ROCO launches its 1st musical children’s book, part of continued efforts to increase access to classical music

Courtesy of ROCO

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in China, The Nightingale by Kevin Lau is a piece that Alecia Lawyer, ROCO Founder and Artistic Director, calls “seriously Peter and the Wolf worthy.”

ROCO commissioned Lau’s trio for violin, clarinet, and piano and debuted it in 2018, along with commissioned illustrations by artist Amy Scheidegger Ducos, which were projected during the World Premiere performances.

“It was such a good piece that we performed it multiple times, and I realized that it could be an amazing children’s book,” said Lawyer.

Composer Kevin Lau / Courtesy of ROCO

That idea was realized when The Nightingale was released this past December as an interactive, multi-media storybook, featuring music and adapted text by Lau, illustrations by Ducos, and narration by Emmy Award-winning Houston journalist Miya Shay. ROCO will officially launch and celebrate the book with a free performance on Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30am at Houston Public Library.

While Lawyer says that ROCO did not initially set out to create a children’s book, Lau’s piece naturally aligned with the organization’s passion for fostering collaboration and access to classical musical.

“All of our art is purposeful but based upon relationships,” Lawyer said, alluding to the personal collaboration between Lau and concertmaster Scott St. John, whose love of Disney led to the fairy tale-inspired commission.

“Our number one value is access,” she added. “We love multi-generational audiences. What better way to encourage this than a children’s book?”

In its book format, The Nightingale combines music, art, literacy, and technology through the use of QR codes that allow readers to choose-their-own reading experience. Through three different QR codes, adults and children can listen to narration and music, music with page-turn prompts, or music only, while reading.

ABC13 news reporter Miya Shay / Courtesy of Twitter

ROCO has long-utilized and experimented with technology in an effort to increase accessibility to concerts and recordings of classical music.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, which led many arts groups to develop virtual performances, ROCO had already begun live streaming orchestral concerts on its website in 2013, expanding to Facebook in 2018. It continues to live stream performances, and to archive audio for on-demand listening, on multiple platforms.

Other initiatives to increase classical music access have included the ROCO App, launched in 2018, and ROCO on the Go, pioneered in 2020 with Buffalo Bayou Park “as a response to the pandemic and reaching audiences who were spending more time outside,” according to Amy Gibbs, ROCO’s Managing Director.

The only music project of its kind in the city, ROCO on the Go has curated playlists for numerous Houston landmarks – essentially creating a site-specific soundtrack, accessed by using a smart phone to scan a QR code at that location. Its most recent QR code was placed at James Driver Park in Harris County Precinct 2 and was created in collaboration with Spectrum Fusion, which serves neurodiverse adults.

“Their members curated a playlist of their own favorite pieces from ROCO’s library for the fully inclusive park, which is designed to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities,” said Gibbs.

Courtesy of ROCO

The release of ROCO’s first children’s book, The Nightingale, is a continuation of such efforts to take classical music outside the concert hall and to offer listeners multiple entry points for enjoyment.

When asked if ROCO hopes to publish more music-inspired children’s books or a book series, Lawyer says there are no definite plans at the moment.

“I am always open to new music and new ways to connect young and young at heart,” she said. “I won’t say ‘no,’ but it isn’t necessary to make it a new endeavor.”

Instead, she says that ROCO aims to continue to engage the community through both book and musical versions of The Nightingale. The ensemble will premiere a new arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra in a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on September 29, as well as turn it into a coloring book – an idea from a Kinder HSPVA student, said Lawyer. ROCO has also added Braille to the book’s pages, with plans to bring that edition for visually impaired readers to The Lighthouse of Houston in coming weeks.

At the book’s April 1st launch at Houston Public Library, the first 50 children in attendance will receive free copies, and ROCO says it will donate copies to library branches citywide and to the Barbara Bush Houston Literary Foundation.

“Let’s dig deeper and not bigger with this one as a through line to as many communities as we can,” said Lawyer.

