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.

Houston Grand Opera premieres “Another City,” a collaboration with Houston’s homeless community

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

A site-specific production that focuses on the lives of those without housing in Houston, Another City will mark Houston Grand Opera’s 74th World Premiere when it debuts on March 9, 10, and 11 at the downtown campus of Ecclesia Houston.

Based on research, interviews, and volunteer experiences at homeless service organizations, Another City aims to center and give voice to the stories of unhoused Houstonians and to explore the meaning of home.

Local efforts to support and help the city’s homeless community have included a $56 million joint homelessness initiative between the City of Houston and Harris County in 2020 and, as part of that initiative, a $7.1 million contract to rehouse people living in homeless encampments in 2022. As the Houston Chronicle reported last year: “The city’s homelessness programs have garnered attention and praise from other major U.S. cities in recent years following a more than 50 percent decrease in homelessness from 2010 to 2021, according to the Coalition for the Homeless’s data.”

Another City’s storytelling embraces “a constantly shifting and interwoven structure that gives the audience a feeling of moving through the city and the sense that although Houston is making a good deal of progress on this front, there will always be remaining questions, new challenges to resolve,” said librettist Stephanie Fleischmann.

Right side of photo, top to bottom: Alex Amsel, conductor; Jeremy Howard Beck, composer; Stephanie Fleischmann, librettist; and Jeremy Johnson, HGO Dramaturg/Associate Director of New Works during a workshop with artists for “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

To honor the stories of people experiencing homelessness, Fleischmann and composer Jeremy Howard Beck held listening sessions – and recorded more than 60 hours of interviews – with Houstonians through collaborations with SEARCH, The Beacon, Star of Hope, Coalition for the Homeless, and New Hope Housing, as well as the Houston Mayor’s Office. They also “joined case managers for ride-alongs … volunteered in kitchens and at clothing drives, and helped with client intake, listening closely to community members generous enough to speak with them,” according to Houston Grand Opera. From these words and rhythms, the opera’s libretto and score began to emerge.

“Listening to all these myriad stories, we soon realized we could not just tell one story, with a single protagonist,” said Fleischmann. “Our mandate, as we saw it, was to attempt to put a city on stage.”

The 75-minute opera – set within the course of a single day in the life of Houston – tells the stories of a young man who has just spent his first night on the street, a woman who has lost her son to homelessness, an unhoused veteran, a teenage volunteer, and others.

“The opera is populated with many other characters who … are all in their own way equally important to this truly ensemble work,” said Fleischmann. She added that the storylines also encounter “a young man fresh out of jail and new to the system, a man struggling to overcome his addiction so that he can be there for his wife, a chronically homeless woman who lives at the bus station.”

L to R: Rohan Ramanan, Joshua Blue, Norman Mathews, and Nick Davis during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Composer Jeremy Howard Beck said he was inspired by the sounds of the voices of the people he interviewed.

“There were the many different musics of the way people spoke as they talked to us, and I felt a deep responsibility to honor that musicality in how the voice parts were composed,” said Beck.

“Some people told us about their favorite music, and I believed that referencing those musical languages for those characters was something I could give back to them, a way the characters could ‘speak for themselves,’” he said.

Beck also made field recordings around the city to layer in his score, which creates the “feeling of immersion in an urban soundtrack.”

“One recording I made just a few days ago happened to include a sort of ‘duet’ between a post-dawn chorus of songbirds and a worker intermittently power-washing a roof many stories above me,” said Beck. “I also love grackle sounds! I can’t get enough of them and their strange, swoopy, laser-gun, rusty-gate calls.”

Houston Grand Opera says that Another City is not only a vehicle for sharing the stories of unhoused Houstonians but also an opportunity to create continued engagement with the city’s homeless service groups and their clients.

“We have connected with a multitude of amazing individuals committed solving the issue of homelessness. They have educated HGO on how we, as an opera company and not a social service organization, could contribute to the needs of this community,” said Jennifer Bowman, HGO’s Director of Community and Learning.

