Long before audiences were forced to stay home, the Houston orchestra was deep into streaming.
Long before anyone heard of “flattening the curve,” Houston’s ROCO was ahead of the curve.
With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing Americans to seek entertainment and cultural enrichment on the Internet, the potential — and necessity — of streaming live performances has jumped front and center. Entertainers like Bono and John Legend have serenaded followers from their posh living rooms; New York’s Metropolitan Opera is plumbing its Live in HD archives nightly; and Willie Nelson switched his annual Luck Reunion from his ranch’s open-air backyard to a few studio stools.
Even Houston cover-band favorite Beetle put their weekly happy-hour gig on Facebook Live.
However, ROCO — formerly known as River Oaks Chamber Orchestra — began live-streaming its concerts three years ago, under considerably different circumstances.
“The word is access: how to get people the most access, the easiest possible way, to what we do,” says founder, artistic director and principal oboist Alecia Lawyer of her original motivations.
As she likes to say, “access makes the heart grow fonder.”
Although it may seem counterintuitive, putting the group’s performances online for free has actually resulted in attendance at ROCO’s real-world concerts going up, she explains.
“It’s just been a way to engage, and also to not have to tour,” Lawyer says. “We don’t need to physically go places; we have the ability to reach through the screen and grab you with our music.”
Lawyer got an early taste of our new reality earlier this month in New York, when she appeared with pianist Simone Dinnerstein and her Baroklyn ensemble on an all-Bach program at Columbia University. The performance was closed to the public at the last minute, but because the room had been outfitted for live-streaming, it created what Lawyer calls “partially an intensely intimate experience and at the same time a vastly expansive one.”
“To me, my audience is always personal, especially since at ROCO we leave our house lights up so we can see our patrons [and] make it a shared space,” she adds. “However, to have not just a dark hall but an empty one made all of us hyper-focused on our own intricate interactions.”
According to Brian Frye of Blueprint Film Co, the Houston-based production company that handles ROCO’s live-streaming, more groups like Lawyer’s are regarding this technology as a crucial tool to help grow their audiences. (Starting this season, the Houston Symphony began streaming selected concerts as well.)
“Arts organizations can reach people further away but also locally, for those who can’t make the event,” he says. “Attending the event in person is hands-down the best experience but with the technology we have today, it still makes for an enjoyable event.”
Although any new ROCO performances are off the table until the epidemic is under control (the remaining three concerts of their 2019-20 season have been canceled), the orchestra has begun live-streaming past shows at 2 p.m. Sundays through its website (roco.org/live) and Facebook Live.
Additionally, Lawyer’s ensemble has accumulated an archive of more than 50 concerts, available anytime on their site’s “Listening Room” page. Recently they became the first classical group added to MyMusicRx, a site that suggests appropriate music according to the user’s desired mood. ROCO also maintains a healthy presence on other platforms including YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, both Amazon and Apple Music, and classical-only app Idagio.
Lawyer hopes all this will be more than sufficient to tide listeners over until such time as ROCO can resume playing live. Luckily, there’s a lot to dive into.
The concerts span ROCO’s maiden concert in November 2005 — featuring Rossini’s “Italian in Algiers” overture, Elgar’s “Chanson de Nuit,” and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 — through this past February’s “Beauty is in the Eye” offering, which included Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music” in C minor and “Between the Earth and Forever,” composer Kevin Lau’s concerto for the erhu, a traditional instrument sometimes called a Chinese violin.
Additionally, staff members have compiled three different playlists, each featuring hours of music. One includes stalwarts like Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Ravel; the other includes works by female composers including Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s daughter), Lisa Bielawa, Jocelyn Morlock, Reena Esmail.
Many of those women’s works were commissioned by ROCO; other world premieres make up a third list. Lawyer says Anthony DiLorenzo’s post-Harvey fanfare “Anthem of Hope” was performed 27 times by various Houston groups in the year after the hurricane. She calls it “ROCO’s calling card.”
Another popular commission is Alexander Miller’s “ROCOmoji,” a five-part suite with each movement based around a different emoji, which the composer, Lawyer notes, “considers the hieroglyphics of our time.”
However, “probably everyone’s absolute favorite,” she adds, is 2018’s “Checkmate,” gaming composer Maxime Goulet’s musical recreation of the famous 1986 chess match between Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov (represented by solo pianist Lara Downes) and the IBM computer known as “Deep Blue” (represented by the orchestra). Kasparov lost, but not before a pitched battle.
Offers Lawyer, “the intricacy of this composition staggers my mind.”
As news of social distancing and self-quarantine began to spread, Lawyer says she went out and bought a jigsaw puzzle for the first time in 25 years, an activity generations stuck in close quarters can do together. She hopes ROCO’s streaming concerts might fulfill a similar need to connect — utilizing music’s power to bring people together even when a horrific disease is forcing them to stay apart.
“I think live-streaming is another way to pull people around the old radio [like] back in the day,” she says. “Live-streaming can not be as remote as it sounds. It can actually bring the family unit together, too.”
Explore ROCO’s Listening Room at roco.org/performance-archive and roco.org/live.