Reflections on a Year of Making Music Together Apart

Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar, and Conspirare, with the support and encouragement of the Still Water Foundation, collaborated in the 20-21 season to support one another and share ideas during the COVID pandemic as we transitioned to in-home, streaming performances.

Collectively we are incredibly grateful to have been able to continue to serve, employ our artists and staff, and create music that inspired and connected our communities during this time of great challenge. This year of pivoting and innovating will inform our work as we return to in-person concerts. We’d like to share some of our lessons learned, some of the art itself, and reflect on what we think we might take forward into the future.

Throughout the season, the Executive/Managing Directors of each organization spoke every Friday to share ideas and lessons learned, frequently engaging other team-members and community members in certain discussions.

We are very grateful especially to all those friends near and far who believed in us, took steps with us into online streaming events, supported us, through this most unusual year. Here is a brief report on some of what we learned, and we welcome feedback, comments, and questions.

Read the Full Report

2021–2022 Season: Save the Date

Favorite Things

We’ll return to our Friday Intimate Concert and Saturday Synchronism Concert format with five programs from October through April. Instead of going into homes for Intimate Concerts we are thrilled to partner with KMFA to present all five concerts in the brand new Draylen Mason Music Studio, and Synchronism Concerts will return to the First Unitarian Church!

Artist Favorites: October 1 & 2
American Favorites: November 12 & 13
Adventurous Favorites: January 21 & 22
Unexpected Favorites: February 25 & 26
Fan Favorites: April 22 & 23

A Charlie Brown Christmas: December 12, Stateside Theatre

Featuring: Laura Andrade, Rita Andrade, Patrice Calixte, Carpe Diem String Quartet, Liz Cass, Utah Hamrick, Amy Levine-Tsang, James Shields, Michelle Schumann, David Sierra, Ebonee Thomas, Sandy Yamamoto, and more

Friday Intimate Concerts: 7:30 PM, KMFA’s Draylen Mason Music Studio; $80
Saturday Synchronism Concerts: 7:30 PM, First Unitarian Church; $30–50

Discount packages will be available for both series, and 2019–2020 subscribers will be given priority when tickets go on sale later this summer. If you’d like to join the Friday night waitlist, please contact madeline@austinchambermusic.org.

Don’t miss the full season announcement and on sale date for single tickets and discount packages, later this summer! Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Save the Date Printout Version

Visit the Concert Season Page

Festival Review: Austin 360

Review: Timeless chamber music fest enchants in a historic Austin setting

By Michael Barnes, Austin 360, June 2, 2021

The tree remembers.

Or so I imagined as the Schumann Chamber Players opened the Austin Chamber Music Festival during an enchanted evening on the lawn of the historic Neill-Cochran House.

The tree in question is an enormous heritage pecan that sheltered the festival audience at dusk on May 27. Like the nearby 1855 Greek revival house on San Gabriel Street — with its six tall white columns and thick limestone walls — that tree likely witnessed many a musical and social event like this one during its 166-year history.

When built, the stately house perched on the rim of the Shoal Creek Canyon, located about a mile outside the Austin city limits. These days, West Campus, which surrounds the house, has become the most densely populated residential zone in the city.

Then as now, the murmur of doves and the chittering of chimney swifts would have competed gently with the sounds produced by instruments similar to the ones used this evening. The clatter of horses and mules and the clang of carriages and wagons has since been replaced by the whooshing of cars, the whop-whop-whop of helicopters and the random snide pop of a gunned motorcycle.

Despite these potential distractions, Thursday’s seated audience never took their eyes or ears off the trio of musicians seated on the front porch — Austin classical royalty, really — Michelle Schumann on piano, Sandy Yamamoto on violin and Amy Levine-Tsang on cello. In fact, quite a few passersby stopped to soak up the music. Some lingered on grassy spots outside the painted iron fence.

Schumann, always an entertaining and enlightening speaker, introduced the three pieces. Her group picked up the mood of the past pandemic year with the Trio Élégiaque No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninov, which the composer wrote at the death of his mentor, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Although the concert was lightly amplified, it still took a few minutes to adjust to the acoustics of the place during such a quiet piece of music.

American jazz composer David Baker mixed classical and jazz legacies for his “Roots II,” here represented by “Jubilee,” “Sorrow Song” and “Boogie Woogie,” which lightened and expanded the atmosphere.

