ROCO chamber orchestra
Photo: Blueprint Film Company
Many classical-music organizations shy away from directly challenging their audiences’ values or beliefs. Then there’s ROCO.
The centerpiece of the Houston-based chamber orchestra’s latest concert, “Canvasing the Earth,” is Modest Mussorgsky’s kaleidoscopic “Pictures at an Exhibition,” one of the most popular and recognizable Russian works in the canon. Loosely corresponding images from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s archives will screen during the performance.
Contrast that with Leanna Primmiani’s “Neither Men Nor Money Justify My Worth,” one of three world premieres at the concert. While the orchestra plays, portraits of human-trafficking survivors supplied by The New Abolitionists photography project will be shown.
The idea, says ROCO founder and artistic director Alecia Lawyer, is to raise the serious question of “What do we value as a society?”
However it may appear, though, “we’re not trying to be a social-justice orchestra, I will say that,” insists Lawyer, who is also ROCO’s principal oboist. “We’re not. That’s not part of the agenda.”
What is, she continues, “is giving agency to the composers to write what’s on their heart, and write what they’re wrestling with in her own personal lives. Everything ROCO is very personal and about relationships, and I think that that produces authentic art.”
When: 5 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd.
Details: $25-$35; 713-665-2700, roco.org
“Neither Man Nor Money” grew out of the United Nations’ 50 for Freedom campaign and Primmiani’s work with the L.A.-based nonprofit Every Child, explains the composer. The idea of playing off “Pictures at an Exhibition” came early on.
In going “from dark to light,” Primmiani says her eight-minute tone poem chronicles the life of someone who has been trafficked. As such, audiences should be able to easily recognize the moment her heroine decides I want out.
“That is something that I’ve made very clear,” says the composer. “Once that shift musically happens, then the music that has happened before comes back, but it has an urgency to it. You can feel how they’re getting out and they’re going to escape their fate.”
Primmiani hopes “Neither Man Nor Money” will bring further attention to an issue for which public discussion was all but taboo until a few years ago, but “now they talk about it at the Super Bowl.” Representatives of several relevant organizations, including The New Abolitionists, will be represented either at the concert or a number of related events in the preceding days.
“I think that’s, for me, what I so admire about all the women that I’ve read about: that they were able to get out,” says Primmiani. “It might’ve taken them ten years or however long it is, but it is unbelievable the lengths that people will go to to be free and to get out of a situation that is almost impossible.
“So the idea of the piece is really to celebrate what they’ve been able to accomplish and what can be done,” she adds.
The concert will open with “Earth,” composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ portrait of a beleaguered farmer who offers up the refrain “why are seasons no longer the seasons of before?” (At this concert, poet/agricultural scholar Kai Hoffmann-Krull’s lyrics will be sung by tenor Nicholas Phan.) The second movement switches texts to William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” in which a grown man reflects on his bucolic youth — contrasting an era when nature was seen as soothing and restorative rather than threatening.
Like Marcus Maroney’s “OK Goodbye” and Mark Adamo’s “Last Year” earlier in ROCO’s season, the piece reckons with the effects of climate change by channeling a wide range of emotions.
“It’s definitely got moments of angst and worry, and it does end with beauty,” says Lawyer. “It’s not angry, I guess…that’s what’s an interesting part to me. It’s very fearful and, in some places, obviously worried and concerned.”
Climate change and human trafficking can feel daunting because they seem so far beyond one person’s ability to control. But they also grant free rein to artists willing to take them on. By presenting two such pointed pieces of music — as opposed to, say, a painting — ROCO is hoping to not only raise awareness of these issues but invite its (captive) audience to ponder ways in which they, too, might make a difference.
“I find it interesting that visual arts, when they wrestle with something difficult, it can be almost more startling than music sometimes, but you can [always] walk away from an art piece you don’t engage with,” says Lawyer. “But with music, you sit and you wrestle a little bit, which is good.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.