A World Premiere inspired by Gandhi marks the first collaboration between the Indo-American Association and Houston Symphony

Dr. L. Subramaniam / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Indian violin icon and composer Dr. L. Subramaniam has collaborated with Carnatic music legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and M. Balamuralikrishna, as well as Western classical music, jazz, and pop stars, such as Yehudi MenuhinStéphane GrappelliJean-Pierre RampalHerbie Hancock, and George Harrison.

The Houston Symphony will now join that impressive list when it performs the World Premiere of Subramaniam’s Mahatma Symphony on Saturday, August 6 at the Hobby Center – in a co-presentation with the Indo-American Association, one of Houston’s longest-running Indian arts organizations.

The new work – and its occasion – are special for a number of reasons.

“This particular concert has great significance because we are commemorating the 75th year of India’s Independence in 2022,” said Radhika Day, a member of the Indo-American Association’s Board of Directors.

August 15 is India’s national Independence Day, marking the end of British rule in 1947 and its establishment as a free and sovereign nation.

The Mahatma Symphony musically traces the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi, considered the “father of India” who used nonviolent resistance to advance the Indian Independence movement – and one of the 20th century’s most influential political and spiritual leaders.

“The Mahatma Symphony was specially commissioned by IAA, and Dr. L. Subramaniam himself is presenting the world premiere in Houston,” Day said. “It is also the first time that the Houston Symphony has collaborated with an Indian organization.”

Day says IAA is “honored and proud” of the partnership, which will bring not only Subramaniam to Houston, but also his wife, the major Bollywood playback singer and classical Indian vocalist Kavita Krishnamurti (featured in the Mahatma Symphony), and guest conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl (Music Director of the Omaha Symphony).

That concert, Celebrating 75 Years of India’s Independence, also features performances by an Indian ensemble alongside the orchestra, the Houston Symphony Chorus, and Subramaniam as the soloist in his violin concerto Shanti Priya.

John Mangum, Executive Director and CEO of the Houston Symphony, calls the first-time collaboration – and the opportunity to work with Subramaniam – an “inspiration.”

“We wanted to partner with [the Indo-American Association] because of their commitment to celebrating the best in Indian performing arts and culture,” Mangum said.

The collaboration has given both organizations a chance to reach into each other’s audiences, he says, and to share music cross-culturally at the highest levels.

“We’re so excited to be able to present the world premiere,” he said. “Dr. Subramaniam has written for some of the world’s great orchestras – the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra – and we’re honored to join their ranks.”

Dr. L. Subramaniam / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Houston is only the first stop for the Mahatma Symphony, which will travel to European performances this fall – including concerts in Milan, Bologna, and Madrid.

Mangum thinks the work will resonate with audiences in Houston and, he hopes, around the world – perhaps especially in our current moment of international conflict and political tensions.

“It’s a wonderful way to celebrate Gandhi’s message of nonviolence, change through peaceful protest, and dignity and equality in music,” he said. “And it gives us a chance to come together and reflect on how his message is as relevant now as ever.”

A $10.7M education project aims to lead Houston – and the nation – in teaching Asian and Asian American narratives

Artist rendering of the North Gallery of the new exhibition “Explore Asia” / Courtesy of Asia Society Texas

Asia Society Texas recently announced a $10.7 million education project to transform itself into an “immersive learning center,” providing teachers with resources and exhibits to guide students in learning about Asian and Asian American narratives, perspectives, and arts and culture – curriculum that has been lacking in U.S. schools according to the National Commission on Asia in the Schools.

The major initiative will include two components:

  • an Online Learning Platform, which will be made available first to Houston area educators and school districts before expanding both regionally and nationally
  • an Onsite Exhibition, open to the public

Both are slated to launch in spring 2023.

The Online Learning Platform is a virtual storytelling experience utilizing interactive graphic novels to deepen middle and high school students’ understanding of Asia and Asian American perspectives. Rooted in humanities and STEM-based concepts, the platform also includes an educator portal which provides lesson plans and curriculum resources aligned to learning standards for seamless integration into classroom teachings.

