With its emphasis on new technology and diverse programming – ranging from a work by a Public Enemy producer to an Aztec folk tale – the orchestra is ahead of the cultural curve.
“I’m completely obsessed, and I love it because they’re so open,” says Alecia Lawyer, who founded the former River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in 2005. “They’re completely open to receiving whatever they’re hearing.”
Lawyer, an oboist, relishes the unconventional. Lately she’s been making cardboard cutouts of donors for Friday’s all-virtual ROCO Revelry kickoff gala. She estimates her variable-size orchestra has performed in at least 30, and perhaps as many as 50, venues across the area, including Holocaust Museum Houston and Saint Arnold’s Brewery.
During their upcoming season, which begins Sept. 26, that list will expand to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and, eventually, the Lynn Wyatt Theater in MFAH’s brand-new Kinder Building.
When: 5 p.m. Sept. 26
Details: Free at roco.org
The new season, dubbed “Color and Light,” will also tack on several more world-premiere compositions to the nearly 100 works which, according to its website, ROCO has commissioned since its inception. The most recent study by the Institute of Composer Diversity, based out of the State University of New York at Fredonia, places ROCO in the upper echelon of U.S. orchestras regarding the freshness and diversity of its repertoire.
During last season, according to the study, 73 percent of ROCO’s programming was written by living composers, as well as 32 percent by female composers and 27 percent by composers from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. Cultivating long-term relationships with living composers obviously has its upside.
As Lawyer says, “You can’t Zoom with Beethoven.”
Additionally, thanks to the largess of ROCO’s sponsors and donors, the orchestra is able to meet the necessary performance-rights and licensing fees that enable it to archive its performances of these composers’ works on its website.
“It’s really vital for living composers to have access to their performances (of their works),” she adds. “I feel like it’s going to be able to hopefully show how we already are thriving in the digital space.”
ROCO has already been livestreaming most of its concerts for seven years, so its ease with technology will come in handy this season. Each concert in its three series — In Concert, Unchambered, and Connections — will be held without a live audience and streamed free to the public. That decision may have been forced on the orchestra by the pandemic, but Lawyer prefers to see it as an opportunity to reach an even greater number of people.
“I just feel like things needed to shake up, and I’m sad that it’s this kind of way,” Lawyer says, “but I do see there’s some real potential to really show the vibrancy of the arts in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
This season’s world premieres include Argentinian-born composer Richard Scofano’s concerto for the accordionlike bandoneon, centerpiece of the “Starburst” season opener; a Day of the Dead-inspired piece by Kerwin Young, a member of Public Enemy’s production team the Bomb Squad; and Indian American composer Reena Esmail’s “The History of Red,” set to a text by the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan. A triptych from this season’s composer-in-residence, Alyssa Morris, will include a work based on the children’s book “Musicians of the Sun,” which is adapted from an Aztec folktale.
Keying off a recently discovered recording of hers at MFAH’s decorative-arts house museum Rienzi (a frequent ROCO venue), February’s Connections concert will be devoted to the music of Margaret Bonds. The late pianist and composer became the first Black woman to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1934 and later frequently collaborated with Langston Hughes.
A big part of ROCO’s game plan is to destigmatize contemporary classical music, which is often wrongfully written off as “inaccessible.” But in an age when many 20- and 30-somethings have no idea who Mozart was, or think that Bach is still alive (the shocking results of a UK survey last year), Lawyer sees a chance to restore some pizzazz to an unnecessarily esoteric art form.
“It’s really just about ‘let me present music to you that I’m so passionate about that when I play it you’re going to receive something, even if it’s something you don’t like,’” she says of ROCO’s approach.
And it is OK to not like something, she emphasizes.
“I think if people feel like they have permission to not like it and not know why — they can’t explain it because they don’t have the verbiage — it’s fine; they don’t have to know why,” she says. “I think if you get that permission, you feel like you can receive something in a different way.”
Just like those Williams twins. Somebody ought to send them some ROCO livestreams.
Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.