Young Texas Artists marks growth with 37th annual competition, welcomes new Director of Program and Operations

Medalists in the 2022 Young Texas Artists Music Competition applaud for violinist Clara Saitkoulov, Grand Prize winner and Gold Medalist in the Strings Division / Photo by Dave Clements

When eight finalists take the stage at the 2023 Young Texas Artists Music Competition on Saturday, March 11, they will be part of a long tradition of classical musicians who have launched or advanced their careers in the Lone Star State at the annual event.

The Competition’s alumni include Grammy-nominated baritone Joshua Hopkins (2004 Gold Medalist in Voice); Natalie Lin Douglas (2009 Gold Medalist in Strings and Audience Choice Award winner), who is founder and artistic director of Houston’s Kinetic ensemble; Allyson Goodman (2013 Grand Prize winner and Gold Medalist in Strings), who is principal violist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra; and rising concert violinist Clara Saitkoulov (2022 Grand Prize and Gold Medalist in Strings).

While Houston is home to several noteworthy competitions for young artists – including the Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg Competition, the Texas Music Festival’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, the AFA Concerto Competition, and numerous others – the Conroe-based Young Texas Artist Music Competition holds a special distinction.

According to Young Texas Artists (or YTA, the sponsoring nonprofit), and based on Houston Arts Journal’s review, its music competition is the only one of its kind in the Greater Houston area – and one of the few in the country – with four unique performance divisions: Voice; Piano; Strings; and Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp, and Guitar.

Flutist William Yeh, Silver Medalist in the Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp and Guitar Division at the 2022 Young Texas Artists Music Competition / Photo by Dave Clements

“From what we’ve seen, classical music competitions for young adults with four or more divisions are rare,” said Susie Moore Pokorski, President/CEO of YTA. “We don’t know exactly how many exist nationally, but it’s more common to find competitions that focus on a specific category, like piano or strings.”

For context, Pokorski points out that other nationally-recognized competitions may offer four divisions but may rotate them annually, like the William C. Byrd Young Artist Competition, and while the Ima Hogg Competition (currently on hiatus because of the pandemic) allows the same orchestral instruments as YTA, it does not have a voice division.

The Young Texas Artist Music Competition also has the distinction of being one of the longest-running competitions for young musicians in Greater Houston (along with the Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg Competition, which was created in 1976).

Founded in 1983, Young Texas Artists celebrates its 40th anniversary as an organization this year, and it has steadily hosted its annual competition for nearly four decades – canceling only in 1989, 1990 (during a recession) and 2021 (during the COVID pandemic), according to Pokorski. Its first year was a showcase that featured one performer.

This year also marks a milestone for Pokorski, who is serving her 25th year at the helm of YTA. She says that she has witnessed the organization’s growth in size, reach, and resources during that time, including an increase in interest and applications.

“In 1999, 14 young musicians competed with YTA. This year, YTA received 90 applications, and from them, approximately 65 musicians are being selected to compete,” Pokorski said. The Competition is open to classical artists ages 18-30 (20-32 for Voice) who are Texas residents or affiliated with a Texas music school.

Pokorski led the change to expand the number of divisions from two (Piano and either Voice or an Instrument in alternating years, up to that point in 1999) to its current four-division format. In response, YTA grew its number of judges from three to five – one specialist in each division and one at-large judge, serving in tandem to evaluate the contestants.

Pianist Jade Simmons will mentor the winners of the Young Texas Artists Music Competition / Photo courtesy of the artist’s website

The number of volunteers has also increased from “only a handful” in 1999 to currently “more than 50” who help with competition events or host out-of-town contestants in their homes. Pokorski added that several years ago YTA initiated a career development program for emerging artists headed by concert pianist, Jade Simmons.

One of the most recent signs of the organization’s growth is the creation of a new position, Director of Program and Operations, to which Aurel Garza-Tucker was appointed in November 2022.

“We are delighted to welcome Aurel to our team,” Pokorski said in a statement. “Her background in music education and music competitions is a tremendous asset … Aurel will oversee YTA’s business and operational matters, freeing me to focus on the development and expansion of our local and statewide audiences, opportunities for our artists, and YTA’s core mission.”