Asia Society Texas

“There is a great need for Asia-specific learning materials that are engaging and relevant to educators and students” said Rick Cruz, Deputy Superintendent for Houston Independent School District, in a statement.

HISD, the largest school district in Texas, is 4.45% Asian, 9.51% white, 22.19% African American, and 62.01% Hispanic, with about 100 languages spoken within its student population, according to 2021-2022 data.

“Our diverse student population will benefit from the intentional building of cross-cultural connections and the strong alignment to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS),” Cruz said.

Bonna Kol, President of Asia Society Texas, calls the project “the first of its kind in the U.S.” – given the combination of the immersive exhibition, which includes a virtual train ride through Asia; access to AAPI graphic novels with interactive lessons that encourage self-reflection and community action; and a portal for K-12 educators.

“Train to Asia.” A simulated train ride takes students on a guided tour through time, visiting historical and contemporary sites / Artist rendering courtesy of Asia Society Texas

The Onsite Exhibition will be the first interactive learning exhibition in Houston focusing on Asia. This flexible and permanent exhibition will guide guests of all ages on an immersive and multisensory experience to learn about Asian Americans, Asian art, culture, and contemporary global issues. The exhibition is designed to spark curiosity and highlight the interconnectedness between the peoples of Asia, Houston, and the United States.

Asia Society Texas

“To understand who we are as a nation, Asian American history must be taught. Teaching this demonstrates how our nation developed,” wrote national educator Freda Lin in a recent essay for PBS. “Also, these missing narratives of the curriculum can counter misconceptions of Asian Americans.”

At a time when anti-AAPI sentiment and hate crimes have been on the rise, Asia Society Texas says its new education project was motivated by a desire to address gaps in learning that can lead to intolerance and racism, and to combat bias through arts and dialogue.

The project grew out of two years’ worth of research with a 14-member Advisory Council, visits to more than 20 museums in 6 cities, and workshops with 30 educators and 120 students.

“As an Asian American who grew up in Texas, providing opportunities to foster curiosity and build human connectivity by elevating AAPI perspective is deeply meaningful to me,” said Gordon Quan, chair of the project’s Advisory Council, in a statement.

“I know how meaningful it is for a child to see their own story and identity reflected – reinforcing the idea that everyone’s life experience and cultural history is valued and important,” Quan said.

The Houston area’s diverse Asian community currently makes up about 7% of the total population in Harris County.

Asia Society Texas says it has secured more than $9 million in funding so far toward the $10.7 million education project, with fundraising ongoing.

Hobby Center announces a new President and CEO

Mark Folkes / Al Torres Photography

Veteran Houston arts leader Mark Folkes, formerly of Stages and the Houston Symphony, has been named President and CEO of the Hobby Center, as announced today in a press release.

Folkes “will provide strategic leadership and drive deeper community engagement” in his role, effective August 22, 2022. His selection was the culmination of a search process that began this past January by the Hobby Center Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts / Courtesy of the Hobby Center

“We are delighted to welcome Mark Folkes to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,” said Rob Doty, Chairman of Board of the Hobby Center Foundation, in a statement.

“With a passion for the performing arts, an impressive business acumen, and strong ties to the Houston community, Mark stood out as the right candidate for the position. There is no doubt he will be an outstanding leader for the Hobby Center for many years to come,” Doty said.

Folkes comes to the Hobby Center from Greater Houston Community Foundation, where he was Chief Advancement Officer since 2021. His history of arts, community, and fundraising leadership also includes serving as Managing Director of Stages from 2015 – 2021, where he headed the company’s $35.8 million capital campaign to build its new facility The Gordy. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of Development at the Houston Symphony.

“Arts and culture are at the center of our civic identity. Houston has so much to be proud of for fostering a dynamic and diverse arts ecosystem, and the Hobby Center is, in many ways, at the center of this progress,” said Folkes in statement.

“I am excited to lead the team to help deepen our impact in presenting engaging performing arts experiences for all Houstonians,” he said.

