The group’s take on the Hans Christian Andersen folk tale is available Brazos Bookstore and Barnes & Noble River Oaks, as well as online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more.
Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” has some company: ROCO, the Houston chamber orchestra known for its innovative marketing and dedication to living composers, has just published its first book, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen folk tale “The Nightingale.”
Illustrated by Amy Scheidegger Ducos, naturally it’s a musical book: QR codes inside direct readers to the ROCO-commissioned piece of the same name by Canadian composer Kevin Lau, with the option of listening with or without narration. Those who opt for the former hear the voice of ABC-13’s Miya Shay.
“It was not a thing we set out to do in our strategic plan,” says ROCO founder, artistic director, and principal oboist Alecia Lawyer. “It was just a lovely, wonderful development that was very organic and stemmed from people first. That’s what I love. It wasn’t something (like) ‘Let’s do something for kids.’ This came out of a true love of music, art, storytelling and the beauty of illustration.”
Originally published in 1844 (in the same volume as “The Ugly Duckling”), “The Nightingale” is set in ancient China, where word of the title bird’s otherworldly song reaches the emperor. Once he hears it himself, he’s as enchanted as everyone else — commoner to chamberlain — and orders the bird to be caged up at court. Eventually the emperor receives a jewel-encrusted mechanical nightingale as a gift and the real bird, neglected, flies away. But the bond between ruler and bird, whose singing once moved the emperor to tears, is not so easily broken.
The story was partially inspired by Andersen’s infatuation with Jenny Lind, the great Swedish opera singer who did not reciprocate his feelings but became known far and wide as “the Swedish Nightingale.” ROCO entered the picture in 2018, when Lawyer asked concertmaster and artistic partner Scott St. John what his ideal project would be. A Disney nut, he said he would like to update the score for some of the old Silly Symphonies cartoons.
That plan had little chance of flying with Disney’s famously protective lawyers. ROCO decided instead on a piece that could be accompanied by several illustrations, much less time-consuming and expensive than animation. For the artwork, they turned to Ducos, a college friend of ROCO managing director Amy Gibbs. Lawyer had given St. John carte blanche to program the concert, so he asked his friend Lau to come up with a suitable fairy tale to serve as a frame.
“He found ‘The Nightingale’ and felt like it really spoke to him,” says St. John, “not just because it’s a beautiful story, but also because of the specific idea of music playing a large role; and in a way, the idea that mechanized music was kind of the evil figure in the story. I think it does make for an excellent theme for live musicians.”
Scored for violin, clarinet and piano, “The Nightingale” is about 17 minutes long; and suggestive enough of what St. John calls “Alan Menken world” that fans of “Beauty and the Beast” should be pleased. Lau has a similar gift for melody, the violinist believes.
“It’s very well-written for the instrument, but more importantly, it brings the story to life,” he says. “It brings it to life in a way that’s both very contemporary and has that fairy-tale timeless quality.”
ROCO has since performed the piece several times, including for the website Death of Classical’s tongue-in-cheek Crypt Sessions, a concert series set in a Harlem church’s actual crypt. (“I’m sure that the people who passed were very happy to have something joyful,” Lawyer says.) More recently, the book was a big hit when Lawyer showed it to a class of mostly seniors at Houston’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“They wanted to hear the whole thing,” she says. “They basically got on the floor like they were first graders … it was the cutest thing ever.”
One student suggested developing a “Nightingale” coloring book, so that’s exactly what ROCO plans to do. It will launch in September alongside a new full-orchestra arrangement of Lau’s piece, which Lawyer calls eminently “‘Peter and the Wolf’-worthy.”
“That’s what’s so fun,” she says. “There’s never an end to the next iteration of what can happen.”
In the meantime, the book is available at Brazos Bookstore and Barnes & Noble River Oaks, as well as online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. ROCO will also perform “The Nightingale” Saturday morning on the first floor of the Houston Public Library’s downtown branch. The first 50 kids in the door get a free copy.
“It’s kind of amazing to see this whole project,” says St. John. “So often we’re playing things where it just feels like you do a performance and it’s gone, and to have a tangible book come out of this whole project is … I have to say, it feels very fulfilling.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.