Arts & Culture

Growing New Music

Classical 91.7 announcer Jaemi Loeb recently completed her doctorate at the UH Moores School of Music.  In the second of a series of occasional articles, she describes her experiences starting a brand new orchestra here in Houston.

Spring is a time for new growth. It’s a time for new things to blossom, in the garden and in the concert hall. The Houston Heights Orchestra, the community orchestra based in the Heights neighborhood, has been helping this growth along with our New Music Project. You can hear the first fruits of the project at the orchestra’s April 15th season finale concert, where Bolts of Melody, a new piece by the HHO’s Composer-in-Residence Richard Ford, will receive its world premiere.

The HHO’s new music project is  part of our orchestra’s mission of promoting new music and fostering not just performers, but composers as well. The project offers composers a living workshop where they can hear their scores performed by a full ensemble; they get 30-minute reading sessions, accompanied by written feedback and a video recording. We even offer composers the opportunity to conduct the reading sessions if they wish.

All of this gives composers the crucial ability to refine their works, and gain answers to key questions about the piece: How hard is it to tune that chord? Can a clarinet player really make that three octave leap? The only way to ever really find the answers is through live performance.

Plus, the program also gives the orchestra members the rare opportunity to work directly with the author of the work they’re performing.

The Houston Heights Orchestra New Music Project operates on an open, completely non-competitive submission basis; the New Music Project only selects for feasibility in terms of difficulty and personnel requirements. This differentiates us from many other new music programs, which are staged as competitions. Not only is our approach in keeping with the community spirit of the orchestra, but we’ve also found that it brings us a wide variety of submissions of genuinely astounding quality.

So far, we have received submissions from as far away as Spain and Montreal, and as close by as Montrose. We have already had several reading sessions and hope to be able to fit one more into our schedule before the end of our season. Apart from the exciting opportunity to be the first one to perform a piece, all of the members of our ensemble have also enjoyed getting to know composers and their work, even the ones whose music we weren’t able to read.

We’ve also found that the program is generating excitement in the world of composers. Opportunities for new music composers to work with orchestras are surprisingly rare; the 6-9 member new music ensemble has become the de facto standard in both professional and academic circles. We have been contacted by composers who were just excited to hear that the opportunity was finally out there to work with a full orchestra.

Now, we’re very excited about composer Richard Ford’s Bolts of Melody, which will premiere on HHO’s April 15 concert. Featuring three solo singers and a narrator with the orchestra, Bolts of Melody is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and explores the nature and motivation an artist has in creating and sharing her work. As Ford says, “The music of the piece parallels how Emily worked. She would write a line of poetry and indicate alternate words as she went. In the same way musically, the melody stops in places and tries out different words or notes.”

With strong rhythmic drive and memorable melodies, Bolts of Melody is a strong first premiere for HHO.

“I really enjoy working with the players,” Ford adds, “And they have fun sharing with me their favorite parts.”

We hope that the HHO’s New Music Project can help to start change the culture of distance between orchestras and composers. We are doing all we can to help rebuild connections between composers and the thrillingly complex ecosystem that an orchestra can be. We hope that the HHO New Music Project, as we expand it over the coming seasons, can be a resource for all those composers who want to work in the orchestral medium to see their efforts finally come to bloom.

More more information, visit the Houston Heights Orchestra online at