Folkes joins the Hobby Center as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Home to Broadway at the Hobby Center and Theatre Under The Stars, as well as a major Houston Theater District venue for numerous local arts groups and touring acts, it opened in May 2002 and is operated by the nonprofit Hobby Center Foundation.

Allen Hightower is named the new Houston Symphony Chorus Director for next season

Allen Hightower / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Last week the Houston Symphony announced the appointment of longtime Texas choral director and educator Allen Hightower as Director of the Houston Symphony Chorus for the 2022-23 season.

Hightower succeeds Betsy Cook Weber, who had held the role since fall 2014. Weber stepped down at the end of the 2021-22 season to focus on her work at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where she is Professor and Director of Choral Studies, according to a press release.

Currently the Director of Choral Studies at the University of North Texas, Hightower has previously served as Weston Noble Endowed Chair in Music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. As a high school educator in Texas, he has taught at Klein High School in Spring and at Odessa Permian High School in Odessa. He is also the former Artistic Director of the Houston Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra.

Houston Symphony Chorus / Photo by Jeff Fitlow

For the 2022-23 season, the Houston Symphony welcomes not only Hightower as the new Chorus director but Juraj Valčuha as the orchestra’s new Music Director in his highly anticipated inaugural season. Hightower will prepare the Houston Symphony Chorus in Valčuha’s Opening Night performance of Verdi’s Requiem on September 16, 2022, in addition to several other classical and pops concerts – including:

Houston Symphony and Chorus under former Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada / Photo by Wilson Parish

The Houston Symphony Chorus is the official choral unit of the Houston Symphony and is a highly skilled volunteer group.

“I really do think it consists of the finest volunteer singers in the Greater Houston area,” said former director Betsy Cook Weber in a 2016 audio birthday card produced by Houston Public Media in honor of the Chorus’ 70th anniversary.

Founded in 1946 as the Houston Chorale, the Chorus has performed under numerous world-renowned conductors over the decades and has been led by seven directors – including Charles Hausmann (1986-2014), named Director Emeritus for his longtime contributions.

As its eighth director, Hightower will head a choral leadership team that includes pianist Scott Holshouser, principal vocal and diction coach Anna Diemer, and rehearsal conductors Kaitlin DeSpain, Julia Hall, Emily Jenkins, Matthew Lyon Hazzard, Janwin Overstreet-Goode, and Carlin Truong.

Information on auditioning for the Houston Symphony Chorus is available here.

Founded as the Houston Chorale, the Chorus sang its first official concert with the Houston Symphony under Music Director Efrem Kurtz in 1949 / Photo credit Bob Bailey Studios, courtesy of Houston Symphony Archives

Inprint adds newly-named U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón to its 2022-23 season

Ada Limón will be the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate / Courtesy of Inprint

As organizers at Inprint were finalizing the details of the upcoming 42nd season of its Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, one slot in the line-up was still open.

Then, Ada Limón was awarded the country’s highest honor in the field of poetry – the position of U.S. Poet Laureate – as announced on July 12 by the Library of Congress.

Acting quickly, Inprint reached out to Limón to invite her to come to Houston next season, adding her to the 2022-23 roster, which also includes six award-winning novelists and current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

“We were thinking of including Ada in the upcoming season since her fantastic new collection The Hurting Kind was released in May – and I was just about to invite her, when we received the news,” said Rich Levy, Inprint’s Executive Director.

“All the joy in the community about her appointment sealed the deal! We were lucky she was available. A brief email exchange, and we were set,” he said.

Days later, Inprint announced its 2022-23 season – its first full, in person season since the pandemic – with Limón scheduled to appear in a poetry reading and on-stage interview on March 6, 2023, the venue still to be determined at this time.

Levy says he is “thrilled and delighted” at Limón’s new national role.

“Personally, I am a great admirer of Ada’s work – “The Raincoat,” from The Carrying, is I think one of the most moving and concise tributes to the unselfish energy and love of mothers that I have ever read,” said Levy.

Limón begins her term as U.S. Poet Laureate on September 29, succeeding Harjo, who will appear on Inprint’s upcoming season on November 14, 2022 at Rice University’s Brockman Hall for Opera.

