Classical Music

How This Photo Inspired ROCO’s Latest World Premiere

ROCO goes “conductorless,” presents a Cuban-inspired World Premiere, and celebrates the humanity of diversity

Fidel Castro dining out with his government entourage and military guards, with a small band of accordion and string players serenading him, 1961

Now in its twelfth season, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra invites a distinguished roster of international conductors to collaborate with its musicians and lead nearly every orchestral concert – except for one.

Each year, ROCO presents a program without a maestro on the podium, but instead with a guest violinist who leads the orchestra from the concertmaster position, allowing the musicians – some would say – to communicate with each other and the audience in an even more intimate way.

Founder, Artistic Director and Principal Oboist, Alecia Lawyer, stopped by our studios to share stories and insights behind People are People, this weekend's "conductorless" concert, featuring guest concertmaster Andrés Cardenes. The program includes the World Premiere of Dance Unlikely, a violin concerto by Ricardo Lorenz, commissioned by ROCO; Boccherini's Symphony No. 25; Copland's Three Latin American Sketches; and Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 8 in D major.

Check out highlights from our conversation below, and listen to the complete interview above.


On performing "conductorless":

"It removes yet another barrier, I think, to direct contact with the musicians and the [musical] conversation. And it really challenges us to always be as prepared as possible, so musicians not only know their parts but the scores ... you become forty different conductors, and it's kind of a therapy session, frankly! I think every conductor that works with ROCO is a collaborator, and I think [performing without a conductor] reinforces that for us, because we can see what we can do conductorless. And when a conductor comes, they add and expand their own concepts to [the music-making], but they're not someone who "leads" us, if that makes sense. They're an additional artistic decision-maker and a little bit of a "focuser." [This kind of concert] helps us become comfortable with that, and when a conductor comes, it's still our responsibility, it's still the principal's job to feel the connection and leadership."

On the World Premiere Violin Concerto by Ricardo Lorenz:

"I asked Andrés [Cardenes], Do you have an idea of who you might want to commission? [He and composer Ricardo Lorenz] had been working on a very personal piece because [Andrés] and his father are Cuban, and Ricardo had found this photograph when he was in Cuba that he wanted to base the piece on ... It's a picture of Castro, and behind him are musicians trying to play. But the photo is from 1961, right when he had just taken office. It was the year of the Bay of Pigs and right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everyone in the room looks really serious, especially Castro, so [Ricardo Lorenz] titled the piece, Dance Unlikely. And he continued that [idea] in the actual composition of it ... he tried to [incorporate] syncopation that you would feel in Latin music ... but trying to get the same feel [of a small dance band] in a big orchestra is almost impossible, which is why it's called Dance Unlikely ... the idea that dance is unlikely when you don't just have this kind of feeling like you're in a bar. You're in an orchestra concert ... We're always experimenting and always pushing the boundaries."

On ROCO's commitment to new music:

"By the end of this season, we will have done 57 commissioned premieres! ... I think what's really fun about that, too, is since our music is available online in our Listening Room, you can hear all of our past concerts. It really helps the composers to have a place to point to, for other people to listen to their music, and it just provides a huge access of all sorts of ways of entering the classical music world ... We're doing our first commercial recording in August, and on that we're going to be doing five [of our past] World Premiere commissions, so there are life cycles [to these pieces that] we can keep promoting."

How Houston's diversity influences ROCO's programming:

"I went to meet Mr. Casa Ramirez in The Heights at one time, just to talk to him about The Day of the Dead ... and his passion and joy and love of The Day of the Dead celebration made me fall in love with it and realize the Celtic traditions are similar and that there are some celebrations like that in Japan, and just to know that things are more universal than we know but that they're also distinctly unique, too. And so those kinds of personal relationships are what make [our programming] happen ... Andrés [Cardenes] had this relationship with Ricardo [Lorenz], and with that we [thought] Copland's Latin-American Sketches would be so cool to do, and then the Boccherini with its Spanish influence, and I'd found the Mendelssohn that we'd wanted to play forever, with its ties to the Haydn style of Boccherini ... and [the program] was just this cool patchwork ... and Houston is like that, too, which is fun! We're a pod city. You can go to [a neighborhood] like Chinatown, which is spectacular ... but, at the same time, be in Whole Foods and hear every possible dialect and language."


The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra presents People are People – Conductorless! on Friday, February 24, 7:30m at The Woodlands United Methodist Church and Saturday, February 25, 5pm at The Church of St. John the Divine.


Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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