Working to “shape the future of classical music by energizing, modernizing, and personalizing the concert experience,” the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) finds a unique niche within Houston’s vibrant cultural landscape. Founded in 2005, ROCO has consistently realized this vision by focusing on the development of collaborative, personal relationships with musicians, conductors, composers, local cultural institutions, and other community stakeholders.
The orchestra keeps Houston concertgoers busy with two types of concert series, as well a third collaborative “Connections” series, which features “unique collaborations with dynamic partners throughout the community.” For wider audiences, ROCO offers its upcoming debut album, Visions Take Flight (Innova), featuring six of the 65 works commissioned in the previous 13 seasons. We asked five questions to Alecia Lawyer, ROCO’s founder and Principal Oboist, about ROCO’s artistic mission, album release, and upcoming events.
Implicit in all of ROCO’s activities is the desire to cultivate relationships in service of a larger community. Could you explain how the “Connections” series builds relationships between stakeholders from the diverse communities found in Houston?
Through our Connections series, ROCO truly weaves music through our unique city of Houston, performing site-specific and partner-focused programs that align with our mission while tying to the purpose and missions of other venues and artistic organizations.
An example is ROCO’s annual Peter and the Wolf at the Houston Zoo, which was originally designed to highlight the Zoo’s wolf conservation project. Now that there are no more wolves at the Zoo, we chose to name it Peter and the Bear to showcase their new Black Bear exhibit and received permission from the music publisher to do so.
We also have done our yearly Musical and Literary Ofrenda in honor of Day of the Dead, a very personal celebration of loved ones who have passed. Partnering with Lawndale Arts Center, MECA (Multi-Cultural Education and Counseling through the Arts Center), Inprint, and CASA Ramirez (a Mexican imports store with lessons in altar building), the idea of celebrating ancestors is worldwide. While the Day of the Dead itself is regularly misunderstood, to commission miniature musical works for a trio from ROCO and a singer, we are able to show how connected all celebrations are, while still honoring the day’s singularly Mexican origins.
On November 16th, ROCO presents a program entitled Queen of Hearts, featuring works exclusively by women composers preceded by a panel discussion with prominent women in Houston’s art and culture industry. What is the significance of this conversation and program within the local arts community in Houston?
Houston is now the most diverse city in our nation, not just in gender, but race and religion, too. We realized this past Spring–when an article came out about how few orchestras program women composers–that we had a female composer, conductor, or soloist on EVERY concert. It wasn’t machinated or forced or purposely planned. Even though our concerts have multiple opportunities for the audience to engage verbally and in person with musicians during and after the shows, we were prompted to go deeper on this particular topic and launch a whole new annual series, “ROCO Concert and Conversation,” to address timely and potentially difficult issues too deep to cover in surface dialogue. I look forward to what is discussed and questions that are asked to be able to normalize women in all aspects of the arts, both in leadership and programming.
How do the works included on ROCO’s soon to be released album, Visions Take Flight, demonstrate the organization’s core values in the commissioning process?
Musician driven; all music and performances based upon personal relationships; living composers; connecting to our community. These are the core values reflected in our mission of “Shaping the Future of Classical Music through energizing, modernizing, and personalizing the concert experience.”
Our first album on the Innova Label is a “musician’s choice,” where ROCO musicians voted on their favorite ROCO-commissioned pieces since our inception. Five world premiere commissions rose to the top, and we added a piece we commissioned for the wake of Hurricane Harvey that paid tribute to the resiliency of Houston. I believe that the album truly reflects our work in this field and our reach across boundaries to welcome all audiences.
How does the release of Visions Take Flight complement ROCO’s existing practices towards making music and the arts accessible for local audiences?
The album is not about sales, but about access: access to ROCO musicians, to the composers, to knowing more about our community. Our tickets to ROCO live concerts are maximum $35-45, with many free, as well. We also offer live streaming of our shows free to the world and are regularly broadcast on Performance Today on American Public Media.
Commissioning in and of itself can be in a vacuum with one performance of a new piece that is then literally shelved and forgotten. Many of our 75+ commissions have had a life of their own afterward through our own website’s listening room, our YouTube channel, broadcasts–and also some were co-commissions and have had repeat performances. A few of the pieces have been re-scored into other instrumentations.
One piece in particular represents the whole of what we do: Anthem of Hope: Houston Strong. When our recording project was postponed due to Hurricane Harvey, we also had our opening concert in a couple of weeks that same month. I reached out to Anthony DiLorenzo and asked if he could write a fanfare to celebrate Houston’s resiliency, but I needed it in three days!!! He sent an email 30 minutes later with the most amazing theme. ROCO open sourced it, asking Tony to write it in multiple iterations and offering it for free to be performed by high school orchestras, bands, the Houston Grand Opera, string quartets, brass quintets. It is even now the hold music for a theatre company! This spectacular piece has been performed over 20 times this past year, weaving peace and healing through our community through music.
Given your experience with ROCO, why is it important for musical organizations to engage audiences outside of the concert hall?
I always say that the most important part of being an artist is to be a HUMAN First! Be involved in your community NON-musically: volunteer, join groups, engage. Learn to hear your audience, instead of just expecting them to show up and hear you. I never underestimate the connection that can happen in the grocery store, on an elevator (plus people are trapped…). Our audience is now worldwide. We are all connected. I always look at every new person as a friend I haven’t met yet.