“I really truly believe with my whole body in the power of poetry and in the power of poetry to heal and bring together communities and celebrate the interconnectedness that we all have with each other,” said Limón in an interview with the Library of Congress. “And I think this is a huge opportunity to really honor those beliefs.”

Organizers at Inprint say that they loved the idea of presenting both the 23rd and 24th U.S. Poet Laureates in the same season, as part of their mission of championing poetry and nurturing writers everywhere – but also at this moment when poetry may be on the rise.

“It seems in the U.S. and elsewhere that more and more people are reading poetry, and feel empowered to write poetry. And if the pandemic has introduced some folks to the joys of poetry, then I am grateful for that salubrious effect,” said Levy.

“For too long, poetry was an elitist enterprise. I think both Joy and Ada are part of the trend among our Poet Laureates and in general to enlarge and enrich the canon and the field,” he said.

Complete information about Inprint’s season, which includes virtual options, is available here.

Since 1980, the Inprint Brown Reading Series has featured more than 400 award-winning writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 37 countries, including 19 U.S. Poet Laureates. Limón previously appeared in a joint reading with Pultizer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo in 2017.

After two summers without live shows, Houston Shakespeare Festival is back – in person and online

Kyle Clark, Kenn Hopkins, and Laura Frye in Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Cymbeline” / Courtesy of University of Houston

After canceling shows in 2020 due to COVID-19 and curating a Shakespeare film festival in place of live plays in 2021, the Houston Shakespeare Festival returns to Miller Outdoor Theatre for the first time since the pandemic. It runs July 28 – August 6 with free performances of King Lear and Cymbeline.

“We’ve assembled a cast of amazing actors as well as a truly outstanding design team. This year’s dynamic productions of King Lear and Cymbeline will make audiences feel that HSF is back at full force,” said Rob Shimko, the festival’s executive director, in a statement.

The longtime Shakespeare festival has been produced by the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance since 1975, when it was founded by the School’s late director and professor emeritus Sidney Berger. Shimko is the School’s current director.

This summer’s production of King Lear – the festival’s first of this play in more than 20 years – will be directed by Stephanie Shine, who directed 2019’s As You Like It, and feature HSF Artistic Director Jack Young in the title role. In a press release, Young said the set design evokes a “mythical Game of Thrones world” for this tragedy with themes of family loyalty, betrayal, and madness.

Starring Kenn Hopkins as King Cymbeline and Laura Frye as the king’s daughter Imogen, Cymbeline will have a “fairytale Princess Bride ambience” in its production design, according to Young, to help convey this tale of forbidden love, secret plots, and mistaken identity.

King Lear performances are July 28, 30, August 1, 3, and 5, and Cymbeline performances are July 29, August 2, 4, and 6. More information is available here.

With livestreaming now a regular offering by Miller Outdoor Theatre, festival performances can also be watched live online and will remain available for 48 hours on YouTube, according to Miller’s website.

“Both of these plays have a large number of wonderful roles, which is giving all of the performers great lines to say and events to experience – big battles, some of Shakespeare’s most resonant lines,” said Young in statement. “These plays will be a great way for us all to return to Miller Outdoor Theatre.”

What will be the impact of Alley Theatre’s historic $25 million grant?

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars, and Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” / Photo by Lynn Lane

With its recent $25 million matching grant from an anonymous donor, Alley Theatre announced the largest gift in the company’s 75-year history.

The grant, received once its matching challenge is met, will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign, which aims to support the Alley’s endowment, artistic initiatives, building repairs after Hurricane Harvey, and reserve funds for the Theatre.

We at the Alley are so honored to receive this generous gift. Especially after these years of recovery from the pandemic, it is the perfect way to ensure that the Alley is in a strong financial position for years to come. It also means that the art will be supported at a very high level and the work on the Alley stages will continue to have the high production values that we know and love. It comes at a particularly exciting time. We are in the middle of our five-year strategic plan and this gift really put wind in all of our sails to imagine new vistas for the Alley. Anything is possible. I’m extremely excited about the Alley’s future.

