ROCO brings awareness to human trafficking, climate change through World Premieres

ROCO in rehearsal with conductor Sarah Hicks / Courtesy of ROCO Facebook

When I asked Alecia Lawyer if she sees herself and her orchestra as activists, she was quick to tell me, “No, there is no agenda,” while pointing out that music has always expressed things that are difficult to say or discuss.

The one-woman Founder, Artistic Director, and Principal Oboe of ROCO prefers to think of herself as a quilt maker.

“Everyone has their own squares they develop, and I try to stitch them together in a way that makes a beautiful whole,” said Lawyer.

The squares are the music – in this case, namely three World Premieres on the concert Canvasing the Earth, conducted by Sarah Hicks, on Saturday, February 26 at the Church of St. John the Divine and live-streamed.

Neither men nor money validate my worth – by Leanna Primiani, an award-winning Los Angeles and New York-based orchestral, film, and television composer – centers the stories and experiences of human trafficking, an issue of particular concern locally and regionally.

Texas reports the second-highest number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. after California, based on 2015-2019 data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A recent analysis from the Polaris Project points to human trafficking as a growing problem during the pandemic, citing a more than 40% increase in national crisis situations.

Houston has also witnessed alarming increases in human trafficking, with awareness efforts by local artists in place.

Passionate about bringing the issue to light and honoring survivors, Primiani has written an eight-minute tone poem that “chronicles the life of someone who has been trafficked,” as described in an article by the Houston Chronicle.

In concert, the work will be accompanied by photographs by The New Abolitionists – a group of social justice advocates, artists, entertainers, faith-based leaders, business experts, and survivors – working to end human trafficking.

Earth, a World Premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, tackles a story of climate change:

“Reflecting upon the fundamental environmental crisis of our time, and created in collaboration with poet and agricultural researcher Kai Hoffman-Krull, the work tells the story of a farmer’s life through vignettes exploring the incremental changes of the seasons and how those who depend upon the land must adapt.”

ROCO on “Earth” by Aaron Jay Kernis

Houston is well familiar with ongoing climate impacts, from flooding and hurricanes to, more recently, extreme winter weather.

Earth will feature tenor Nicholas Phan singing the farmer’s lyrics. Phan was nominated for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for his album Gods and Monsters. An alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, he has previously performed in Houston with Da Camera and HGO.

The third World Premiere on the concert – Score by Grammy-nominated composer Jonathan Leshnoff – is a fanfare, which Lawyer calls “a wonderful romp of a work.”

Lawyer, who is actively involved in the commissioning process, says that there is a thrill – and poignancy – in performing new music.

“I love discovering the Bachs and Beethovens of our time!” she said. “Being in dialogue with a composer who writes specifically for our ensemble makes it so very personal. And ROCO has always been based upon personal relationships.”

Lawyer says she thinks of ROCO’s concerts as the “soundtrack for Houston,” especially through its QR project, which has planted codes along trails, in hospitals, and in schools to give the public free access to their concert recordings all over the city – but it’s also an appropriate description, given the locally significant environmental and human trafficking issues at the forefront of its Feb. 26th program.

“A far as engaging with difficult topics, I think Houstonians are already fabulous at that, and if this concert inspires someone to get involved to make a difference, then that is a gift,” said Lawyer.

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