A bassoonist/contrabassoonist with a Master of Music in Bassoon Performance, Garza-Tucker comes to YTA from the Austin Chamber Music Center, where she served for seven years as the Assistant Director of Education and Production. She is also Vice President of the Austin Civic Orchestra’s Board of Directors.

Aurel Garza-Tucker is YTA’s new Director of Program and Operations / Photo courtesy of Young Texas Artists

Garza-Tucker will remain in Austin and make regular visits to Montgomery County, expanding YTA’s footprint in Texas.

Classical music – and Texas – are both at the forefront of YTA, whose competition was designated an “Official Music Competition of the State of Texas” by issue of a Texas Senate Resolution signed in 2007. And since 2012, the Finalists Concert has been preceded by the “Bach, Beethoven, and Barbecue Gala.” Described by Pokorski as “pure Texas: a big party with barbecue, dancing, and a live auction,” the gala generates proceeds to benefit YTA programs for young musicians and the community.

The March 11th gala begins at 5pm in Conroe’s downtown cultural district. The Finalists Concert and Awards will follow at 7:30pm in the Crighton Theatre, where eight finalists will compete for a share of $40,000 in prize money, along with career mentoring and performance engagements.

“Not only do contestants benefit from the experience of performing and the prize opportunities, but also from the invaluable feedback they receive from our expert panel of judges,” said Emelyne Bingham, YTA Artistic Director, in a statement. “Our competition is designed to help young, up-and-coming artists learn how to be professionals.”

Nurturing the next generation of classical musicians is at the heart of YTA’s mission, which has made it part of the fabric of the arts in Texas – a state embedded in classical music through philanthropy, historic music festivals, music education, and new alliances and collaborations that continue to form post-pandemic.

Houston Grand Opera receives historic $22 million gift, renames HGO Studio in honor of Sarah and Ernest Butler

L-R: Maureen Zoltek, Butler Studio Music Director; Brian Speck, Butler Studio Director; Ernest and Sarah Butler; Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO; Stephen King, Director of Vocal Instruction

Last Friday, Houston Grand Opera announced the largest donation in the company’s history: a $22 million contribution by Austin couple and longtime HGO patrons and donors, Sarah and Ernest Butler.

Khori Dastoor, Houston Grand Opera General Manager and CEO, called such major gifts in the arts “rare” and “transformative,” in her remarks to an audience at the Wortham Center.

“They give us an opportunity to dream bigger, to go further into our vision, to celebrate the past with a hopeful future,” said Dastoor. “For what is so often a narrative of decline in the arts, moments like this prove to us that the arts are as vital and as hopeful as what we heard on this stage tonight.”

Dastoor publicly announced the gift during HGO’s Concert of Arias. Now in its 35th year, the annual concert serves as the culminating finals round of the Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers – a flagship event of the company’s young artist training program, HGO Studio – whose winners were named that night.

The location and timing of the announcement were appropriate, as the Butlers’ gift is earmarked for HGO Studio – which the company has since renamed the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio in the couple’s honor.

“The two of us have followed the HGO Studio since its inception, watching its graduates go on to successful careers in opera,” said Ernest Butler in a statement.

“We’ve decided to create a new fund within the HGO Endowment that supports the program, because we’ve seen the endowment’s careful fiscal management firsthand,” Butler said. “We have tremendous confidence in HGO and want to help this great company expand its mission and its reach, throughout our region and beyond.”

Established in 1977, HGO’s Butler Studio is “one of the most respected and highly competitive young artist programs in the world,” according to its website, and “provides comprehensive career development to young singers and pianist/coaches” with subsidized residencies and major performance opportunities for up to three years.  Its alumni include Jamie Barton, Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves, Nicole Heaston, Ana María Martínez, Ryan McKinny, and Nicholas Phan. The program recently welcomed a new Music Director, Maureen Zoltek, who began that role this past September.