Rob Melrose, Artistic Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal

In recognition of the grant, the theatre’s downtown building has been renamed the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center to honor the Alley’s late, longtime Chairman Emeritus, who passed away in 2020. Long served on the Alley’s board for 31 years and was an influential art dealer, fundraiser, and community leader.

“I was lucky to get to know Meredith during my first years at the Alley,” said Melrose. “I was so moved by Meredith’s love of art and decades long commitment to the Alley. He was a truly great man with a generous spirit, and it will be wonderful to think of him every day as we make great theater for the city of Houston.”  

Alley Theatre Building at 615 Texas Avenue is now known as the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center / Courtesy of the Alley

The Alley says the new building name is effective immediately, with an official unveiling being planned for September.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Dean Gladden, the Alley’s Managing Director, for the following interview on the impact of the record-setting grant on the future of the company – and potentially the Theater District:

This $25 million matching grant will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign. Can you tell me a little more about that Campaign and its significance? When do you expect to meet the $25 million challenge, which will kick in this matching grant – and surpass the $80 million goal?

The Vision for the Future Campaign began after Hurricane Harvey. The campaign has four objectives: $31M for the Alley Endowment; $19M for Artistic Investment Fund ($1.5M a year for 10 years to support artistic initiatives, $3M for new Christmas Carol, and $1M for extra marketing expenses over the next 3 years to help us recover from COVID); $20M for renovation and mitigation of the theatre after Harvey; $10M for operating reserves and building maintenance fund. The campaign has raised $55M, and we have up to three years to meet the $25M match and finish the campaign.

Can you go into more detail about what this grant can do for the future of the Alley, such as in terms of programs, initiatives, improvements, etc.?

The campaign will enable us to double the size of our endowment to continue to support the Alley into the future. The Artistic Investment Fund will enable the all the resources to produce shows that we would otherwise not be able to produce. Harvey is self-explanatory. The operating reserve will enable us to always have three months of cash available for cash flow and not have to use a line of credit. Maintenance reserves are self-explanatory. 

What “dreams” of the Alley might this grant help fulfill?

Dreams: The Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, and Houston Ballet all will still have larger endowments than the Alley. Our dream is to match them in size to support our operations. Another dream is to fully recover from COVID and have the same subscription base as we did pre-COVID. Another dream is to continue to expand our offerings to serve both the Houston community and the national theatre movement.

Morgan Marcell as The Wife, David Guzman as The Husband, and Adam Kantor as The Neighbor
in Alley Theatre’s production of “Noir” / Photo by Lynn Lane

What have been some of the Alley’s greatest challenges, which this grant might help the company overcome or address?

Greatest challenges: Tropical Storm Allison, stock market crash of 2009, renovating the theatre on time and on budget in 14 months, Hurricane Harvey and COVID. These monies will address Harvey, COVID and financial stability to grow in the future.

How will this grant help the Alley recover from the pandemic?  Would you be willing to share a figure for the Alley’s financial losses during the pandemic to help us understand what you’ve been through?

This campaign will definitely help the Alley succeed in the future, as I mentioned above. During the first year of COVID FY 2020 – 21, the Alley was forced to reduce its budget from $19M to $11M. We had no earned income that year, everything was contributed. This past year our budget increased to $18.6M, as we performed during COVID. Thanks to generous gifts throughout COVID and grants from PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant], the Alley has operated in the black throughout COVID. In fact, the Alley has generally operated in the black for the last 16 years.

By helping the Alley, what wider impact do you think this grant might have indirectly? How could this grant potentially impact the greater Houston arts community – for example, could it give the Alley the capacity to hire more local artists or make other opportunities available?

By strengthening the Alley’s balance sheet, it will be able to better reach out to the community with its programming and do productions of national scale. It will enable us to hire more actors, theatre artisans and technicians, and expand our education and community engagement programs.