“Thanks to that guidance, HGO has steadily provided performances and youth, family, and other programming to clients and staff at facilities like The Beacon, Brigid’s Hope, Ecclesia, and House of Tiny Treasures,” she said. “These activities will continue in some form after the close of Another City.”

L to R: Aarianna Longino, Assistant Stage Manager Meghan Spear, Travon Walker, Norman Mathews, and Aaron Keeney during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Another City is the penultimate commission of HGO’s long-running “Song of Houston” initiative, which since 2007 has commissioned groundbreaking operas that celebrate diverse experiences and contemporary life in Houston – including Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (2010), considered to be the world’s first mariachi opera.

According Bowman, the “Song of Houston” initiative will be discontinued next year (after the commission of The Big Swim, a chamber opera in honor of the Lunar New Year, scheduled for February 2024), as the company shifts its focus to creating new Houston-centric works in collaboration with composer-in-residence Joel Thompson.

“The company will be invested in supporting Mr. Thompson as he continues to grow as a Houston resident and develop multiple projects, including a full-length opera, within this city’s unique atmosphere, history, culture, and diversity,” said Bowman. “He is already working on a song cycle with playwright, educator, librettist, and former Houston Poet Laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, based on oral history archives of Black Houstonians collected by the Emancipation Park Conservancy in Third Ward and others.”

Bowman added, “No matter the initiative, HGO’s mission remains to enrich our diverse community through the art of opera.”

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.

Nao Kusuzaki’s World Premiere Ballet, “Genji,” marks Asia Society Texas’ second dance commission in its 43-year history

Emma Forrester, Aoi Fujiwara, Yumiko Fukuda, and Jindallae Bernard during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, on Monday, January 30, 2023, at the Houston Ballet. ‘Genji’ makes its world premiere at Asia Society Texas March 24–25, 2023 // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

Told from the perspectives of four female characters and set in 21st century Japan, Genji is Nao Kusuzaki’s contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji – the classic 11th century novel that depicts the aristocratic and romantic life of the Emperor’s son, Hikaru Genji, and written by novelist, poet, and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu.

The World Premiere chamber ballet is Asia Society Texas’ second dance commission its 43-year history – and its second dance piece created in partnership with Houston Ballet. It also marks the organization’s second time working with Kusuzaki, the Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Creative Minds Collaborative and a former Houston Ballet soloist, whose 12-year career with the company spanned from 2004 to 2016.

Genji will debut in performances March 24 – 25, 7:30pm, at Asia Society Texas, featuring dancers from Houston Ballet and an original score written and performed live by New York-based composer and musician Kaoru Watanabe.

Aoi Fujiwara and Ryo Kato during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

As described in a press release, Kusuzaki explores the female characters’ relationships with Genji and one another in this contemporary ballet about friendship, love, and the dynamics of power and social class.

“The intricacies of these relationships reveal universal human emotions – such as loyalty and jealousy, beauty and destruction of love, and dealing with life’s impermanence – that make the story as relevant today as it was in 11th century Japan,” she said in a statement.

Asia Society Texas began its foray into commissioning dance works in 2015 with Tsuru, performed by Kusuzaki and co-created by her and choreographer Kenta Kojiri. Based on the “The Crane Wife” folktale, Tsuru debuted with praise from Arts and Culture Texas and the Houston Chronicle.

“Houston Ballet has built a strong relationship with Asia Society Texas over the past decade … We are excited to once again partner with Asia Society Texas on the World Premiere of Genji,” said Jim Nelson, Houston Ballet Executive Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“Again, Kusuzaki draws on classic Japanese literature and folklore to create a new dance adaptation of a classic Japanese tale,” Nelson said. “Ms. Kuzusaki brings a unique perspective to narrative dance work that is rooted in classical ballet technique, and Houston Ballet is proud to support her and our dancers in sharing this work with our community.”

Nao Kusuzaki with Aoi Fujiwara during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Nao Kusuzaki to learn more about the World Premiere of “Genji”:

Houston Arts Journal: Why do you think a contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji is important?