During Friday’s announcement, Dastoor noted the Butlers’ dedication to the operatic art form, acknowledging that they “have made the drive from Austin and back for the Sunday matinee of every production in the HGO season” for the past 35 years as subscribers. When the COVID-19 pandemic made live performances unsafe in 2020, the Butlers donated $1 million to help create the company’s online platform, HGO Digital, the Sarah and Ernest Butler Performance Series. HGO Digital – a subscription-based arts channel that includes free content – has continued post-pandemic and is now in its third season of virtual programming.

According to a press release, Sarah Butler is a retired educator, and Ernest Butler is a retired otolaryngologist who founded the Austin Ear Nose and Throat Clinic, as well as Acoustic Systems. Together, they have been active participants and philanthropists in the arts and sciences.

“With our investment in HGO’s future, Ernest and I want to support the organization through the next century … This gift is a strategic one, because the artistic excellence at HGO supports and elevates cultural endeavors both within, and far beyond, Houston,” said Sarah Butler in a statement.

HGO’s historic gift is one of three milestone donations to Houston Theater District performing arts groups in the past 10 months, including a $25 million matching grant to the Alley Theatre from an anonymous donor in June 2022 and a $10 million donation to Houston Ballet by Margaret Alkek Williams in May 2022.

Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean rounds out his tenure with projects that honor Black history and stories of Houstonians

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean / Photo courtesy of the artist

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean is a poet and more.  He is a poetic “producer of experiences,” as he calls it – from his artistry as a champion slam poet to his roles as festival producer, creator of Five-Minute Poems (in which he creates custom poems on-the-spot), collaborator with Houston Ballet, and mentor to the next generation of performance poets by coaching the Meta-Four Houston Youth Poetry Slam Team.

Since April 2021, Outspoken Bean has served as Houston’s Fifth Poet Laureate, a cultural ambassador position that aims to foster appreciation of poetry and expression through words among Houston residents. The role was created by former Houston Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 and is coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Houston Public Library.

A performance by Outspoken Bean in response to Ganzeer’s “It Takes A Village,” an installation at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, June 2020 / Produced by Brandon Martin, Rice University

Houston has one of the longest-running poet laureate programs among the five largest cities in the U.S. (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix). Chicago will inaugurate a Poet Laureate this year, while New York City does not have a Poet Laureate for the city as a whole – though four of its five boroughs have individual poet laureates, with the oldest program established in Brooklyn in 1979. Phoenix began appointing a Poet Laureate in 2016, and Los Angeles started its program in 2012.

Houston’s long-standing tradition of Poet Laureates, as well as Youth Poet Laureates, points to the city as a literary hub – supported by other enduring literary institutions, such as Inprint, now in its 42nd season of literary readings, and Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Houston’s Former Poet Laureates, L-R: Robin Davidson (2015-2017), Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton (2017-2019), Leslie Contreras Schwartz (2019-2021), and Gwen Zepeda (2013-2015) / Photo by Pin Lim

As the City of Houston begins its search for the next Poet Laureate (to be announced in April 2023), Outspoken Bean culminates his two-year tenure with a community outreach project called Space City Story Tape, described in a press release as “a mixture of spoken word narratives of Houston residents set to music by [Houston composer-producer] Russell Guess.”

Bean’s Space City Story Tape will debut at an official Release Party on February 13 at Assembly HTX, free and open to the public.

In another form of community outreach, Bean will also produce the Woodson Black Fest on February 2 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, in celebration of Black History Month. The free festival will showcase spoken word, film, music, fashion, and a panel discussion.

“This is the second year of the partnership between Outspoken Bean and CAMH that brings together different art disciplines for a social night of community connection,” said Michael Robinson, Marketing and Communications Manager at CAMH.

Woodson Black Fest takes its name from the “father of Black history,” historian, journalist, and scholar Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) – who, among many groundbreaking advancements, created Negro History Week in February 1926, which inspired and evolved to Black History Month by 1970.