There have been some big announcements in the Theater District recently – such as the $50 million Jones Hall renovations over the next couple of years, the historic $10 million donation to Houston Ballet this past spring, the rebranding of Performing Arts Houston, and now the Alley’s historic $25 million grant. What are your thoughts – and what kinds of conversations are happening – about the future of the Theater District? How does this particular grant fit in with the larger landscape of the Theater District post-pandemic and beyond?

It is very exciting to see all the changes in the theatre district. After our $46.5M restoration of the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center, we were able to give Houston one of the most advanced theatres in America. Now Jones Hall is being renovated, the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance has been named, and the Lynn Wyatt Square is being finished, we are seeing a refreshed Theater District in Houston. The support in Houston of the arts has always been strong, but this new resurgence shows you how vital the arts are to the city of Houston. The future is definitely bright for Houston’s Theater District.

Maureen Zoltek is the latest hire in a year of new leaders at Houston Grand Opera, with more to come

Maureen Zoltek / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has spent this past year recruiting new talent, and the latest is Maureen Zoltek – with another new hire expected in August.

The company recently announced that Zoltek has been appointed Music Director of the HGO Studio, its highly competitive and acclaimed training program for rising opera artists. She begins her role in September 2022.

The position was formerly held by Miah Im, who served from mid-2020 until she passed away in September 2021 after a battle with cancer. HGO’s 2022 Concert of Arias was dedicated in Im’s honor.

HGO describes Zoltek as an “active proponent of new works” with a “commitment to emerging artists.” She is currently assistant conductor, vocal coach, and orchestral keyboardist at San Francisco Opera, as well as a faculty member at the Music Academy of the West.

Zoltek has served on the music staff for world premieres operas by Mark Adamo, John Adams, and Bright Sheng. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and Master’s Degree in piano performance and musicology from Roosevelt University.

In Houston, Zoltek will work closely with HGO Studio Director Brian Speck to lead the program, serve as a member of the company’s casting committee, and oversee programming for HGO Studio’s recital series.

“Artists compete to join the program because it provides personalized, intensive training that prepares them to perform at the highest levels, alongside the best in the business,” said Speck in a statement. “Under Maureen’s exceptional mentorship, our HGO Studio artists will be positioned for success on stages across the world.”

Zoltek is the fourth addition to HGO’s leadership this year. The company also announced a new Board Chair (Claire Liu), a new Director of Community & Learning (Jennifer Bowman), and a new Composer-in-Residence (Joel Thompson) in recent months.

While departures have left some of these positions open, HGO says the changes are also a sign of commitment to fostering talent in the industry and advancing the artform.

“It’s a new era at HGO!” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. Dastoor herself joined the company in August 2021 as she transitioned from her previous role at Opera San Jose, then fully taking over this past January.

“Since joining the organization our priority has been to sharpen our entire strategic focus,” she said. “A huge part of that is building the right team, and over the past year we’ve put everything we have into launching an exhaustive and wide-ranging recruitment initiative.”

HGO says it also plans to announce a Chief Marketing and Experience Officer in August – a newly created position (previously named Chief Audience Officer), whose search began earlier this year.  The role is crucial for the organization’s strategic focus and emphasis on creating lasting experiences for audiences, says HGO.

“It’s essential that we hire arts leaders who are not just the best the industry has to offer, but fervent believers in our mission of bringing world-class artistic experiences to everyone in this city,” Dastoor said.

Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate writes a poem after Uvalde, speaks out against gun violence

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans speaks with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

In the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, March for Our Lives Houston organized a rally at Downtown’s City Hall on June 11.

Among the approximately 600 people participating was Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans, who was appointed the city’s sixth youth poet laureate last fall. The writer, activist, and recent graduate of Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts performed her poem “A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet” at the event.

March for Our Lives Houston outside Houston City Hall, June 11 / Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Twitter

Since the Uvalde school shooting on May 24, there have been multiple mass shootings in the U.S., including one that killed 7 and injured dozens at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 320 mass shootings have taken place nationally so far in 2022, and Everytown for Gun Safety reports 95 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds this year, with 9 of those in Texas.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Avalon Hogans for the following interview and permission to reprint her poem written for March for Our Lives Houston. Note: Hogans is now publishing under the name Avalon Jaemes.

