories, (complain) about politics, and then, more music,” she says. “Composers saved their most personal, intimate communication for this genre because they knew the performances would always be for their closest friends.”

Austin Chamber Music Festival

July 7: Festival Chamber Orchestra

July 8: St. Lawrence String Quartet

July 9: Chargaux

July 14: Animated Shorts

July 15: Romeo & Juliet

July 16: The Lavuta Project

July 21: Daedalus Quartet

July 22: Cuban Finale

July 23: Cuarteto Latinoamericano

Blue Bash Review: Austin 360

Enraptured by chamber music at the Blue Bash

By Michael Barnes
June 12, 2017

Listen closer.

Chamber music demands it. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

I’ve been away from live chamber music for a while. I’m back. Never going away again.

The Blue Bash, which benefits the estimable Austin Chamber Music Center, took place this year at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. Not in the ballroom, but rather the smaller space with a forest view and high, arched ceilings. A little tinny for chat over dinner, but well suited for quiet music.

About 150 enraptured guests gathered to hear Michelle Schumann, the center’s artistic director and an immaculate pianist, play the arboreal “Walderauschen” by Franz Liszt. She was joined by gifted clarinetist Håkan Rosengren for a dynamic “Fantasiestucke” by Robert Schumann.

After Robert Duke, the brainy University of Texas music professor from “Two Guys on Your Head” NPR radio show, spoke about the real merits of music eduction — hint: it doesn’t improve your academics as is so often claimed — Schumann and Rosengren were joined by a young clarinetist, Julius Calvert, whom the center has groomed and is headed to Indiana University. They played the frolicking Concert Piece No. 1 for Two Clarinets by Felix Mendelssohn.

It could not have been more gratifying.

I was surprised that more was not said from the stage about the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival, but I suppose everybody in the room already knows about it and plans to attend.

In that case, I thank the center folks for not overselling it. How many hours have been chewed up at Austin benefits explaining again and again what a nonprofit does to people mostly already in the know.

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