According to the article “How Negro History Week Became Black History Month and Why It Matters Now” by Veronica Chambers in the New York Times, “Dr. Woodson and his colleagues set an ambitious agenda for Negro History Week. They provided a K-12 teaching curriculum with photos, lesson plans and posters with important dates and biographical information … He and his colleagues also engaged the community at large with historical performances, banquets, lectures, breakfasts, beauty pageants and parades.”

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Outspoken Bean to learn more about his culminating projects as Houston Poet Laureate. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve described the Woodson Black Fest as “a small festival about enlightenment, creativity, and innovation, which celebrates Black artists and artisans’ contributions.”  Why did you think Houston needed a festival like this?  How were you inspired to start it?

Houston needs a festival like this because there’s always an opportunity to showcase Black art and Black artists in their many forms. I feel that our intelligence and creativity should be broadcasted and amplified. I was inspired because the CAMH came to me with an amazing offer to build a festival, and I thought of my former creation, Plus Fest, and made it Black-focused.

The festival is named after American historian, author, journalist, and intellectual Carter G. Woodson. Can you say a little a bit about what he means to you?

Well, originally, I was going to call the festival Douglass Black Fest. And I was talking with my friend Candice D’Meza about the idea of the festival and where I wanted to go and whom I wanted it to honor. And I learned through that conversation from Candice that there is a misconception of Black History Month. What’s usually shared is February is Black History Month because Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays are in February, and also that Frederick Douglass came up with the idea of Negro Week at the time. Which is not true. What’s true is that it was Woodson’s idea. And I think that there is a sense of sharing and informing and reminding that comes with this festival. Also, it gives an opportunity to spread Carter G. Woodson’s name and to give him proper credit for what we know as Black History Month.

What will be taking place at the festival on Feb. 2?  I’m also curious what the panel discussion will be about.

We will have performance by Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton and a performance by me as the current Houston Poet Laureate. We will be showcasing Marlon Hall’s Visual Poems Series, entitled Folklore Films, through a video montage, and hearing him speak on his inspirations for his storytelling medium. And the panel discussion, which will be led by Danielle Fanfair, will conduct moving conversations with Black style icons who are the based here in Houston, Texas. The beauty of their fashion genius is that they get their works and inspirations out to the world, out to the public via social media, podcasting, pop-up events, what have you. So this panel discussion will give a lot of insight into Black, creative fashion forces.

The festival is also described as “a family reunion for Black artists” – can you say little bit about that idea of “family reunion” and why that matters? Is this something you want both the artists involved and the audience to feel?

Last year was the first year we had the Woodson Black Fest. And the goal was to make sure that the festival happened. There was no theme for the festival. So this year I wanted to have a theme that is steeped in Black American culture. And that will be changing from year to year, so this year the themes is Black Family Reunion, hence why the family tree, the style of font, and muted color palette. And just like a family union, we want everyone to come and have a good time.

Another project you have as you wrap up your term as Houston Poet Laureate is the Space City Story Tape.  Back in 2021, you described the project to me as “a community spoken word album,” which would feature stories collected from everyday Houstonians – kind of like “mini-memoirs” set to music.  Can you describe how the project turned out?

Yes! The Space City Story Tape is complete. February 13 at Assembly HTX at 6 PM, I will be hosting a mixtape release party in celebration of my city-sponsored Poet Laureate project. Russell Guess and I have been working relentlessly in the studio producing, mixing, writing poems, and listening to the stories to bring Houstonians a unique audio experience.

I couldn’t use all of the stories because I got so many, but a story that is on the project that I am moved by is about the Black Panther Party in Third Ward and how it has shaped the Third Ward today.

L-R: Russell Guess and Outspoken Bean / Courtesy of Outspoken Bean

What will take place at the Release Party?  How can people access the Tape?

Everyone who comes will scan the QR code so they can download the album or listen to it on any streaming device that they choose. Then there will be refreshments and a performance by me and a talkback with myself and Russell Guess. It’s going to be a good time. I invite you all to come. The Tape will be available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube music, Youtube, etc.  It will be available everywhere.