The players were only getting started. Piano Trio No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn — the only composer on the bill whose life predated the setting for this Austin concert — encapsulated a range of feelings associated with the current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can grasp the somber moods of the first movement, the reflective sensibility of the second, the frisky playfulness of the third — few composers do frisky like Mendelssohn! — and the liberating complexity of the fourth.

It would be hard to improve on the performances of each piece. The novel setting made it all the more exceptional after more than a year without in-person chamber music.

As Austin’s arts and entertainment scene reopens one sector at a time — on the same night, Black Pumas played their second sold-out, full-capacity show of the week at Stubb’s — you can sense the excitement on the streets. Part of what defines Austin as a city is in the process of waking from a long nightmare.

If you go
The Austin Chamber Music Festival continues with the Artisan Quartet on June 3, Invoke on June 10, Artina McCain & Friends on June 17 and Festival Piano Quartet on June 24 at the Neill-Cochran House Museum Lawn, 2310 San Gabriel St. and online. Free-$40. austinchambermusic.org.

Benefit Review: Austin 360

 

See This Show: Austin musicians bolster ‘The Power of Friendship’ to benefit storm victims

By Michael Barnes, Austin 360, March 2, 2021

Perhaps because several of its leaders count as genuine visionaries, the Austin classical music community is unusually innovative, as well as collaborative.

Consider just a few of the top-flight talents who quickly banded together to create the digital fundraiser, “The Power of Friendship: Winter Storm Benefit Concert.” The distinguished list includes Oliver Rajamani, Daniel Fears, Devin Gutiérrez, Thomas Burritt, Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare, Matthew Hensley and Austin Classical Guitar, Michelle Schumann and Austin Chamber Music Center, as well as the Miró Quartet from the University of Texas.

Partly recorded live on Feb. 26 at the Draylen Mason Music Studio in the new KMFA 89.5 complex in East Austin — the radio station served as a producing partner, too — this digital show is expected to be available through March on YouTube. Storm response beneficiaries include Black Leaders Collective, Central Texas Food Bank and Impact Now Dove Springs.

Everything about this concert — from the first guitar, piano and violin treatment of a delicate Debussy prelude to Gutiérrez’s soulful, jazzy rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” — revealed a shared, quiet musical affinity, along with “a close kinship” among the artists, as Johnson said during the show.

Early on, Conspirare, Austin’s widely admired virtuoso choir, contributed the cohesive and calming “See How the Earth” by Ross Lee Finney. This piece, like several others, had been recorded in advance.

Local singer-songwriter Fears, who participates in Austin Classical Guitar’s award-winning social/musical programs, performed one of his own songs, the heartbreakingly direct “Get Right, Get Free.”

Rajamani, the evening’s main guest artist, unveiled two sets of three pieces at the Mason Studio. This Austin musician wrote two of the songs while also providing vocals, sitar and acoustic guitar for nimbly connected global music.

Pianist Schumann played Ivan Trevino’s marvelously burbling “Empathy” along with percussionist Burritt, who moved over from the vibraphone to share Schumann’s piano keyboard to tie up the piece. Then she backed tonally flawless soprano Sonja Dutoit Tengblad for a song that employed tender text by poet Emily Dickinson.

Now, if you’ve never experienced the Miró Quartet, live or recorded, you have missed an Austin miracle. The tightly knit chamber group, the pride of the University of Texas, briskly glided through the “Alla Danza Tedesca” movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13.

Choral leader Johnson is particularly adept at arranging pop or rock songs into something closely suited to his singers. For instance, soloist Kathlene Ritch fronted Conspirare for a gorgeously staged version of Annie Lennox’s “1000 Beautiful Things.” You know, few singers can squeeze more emotion from a song than Lennox, yet Ritch pulled out subtle new feelings from the words and music.

I’ll admit that some of the interstitial patter from the Austin musical visionaries leaned heavily on the gooey side. Pay closer attention to the glorious purity of the music and the cause.

‘The Power of Friendship: Winter Storm Benefit Concert’

Produced by KMFA 89.5, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar and Conspirare.

Festival Preview: Austin Chronicle

For the 2020 Austin Chamber Music Festival, You Provide the Chamber

With the annual event online in your home, chamber music doesn’t get any more intimate

By Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle, June 26, 2020

If this were any ordinary summer, Austinites could count on finding relief from the hellish march into the triple digits with cool evenings spent in Bates Recital Hall listening to classical music played by virtuosic ensembles, courtesy of the Austin Chamber Music Festival. But of course, this is the COVID-19 summer, so Bates is off-limits, as is every other venue where live classical music is usually heard.