A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet

When I was a little kid,
I knew my ABCs
A, as in apple, the red fruit we eat.
A, as in ant, the small bugs by your feet.
A, as in alarm, the one booming through the intercom,
as you hear the principal yelling, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

B is for be, and
C is for calm.
Be calm,
because if you B as in breathe too loudly, then the B as in bad guy will find you.
So, be calm, and do so with C as in caution.
D is for drill,
as in, “It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a drill,
and when it’s all over you have that math test still.”

E is for eggs, elephant, elbow, and
“Everybody get down!”
F is for fear.
G is for “Get away from the windows and door!”
H is for how and happen.
How could anyone let this happen?
Because I, J, K,
I’m just a kid.

L is for look.
Like don’t look through the window, just look down.
M is for mommy,
who you miss and wish you were with, instead of here where
N, nobody is telling you what’s going on.
Except to say it’s going to be
O-kay.
But you know it’s not, so you ask your teacher if you can
P, please go home.
You’re shushed and told to just be
Q, quiet.

R is for rabbit, rocketship, rainbow, and
reform, a word you’re still too young to know
but will learn to advocate for as you grow,
because the S, silence is
T, too loud.
And twelve years later, when you’re older,
U as in Uvalde will be
V, very deeply grieving in that sound.

So child, I know you’re scared that you can’t even so much as
W, whisper,
ask questions, or even look around,
let alone X, the second letter in explain, how you’re feeling now.

Y is for you.
You will be okay because this is just a drill.
You are one of the lucky ones.

Z is for zebra, zucchini, and zoo.
You made it to the end of the lesson today, school is over,
how blessed are you.

Avalon Jaemes

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing this poem? What “inspired” it and its form? What were you thinking and feeling as you wrote it?

The form of this poem was inspired by the alphabet. I chose this as inspiration because growing up, I learned how to recite my ABCs around the same time I learned how to hide from an intruder at school, much like most children in America did. As I was writing this, I was thinking about what it was like to be a child learning how to read, write, and speak, but still not knowing the words to describe how fearful and wrong it is that they must have frequent drills for a possible school shooting.

The school shooting in Uvalde came less than 2 weeks after a horrific racially motivated shooting in Buffalo (and since then there have been more). Would you share how you felt during those days, how you processed the news?

During those days, I felt completely anchored by grief. As a poet and activist, it’s my job to write and speak. But some days it’s impossible to verbalize the magnitude of such tragedies. My heart truly goes out to all the families and friends of the lives we lost. May we continue to fight for this overdue justice.

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans performs in front of Houston City Hall, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

What has it been like for you to grow up during this “era” of school shootings? How has it shaped or impacted your school experience?

Growing up in an era of school shootings has definitely impacted my school experience. It has made me feel very anxious and cautious at times as a student. 

Amanda Gorman and other Houston poets have also written poems in response to Uvalde in its aftermath.  While many people have connected profoundly with those poems on social media, others express skepticism of the importance of poetry during times of crisis. How do you respond to that – why write poetry when poetry alone cannot literally “fix” something?

Poetry may not be a tangible solution to any social issues, but it serves as a megaphone to these issues. Poetry is a form of spreading awareness. Words hold power. Words are not actions. Words command actions. Poetry is important during these times because it connects people together, verbalizes problems and goals, and inspires others to use their own voices.

What are your college and future writing plans? And in the short term, what else is on your plate – and your goals – for the remainder of your term as HYLP through fall 2022?

I’m very happy to announce that I will be attending Rice University in the fall. I plan on majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and minoring in African American Studies. I hosted my Poet Laureate service project in mid-June at Black is Primary, a Juneteenth event curated by [Houston Poet Laureate] Outspoken Bean at Post HTX, where I read poetry, donated books to kids, and hosted a drive where I gathered hundreds of other books to donate to local schools. As for my goals, I want to continue pursuing writing. Earlier this summer, I had my first live spoken word set in a major city outside of Houston, so I am hoping to continue expanding my audiences. And as always, I plan on continuing to use my voice and spark change.

Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”