What did you learn from being Houston Poet Laureate?  What would you like to say about your experience?

The amount of people, who take up the well-deserved space that they take in Space City, is really miraculous. I also got a chance to hear so many stories through the Houston Public Library and MOCA (Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs) when it came to getting prepared for this project and learning about what this role could be, and can be, and how to improve it for the next Poet Laureate.

Applications to be the 2023-2025 Houston Poet Laureate will be accepted through Sunday, January 29, with more information available here.

Shepherd School’s search for a new orchestra director gains momentum with an extensive roster of guest conductors

Clockwise from top left: Andrew Grams, Giancarlo Guerrero, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Hans Graf, William Eddins, Joshua Gersen, Robert Spano, Patrick Summers, Lidiya Yankovskaya, and Cristian Măcelaru / Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music has announced 10 lauded conductors of the classical music world – including those with ties to leading Texas ensembles – to guest conduct the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra through the 2023-24 season.

The sheer number, range, and reputation of these conductors, scheduled over a concentrated 15-month period, is a record for the Shepherd School, “marking the first time in the school’s history that such a variety of internationally renowned conductors will work with its orchestras,” according to a press release.

The extensive roster is part of the school’s search for a new orchestra director to succeed the late Larry Rachleff, longtime professor and Music Director of the Shepherd School Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, who passed away last August.

“The search for a new orchestra director presents a unique opportunity for the school and its students to experiment with finding new voices to help lead the renowned program and creatively design ways for it to continue to grow,” said Matthew Loden, Dean of the Shepherd School, in a statement.

Guest conductors are:

Feb. 4, 2023: Andrew Grams, former music director of Elgin Symphony Orchestra

Mar. 4, 2023: Rice Shepherd School alum Cristian Măcelaru ’06 ’08, music director of the Orchestre National de France and artistic director of the George Enescu Festival and Competition

Apr. 21, 2023: Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera

Joshua Gersen, former assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, will prepare the orchestra for all spring 2023 performances.

Sept. 29 and 30, 2023: Robert Spano, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Aspen Music Festival and School and former music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Oct. 27, 2023: Hans Graf, music director of the Singapore Symphony and former music director of the Houston Symphony

Dec. 1, 2023: William Eddins, music director emeritus of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 2, 2024: Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of the Chicago Opera Theater and founder of the Refugee Orchestra Project

Mar. 2, 2024: Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director laureate of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and director of orchestral studies at Baylor University

Apr. 19, 2024: Giancarlo Guerrero, music director for the Nashville Symphony and NFM Wrocław Philharmonic in Poland

Noteworthy guest conductors at the Shepherd School not only offer high-level music-making for the community through concerts that are free to the public, but also provide valuable experience and connections for students as they train for professional careers, according to Loden.

“We hope Houstonians will come see their favorite conductors on the podium at the Shepherd School’s Stude Concert Hall,” he said, adding: “Giving our music students more opportunities to engage with these types of high-caliber international conductors from top-ranked professional ensembles will help them to keep winning big orchestra jobs.”

Rachleff’s death in August left many in the community mourning the loss of a “musical genius” and friend, and the Shepherd School is currently operating without an interim orchestra director

Larry Rachleff / Photo courtesy of Rice University

“One of the lasting legacies from Larry Rachleff’s tenure is a Shepherd School community of students and faculty that are continuing to set the highest artistic and educational ideals,” Loden told Houston Arts Journal.

“While we are eager to find new leadership for this important program, in the interim, our faculty will work closely with guest artists to ensure we provide remarkable and meaningful performance opportunities for our orchestral students,” he said.

Loden says the school hopes to have a new orchestra director in place for the start of the 2024-25 academic year.

That appointment would increase the school’s new leadership, which includes a new Director of Opera Studies, Joshua Winograde, who will begin that role in July 2023.