Nao Kasuzaki: The Tale of Genji is not only known as one of the world’s oldest literary works, but it is also one written by a female author, during a period in Japanese history (Heian period) when the arts truly flourished. The arts cultivated during the Heian period are what we identify today as traditional Japanese art. The Japanese phonetic syllabary kana was born, waka poetry blossomed, as well as music and dance – gagaku and bugaku. The stage work of The Tale of Genji was a perfect backdrop to share with Houston audiences about these elements of Japanese history.

And the further along I read The Tale of Genji, the more intrigue I found in the various human emotions and how similar our relationships can be from a thousand years ago. Seeing its relevance and universal appeal, I felt the contemporary retelling through a ballet would offer interesting and meaningful perspectives. Layering onto it are elements of history and culture – through use of kimono fabrics, traditional instruments like koto and fue, calligraphy and waka poetry recitation, and gestural movements.

Aoi Fujiwara with choreographer Nao Kusuzaki during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

HAJ: Why do you love to work with Houston Ballet dancers? What do you think they will add to this World Premiere?

NK: When I was involved in the first commissioned work with Asia Society Texas in 2015, I was dancing full-time with Houston Ballet. Since I joined the company in 2004, Houston Ballet had become my ballet family, and naturally, I was drawn to working with them for that project. I also felt very supported by the Houston Ballet organization for that collaboration and had a truly fulfilling process leading up to the performances.

This time, for the second commission from Asia Society Texas, I was retired from full-time dancing, but still felt connected with Houston Ballet, as I stayed involved with the organization. I continue to love and respect what they do and am thrilled to be able to work with them again. 

Three of the dancers are soloists and of Japanese origin, and the other two are in the beginning years of their careers. I also know that all of the cast members have studied The Tale of Genji through school and showed curiosity and excitement from the beginning. They’re all such team players with unique individuality. These qualities certainly add to their interpretation and development of characters for Genji.”


Choreographer and Artistic Director: Nao Kusuzaki
Composer and Musician: Kaoru Watanabe
Set Designer: Ryan McGettigan
Costume Designer: Allison Miller
Lighting Designer and Stage Manager: Tiffany Schrepferman

Ryo Kato (Genji), Houston Ballet
Jindallae Bernard (Rokujyo), Houston Ballet
Emma Forrester (Aoi), Houston Ballet
Aoi Fujiwara (Fujitsubo), Houston Ballet
Yumiko Fukuda (Murasaki), Houston Ballet
Evelyn Chang, Houston Ballet Academy
Jordan Evangelista, Houston Ballet Academy
Victoria Mosher, Houston Ballet Academy
Giselle Ford, Houston Ballet Academy

Jindallae Bernard and Emma Forrester during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, on Monday, January 30, 2023, at the Houston Ballet. ‘Genji’ makes its world premiere at Asia Society Texas March 24–25, 2023 // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

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.

Meet Jennifer Davenport, Houston Grand Opera’s newest executive leader

Jennifer Davenport / Photo by Hierarchy Advertising

Jennifer Davenport says that football fans and opera fans have something in common – they’re both among the most passionate audiences she’s met.

A longtime sports marketing executive, Davenport joined Houston Grand Opera on September 6, 2022 from the Houston Texans, where she most recently served as Chief Marketing Officer for the NFL team.

Davenport is now Houston Grand Opera’s first Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, a newly created leadership role that “will head initiatives to grow and engage the organization’s audiences,” according to HGO.

Prior to her decade-plus career with the Texans – which included leadership on the Houston Super Bowl LI Committee and activating the organization’s community response to Hurricane Harvey – Davenport also served as Marketing, Promotions, and Events Manager for the Houston Rockets.

Soprano Angel Blue will star as Violetta in HGO’s season-opening production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Oct. 21 – Nov. 6, 2022 / Photo by Catherine Rose (Royal Opera House production)

With HGO set to open a 2022 – 2023 season of “powerhouse women,” as described by Arts and Culture Texas, Houston Arts Journal reached out to Jennifer Davenport for the following interview about her goals, the connection between sports and arts, and more:

First of all, congratulations, Jennifer Davenport, on your new position at HGO!