But that hasn’t deterred the Austin Chamber Music Center and its spirited director, Michelle Schumann, from delivering a festival. Like many other events – see also this week’s Austin African American Book Festival – the Chamber Music Festival is migrating online. You’ll hear the same exquisite music (Beethoven, Mozart, Shostakovich) played by the same world-class artists (Pacifica Quartet, Duo Sonidos, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Artina McCain, Derek Menchan, Ebonee Thomas, Lecolion Washington, Anyango Yarbo-Davenport, and the Horszowski Trio, as well as our own Anton Nel and Butler Trio), only this year you can listen in the chamber of your choosing – living room, bedroom, treehouse – and chamber music doesn’t get more intimate than that.

Plus, it’ll be free.

Schumann has adapted the festival’s format somewhat to accommodate the change in medium. Instead of the traditional three concerts per week over three weeks in July, the virtual fest will present one concert each week over seven weeks, beginning this Saturday, June 27. And instead of being live, most of the performances will be prerecorded. It’s worth noting, however, that many of these performances, which were curated by the artists, haven’t been seen online before – indeed, a few were recorded specifically for the 2020 ACMF – and one concert, featuring guitar-and-violin team Duo Sonidos, will be livestreamed, so you’ll be getting plenty of fresh content. And you’ll still be able to see this year’s artists live in preconcert chats with Schumann (who, by the way, is as skillful and lively talking with musicians as she is playing the piano, which is to say, you’ll totally want to Zoom in 15 minutes before curtain so as not to miss these conversations). Lastly, the programs have been designed to suit Zoom Time’s screen-comfort level of an hour. Still, Schumann’s been working with the musicians to ensure that attendees will get a full concert experience in that compressed time frame. She’s already reviewed several performances and is dazzled by how good they are.

Here’s a brief preview of the seven programs:

• Sat., June 27, 7:30pm: BUTLER TRIO

Kicking off the fest is the Butler School of Music’s best least-known chamber group, which reteams former Miró Quartet violinist Sandy Yamamoto and current Miró Quartet cellist Joshua Gindele in collaboration with pianist Colette Valentine. They pay tribute to Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his death with his most beautiful piano trio, the “Archduke.”

• Fri., July 3, 7:30pm: BLACK VOICES WITH ANYANGO YARBO-DAVENPORT, DEREK MENCHAN, EBONEE THOMAS, LECOLION WASHINGTON, AND ARTINA MCCAIN

Five notable African American musicians, including award-winning pianist Artina McCain, familiar to ACMC audiences from the annual Black Composers Concert, play material ranging from William Grant Still to, once again, Beethoven. Plus, Michelle Schumann teams with cellist Derek Menchan on Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano.

• Sat., July 11, 7:30pm: PACIFICA QUARTET

The Grammy-winning foursome is prized for its skill in tackling string quartet cycles, and it mastered Shostakovich’s 10 years ago. That means its performance of the composer’s Second String Quartet is sure to be remarkable.

• Sat., July 18, 7:30pm: DUO SONIDOS

ACMC and Austin Classical Guitar team up to present Adam Levin, guitar, and William Knuth, violin, for a concert that goes from the Baroque (George Frideric Handel) to 20th century film (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and Spain (Manuel de Falla) to Cuba (Eduardo Morales-Caso).

• Sat., July 25, 7:30pm: ANTON NEL

Any chance to hear Butler School piano professor Nel is cause to celebrate, but one in which he plays Beethoven is not to be missed. And on the composer’s 250th death anniversary, of course Nel is playing Beethoven: a pair of piano sonatas – the brief but complex No. 27 in E minor and the challenging No. 21, “Waldstein.”

• Sat., Aug. 1, 7:30pm: THE CHAMBER SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER FEATURING ANNE-MARIE MCDERMOTT

The ACMF taps into the Chamber Music Society’s Front Row series for a recent concert with longtime CMS pianist McDermott and eight other fine musicians to play Mozart’s Concerto in D minor for Piano and Strings and Smetana’s Trio in G minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello.

• Sat., Aug. 8, 7:30pm: HORSZOWSKI TRIO

To finish the fest, this New York City threesome turns to that other Schumann – Robert – and his first piano trio. And given that the ensemble’s recordings of his complete piano trios have been praised as “intoxicating” (Gramophone) and “exciting and deeply felt” (Strings), this finale promises to be memorable.

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, Sightlines, 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.

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