Teen spoken word artist Ariana Lee is Houston’s new Youth Poet Laureate

Ariana Lee / Photo courtesy of

Selected through a citywide application process, Ariana Lee was recently named 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate

The Houston-area high school senior is a member of Meta-Four Houston, the city’s official youth slam poetry team, and the winner of a National YoungArts Foundation 2023 Writing Award for Spoken Word.

Lee’s poetry has been published in Defunkt Magazine (“Homeward Bound”) and featured by One Breath Partnership (“Through the Eye”). She wrote and performed “Stars of Space City” in honor of the 2022 Word Series Champions Houston Astros:

“I’m H-Town born and raised and am so proud to represent this community,” wrote Lee in a social media post. “I’m honored to be receiving the torch from 2022 HYPL Avalon and to be holding this position after so many talented poets.”

Succeeding Avalon Hogans, Lee is the 7th teen to serve as Houston Youth Poet Laureate, which is a joint initiative of Writers in the Schools, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Houston Public Library. The program aims to identity young writers to serve as leaders and cultural ambassadors through poetry, performance, and civic and community engagement.

Established in 2016, Houston’s youth poet laureate program is among the long-running in Texas, where Austin and Dallas recently inaugurated youth poet laureate positions.

There are over 60 youth poet laureate programs in the U.S., supported by Urban Word – the literary organization that also launched the National Youth Poet Laureate program, whose inaugural laureate was Amanda Gorman in 2017, with Alyssa Gaines currently serving in that role.

The city is currently searching for its next Houston Poet Laureate – the adult counterpart position, now in its 10th year – with applications due by January 29 and a new laureate to be announced in April.

Poet francine j. harris becomes tenured professor at UH, Kevin Powell named Writer-In-Residence at Prairie View A&M

francine j. harris / Courtesy of University of Houston

Award-winning poet francine j. harris has been promoted to full professor with tenure at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Department of English at the University of Houston.

Professorship and tenure are “remarkable achievements on their own accord and rarely granted in unison,” according to UH.

Harris, who joined the UH Creative Writing Program as an Associate Professor in 2019, becomes the first Black woman professor in that program to receive tenure, as harris announced on social media and as confirmed by UH CWP.

This comes at a time when only about 2% of tenured associate and full professors at U.S. universities and colleges are Black women, as harris also noted, according to 2019 data by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Harris won the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award, considered among the most prestigious literary awards, for her third collection Here is the Sweet Hand. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and MacDowell Colony, and her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, Lambda Literary Award, and an Audre Lorde Award.

In an interview with the University of Houston’s Jillian Holden, harris said: “I think a lot about nuance and subtlety. Poetry is the one place I have felt like I have the room just to suggest things … I can digress, tangent and drift off … If more people understood that poetry gives you this kind of freedom, maybe more people would tap in.”

Kevin Powell / Courtesy of Prairie View A&M University

This week, Prairie View A&M University announced poet, journalist, author, cultural critic, and activist Kevin Powell as the second writer-in-residence of the Toni Morrison Writing Program.

Powell succeeds Nikki Giovanni, who served as the program’s inaugural writer-in-residence last academic year. His term began on September 1, 2022, with his first public lecture to be scheduled later this month, according to a press release.

Author of 15 books, including the essay collection When We Free The World, Powell has worked as senior writer at Vibe Magazine, and he has written for The New York Times,, The Nation, NPR, ESPN, Essence, Esquire, Ebony, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, among others.

Following his appearance on The Real World: New York, the first season of the seminal MTV reality television series, Powell wrote Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections On Race, Sex, and Politics.

His new poetry collection, Grocery Shopping with My Mother, will published by Soft Skull/Penguin Random House in December 2022.

Powell studies; Powell thinks deeply. He takes a stance on a cornucopia of issues, including, but not limited to, social justice, interpersonal relationships, hip hop culture, and environmentalism, you name it. He challenges a multi-generational audience and issues to them a call to action. Given today’s socio-political climate, nothing could be more timely, especially for HBCU college students for whom the college years are an apprenticeship for thoughtful, meaningful, intentional participation in the change they wish to see.