Thanks! I am thrilled to join HGO and have the incredible opportunity to lead initiatives to share great art with this city. I was born and raised in the Houston area. I know how important it is for us to offer top-in-class art and culture. It’s so meaningful for me to be a part of that.  

You’ve had an impressive career in the sports industry, from leadership roles with the Houston Texans to the Houston Rockets.  Now that you’re joining an opera company, I’d love to hear a little bit about your relationship to the arts.  What is your experience or personal connection to the arts – and perhaps to opera specifically?

My love for music and art goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Crosby, Texas and participated in church and school choirs and played the flute in middle and high school band. I’ve always loved attending art and music events—and how amazing is it to now have that be part of my professional life? I am fascinated by the way opera combines all the art forms together into something else in a league of its own. I look forward to fully immersing myself in the art form and everything it has to offer.  

I think Houstonians know their city is home to a world-renowned opera company, but they might not realize it is here for them. We want to be sure this art form is accessible to all, and for the stories we share to resonate with the people we serve on a personal level.

Jennifer Davenport

What do you see as the connection between your love of sports and your love of the arts?  What might you see as the relationship between football and opera, for example, and is it useful to think about it that way as you step into your role?

The fan bases for football and opera are two of the most passionate audiences you will find. And as Houstonians we love to cheer on the exceptional, whether on the field or the stage. The anticipation and energy around both show night and gameday create an opportunity for us to bring our community together through unforgettable, shared experiences. Also, football and opera are powered by talented people who are living out their dreams. It is my joy to help showcase their brilliance to opera lovers, while introducing new people to their talents.   

Your position of Chief Marketing and Experience Officer is a newly created role at Houston Grand Opera.  What can you tell us so far about your vision and goals? 

Two of my priorities for year one will be reaching new audiences and improving the guest experience at the theater. I think Houstonians know their city is home to a world-renowned opera company, but they might not realize it is here for them. We want to be sure this art form is accessible to all, and for the stories we share to resonate with the people we serve on a personal level. When you join us for a night out, we want every aspect of your experience to be seamless—and for the memory to be something you share with everyone you encounter for days to come. 

You were quoted in the press release as saying, “Under the company’s forward-thinking new leadership, we have a wonderful opportunity to reimagine how we engage Houstonians through opera.” My emphasis there. What are some of your ideas about how to do that?  And what do you think is missing in the way we currently engage people with opera?

The outstanding grand opera produced by HGO at the Wortham each season will always be at the center of what we provide to Houston. But we don’t stop there! As a company we perform in schools, libraries, and community spaces throughout our city. And as we move forward, we plan to double down on that, making art that has deep roots in this place and the people who live here. For example, next spring, we will be presenting the original operatic work Another City, based on deep collaboration with unhoused Houstonians, in a series of performances at Ecclesia downtown. This is the transformative power of opera: stories shared through words and music open our worlds to each other, helping us to see each other more clearly. 

The sports industry has had its share of challenges when it comes to pay equitydiversity and inclusiongender rights, and racial bias. How does your experience in that industry prepare you for addressing overlapping challenges in the opera world – which, as a whole, still struggles with equity and inclusion whether on stage or on the podium, as well as racism?

I’ve always believed a marketing and guest experience team should reflect and understand the community we are welcoming and the new audiences we want to engage. I am excited to work alongside the talented team at HGO, because it’s important to them, too. In fact, it is right there in the company’s strategic focus, which I’ve heard my peers going back to again and again: to create profoundly enriching experiences for our diverse audiences. One of the HGO offerings I’m most excited for this season is February’s Giving Voice concert, a celebration of Black opera stars that will take place at Wheeler Baptist Church’s new building, in collaboration with Texas Southern University, Prairie View A&M University, the Houston Ebony Opera Guild, and the HGO Chorus. It’s going to be a truly joyful evening. 

