“I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could,” says Brett Mitchell, quoting a favorite bumper sticker of his. “That’s kind of like me. Any excuse to come back to Texas is great.”
Originally from Seattle, the music director of the Colorado Symphony received his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Texas at Austin and later worked as the assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony from 2007 to 2011.
On Saturday, Mitchell will return to Houston to make his debut with another local ensemble, leading the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in “Ticket to Ride” at the Church of St. John the Divine.
The concert will take its audience on a train trip across Europe in a program featuring Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers,” Wojciech Kilar’s “Orawa,” Saint-Saëns’ “Cello Concerto No. 1,” Mozart’s “Symphony No. 35” (also called “Haffner Symphony”) and a new commission by composer Jim Stephenson titled “ROCOmotive,” in which a celesta (a percussion instrument resembling a piano) produces the sounds of trains.
In a way, the programming was devised through a back-and-forth “dance” between Mitchell and artistic director Alecia Lawyer, whose father collects miniature trains — a fitting theme that ties into ROCO’s overall season, “Games People Play.”
ROCO in Concert: Ticket to Ride
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd.
Details: $35 (student and senior rates available); 713-665-2700, roco.org
One of Lawyer’s suggestions was the overture of Smyth’s three-act opera, which was re-scored by composer Mark Buller to fit the smaller orchestra. Highlighting works by women has long been a part of the ensemble’s mission, and it’s an initiative that Mitchell fully supports, saying, “It’s about damn time that we start having more female composers on our series.”
The concert marks the first time that Mitchell is performing “The Wreckers,” transporting his audience to England and Germany, but it’s also the first time he will be conducting music in any capacity by the 20th-century British composer and champion of women’s rights.
“I can give you the biography of all these standard composers, but for somebody like Smyth, the first place I went — like everybody else, God bless 2019 — was Wikipedia,” he says. “Not only am I trying to learn her piece, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can about her because I do find that helps inform my approach to the music.”
For this reason, although Smyth’s opera debuted over a century ago, it presents a challenge for Mitchell, much like Stephenson’s new commission. Fortunately, he enjoys the challenge and finds inspiration in working on world premieres. In fact, it’s why he became a conductor in the first place, he says, rather than following the paths of a pianist or a composer.
“I came to realize that I didn’t really feel like I personally had anything compelling that I needed to say through my own music,” he says. “What I really love doing is finding other composers that I feel like do have something to say and giving those works a voice, breathing life into them for the first time.”
For others, such as Kilar’s “Orawa,” he continues to breathe life into them.
While a graduate student, Mitchell attended a concert by the Austin Symphony Orchestra that opened with this particular piece — one that he had never heard of. Yet it made such a big impact on him that he can’t recall anything else on the program from that evening, and for the better part of 15 years now, he has presented it around the world.
“It’s this really cool piece, very energetic, very 1980s in the best possible way,” he says.
Poland, Austria and France
The work takes its listeners to the composer’s home country of Poland, while the two classical pieces by Mozart and Saint-Saëns, the latter of which features ROCO’s principal cellist Richard Belcher, reflect train stops in both Austria and France, respectively.
Besides travel, the only other connective tissue between the pieces is what they don’t share. The program is as diverse a collection of composers and works as the weather forecast in Denver, Mitchell says, laughing.
“Instead of being a creative artist, I consider what we do in orchestras being a re-creative artist,” he continues. “Priority number one for me always, the person that I am working the hardest for, it’s not the orchestra. It’s not the audience. It’s not even me. It’s the composer. Without the composer, none of us have jobs. I take my obligation to that incredibly seriously, and it’s so incredibly rewarding when you get to bring something to life like this.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.