Provost Emerita Emma Joahanne Thomas-Smith, Director of the Toni Morrison Writing Program

The Toni Morrison Writing Program was established in March 2021 with a gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison. Scott donated $50 million to the University in October 2020, with $3 million of her gift to endow the new program.

The writing program also partners with the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice and aims to foster an “exploration of social justice from the perspective of literature, public policy, entertainment, environmental science, athletics, health, and other areas,” according to its website.

Houston music community remembers Larry Rachleff, mourns passing of the longtime Rice conductor

Larry Rachleff / Courtesy of Rice University

The classical music world has lost a conductor, educator, and mentor described by many as a “genius” and a musical “giant,” and noted for his humor, humanity, and ability to bring people together.

Larry Rachleff, longtime professor and conductor of the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, died on Monday, August 8 at the age of 67 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Rice University shared news of his passing yesterday in a remembrance article, as well as in a social media post – with hundreds of students, colleagues, musicians, and friends reacting and commenting with personal tributes in appreciation of Rachleff, who touched countless lives during his 31 years at the Shepherd School.

“[Larry Rachleff] was a champion of all young musicians, not just those who sat under his baton several times a week or studied conducting with him,” wrote Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank, who earned her bachelor and master degrees at Rice’s Shepherd School.

“He took interest in me as a composer and followed my career for decades afterwards, sending me the occasional note of encouragement and cheer, premiering one work, and programming many others.

“I always loved talking with him, from the time I was an undergrad when he first came to Rice, until our last exchange just a few months ago when we were thinking of ways that I could come back to Shepherd as a guest. What an enormous loss. What a gift he was to all of us for so many years,” commented Frank on Facebook.

Soprano Melissa Givens, a Shepherd School alumna who sings with the Grammy-winning choir Conspirare, wrote on social media: “[Larry Rachleff] was a gentle giant and will be greatly missed. My condolences to the enormous circle of family, friends, and colleagues he leaves behind. I have very fond memories of working with him.”

“Larry made me a better musician and he forever touched my life,” commented Houston soprano and music educator Ana Treviño-Godfrey, who earned her doctorate at the Shepherd School.

Larry Rachleff conducting the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra / Courtesy of Rice University

Joining Rice University in 1991, Larry Rachleff was the Walter Kris Hubert Professor of Orchestral Conducting and Music Director of the Shepherd School Symphony and Chamber Orchestras. Rachleff also served for two decades as Music Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, stepping down in 2017.

As a guest conductor, Rachleff worked with numerous major U.S. orchestras, including the Utah Symphony, Houston Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony, and he was active at prestigious music festivals, including Tanglewood, Aspen, and Interlochen, among others.

Joel Luks remembers him as a “beautiful person.”

While studying for his Masters of Music in Flute Performance at Rice, Luks experienced a special connection with Rachleff during a rehearsal of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony.

“‘Joel,’ he said decisively but with a mischievous (but somber) tone. ‘Sound expensive,’” Luks posted on Facebook.

“I knew exactly what he wanted and how to give it to him. His descriptions and instructions were memorable, an imprint on all young musicians he trained at Rice,” wrote Luks in his personal tribute.

An advocate of public school music education, Rachleff conducted all-state orchestras and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, and Canada. It was in this role that Houston composer Pierre Jalbert first met the conductor.

“I first played under him as a high school student in the early 80’s at the Vermont All-State Music Festival. Who was this amazing conductor who brought out the best in all of us and introduced us to such interesting repertoire?” wrote Jalbert on Facebook.

“It seems I followed Larry around most of my life, learning about music from him all the while,” posted Jalbert – who later studied at Oberlin Conservatory, where Rachleff also taught, and went on to join the Shepherd School faculty, alongside his former teacher.

Rachleff was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

The Shepherd School will honor the late Larry Rachleff at the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra’s 2022 – 2023 season opening concert on September 30 at 7:30pm in Stude Concert Hall. Details will be updated here.

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.

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.