Do you think your experience as a woman in sports – where women leaders, managers have also been underrepresented – will shape how you approach such issues in the opera world?

I became a first-time mother just before accepting this role with Houston Grand Opera. This life change has made me even more aware of the challenges women face balancing personal and professional lives. I am curious and excited to take on this challenge alongside our General Director and CEO, Khori Dastoor, who is a fantastic leader, role model, and mother herself. She has recruited a number of dynamic, inspiring women to lead this organization into the future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.

First-ever Houston Theater Week could mark the start of a new performing arts season tradition

In place of the once annual Theater District Open House, Houston First Corporation and the Theater District Houston Association have collaborated to launch the first Houston Theater Week, August 22 – 29, 2022.

Modeled after New York’s Broadway Week (a bi-annual event that offers 2-for-1 Broadway tickets), Houston Theater Week features the opportunity to purchase Buy One, Get One Free tickets to more than 100 concerts and shows presented by more than 20 local arts organizations in the 2022 – 2023 season.

“Think of it like the Black Friday of the performing arts season,” said Holly Clapham, Chief Marketing Officer of Houston First.

Houston First also called the new week-long event “the largest consumer promotion celebrating live theater and performing arts in Houston’s history.”

The previous annual tradition of Theater District Open House took place for 26 years until 2019.  While that event was a day-long festival of ticket deals, as well as activities and performances, Houston Theater Week will focus on providing significant discounts to benefit patrons and to drive ticket sales that will help the local performing arts community continue to recover from the pandemic, according to Houston First.

Clapham told Houston Arts Journal that it was “hard to keep the momentum” of the Theater District Open House in the face of modern technologies, such as social media – and that the new concept of Theater Week “marries well with the way people shop … and engage with products.”

However, with the construction of Lynn Wyatt Square – a new plaza framed by downtown’s major performing arts venues – expected to be finished in early 2023, there is still the potential for a reimagined in-person event in the future, Clapham said. She anticipates that the new plaza will allow for “endless possibilities” to engage the public, and that arts leaders will be taking note of how Houstonians use and respond to that space.

In the meantime, Houston Theater Week provides the return of a collective citywide celebration of the performing arts season – and one that aims to include acclaimed local arts groups that perform beyond the downtown Theater District, such as the Ensemble Theatre, which recently won the Theatre Longevity Award at the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Houston Theater Week was developed to showcase and strengthen Houston’s diverse professional performing arts portfolio,” said Michael Heckman, Houston First President and CEO, in a statement.

“We are proud to partner with resident companies in the heart of downtown, as well as community theater groups located throughout our city, and look forward to this campaign continuing to grow in popularity and success,” he said.

Participating local arts groups include:

  • 4th Wall Theatre Company
  • Alley Theatre
  • Ars Lyrica Houston
  • Chamber Music Houston
  • Da Camera
  • Dirt Dogs Theatre Company
  • The Ensemble Theatre
  • The Hobby Center
  • Houston Ballet
  • Houston Brass Quintet
  • Houston Chamber Choir
  • Houston Grand Opera
  • Houston Symphony
  • Kinetic Ensemble
  • Main Street Theater
  • Mercury Chamber Orchestra
  • Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
  • Performing Arts Houston
  • ROCO
  • Stages
  • Tee Zee Productions
  • Theatre Under the Stars

Details on Houston Theater Week will be updated and available here.

UPDATE, 8/16/22, 4pm: This article was updated to reflect the increase in the number performances eligible for discounts from 86 to 93, and to include the addition of the Ensemble Theatre’s participation in Theater Week.

UPDATE, 8/22/22, 9:30AM: This article was updated to include the added participation of Chamber Music Houston, Houston Brass Quintet, Houston Chamber Choir, and Stages. The number of performances eligible for discounts was updated to “more than 100,” and the number local arts groups participating updated to “more than 20,” to reflect the changing numbers on Houston Theater Week’s 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.