Perhaps the most surprising thing about ROCO’s upcoming 17th season is to see a chestnut like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” on the schedule. But here’s why: Founder and artistic director Alecia Lawyer combed the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s catalog to find images that corresponded to the hoary orchestral standby’s movements.
“Even if we do warhorses, there’s always something tied to Houston or (that is) unique,” she says. “That’s important.”
Consider the other two pieces on that program, scheduled for Feb. 26 at The Church of St. John the Divine. Both Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Earth” and Leanna Primiani’s “Neither man nor money validate my worth” engage head-on with the issues of climate change and human trafficking, respectively. Both are also world premieres, part of eight in the new season that kicks off with Saturday’s “Bursting at the Seams” concert; and more than 120 since the former River Oaks Chamber Orchestra began in 2005.
Playing it safe is not in ROCO’s playbook; making connections is its fuel. Says Lawyer, “We embrace innovation, not just for innovation’s sake but to continue connecting deeper.”
The orchestra was an early adopter of livestreaming its concerts, which it has done since 2013. Last season it teamed with Buffalo Bayou Partnership to post QR codes outfitted with custom playlists at nearly 40 locations along Buffalo Bayou, from Shepherd Drive to Fifth Ward.
This year, besides instituting a pay-what-you-wish model for concerts, ROCO plans to expand the service across the city with new partners, such as the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center and Texas Southern University. Or this: Rather than anchoring itself to a single performance space, the orchestra will give concerts at nine locations across the city, including Asia Society Texas Center, Holocaust Museum Houston and the brand-new Post HTX.
“We have the advantage in Houston of exploring the world in our city,” Lawyer says. “That is exciting. That is a place that can manifest some of the best art and music, period.”
ROCO’s programming has always been heavy on living composers, especially women and people of color. The benefits extend beyond featuring a variety of voices, Lawyer says. Their works invariably speak to our times — as in Kernis and Primiani’s pieces this season, among others — making the composer, she notes, “the matchmaker between audience and the stage.”
“That composer can really put themselves out there and make their language speak from the musicians to the audience,” she explains.
Furthermore, every ROCO concert this year will be led by a female conductor, starting with artistic partner Mei-Ann Chen at the Sept. 25 “Bursting at the Seams” season opener. Women’s underrepresentation in the conducting ranks is a longstanding issue that has lately begun approaching critical mass, but Lawyer says her mission is simply to, as she puts it, “normalize diversity.”
“I want to get to a point where it’s not even noticed,” she says. “Because I didn’t do it on purpose. It was not, ‘This year we’re going to have all women.’ No. I had a lineup of people I’ve been trying to do, and I think even next season it’ll probably wind up being (all) females, too.”
ROCO also gives its musicians a lot of latitude, inviting them to offer feedback on repertoire and help curate selected concerts during the year. Lawyer encourages her musicians to let their guard down and take chances while they perform, opportunities they might not get in more buttoned-down ensembles.
“That’s important for musicians to get to that point of having that freedom when they’re at that high level of artistry, because when you work so hard to be perfect, you’re always going to fail,” she says. “It’s being in the zone; it’s like getting the basketball in the hoop every single time because you’re in the zone.”
Similarly, ROCO leaves the house lights up during performances, another way to bridge the divide between performers and the audience, whom Lawyer wants to send on “an adventure every time.”
“I think they’re starting to (catch on),” she says. “They come to the concerts expecting a chef’s choice meal: ‘Hey, just taste it; if you don’t like it, you’ve got another course coming in a minute.’ And that really opens them up to accepting and enjoying the experience of listening to new music.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.