This month’s performance in our series Beat the Rush features the chamber music ensemble Austin Camerata, who will be premiering new music written by Michael Alec Rose about three artworks in the Blanton’s collection including “The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Jacopo Bassano, “Esther and Ahaseurus” by Luca Cambiaso, and “Madam C.J. Walker” by Sonya Clark. The ensemble will also perform pieces by women composers and three selections from a suite composed by Edvard Grieg.
Adam Bennett, who oversees the Blanton’s music programming, spoke this week with Daniel Kopp, the artistic director of Austin Camerata, about their performance at the museum this Thursday at 5:30.
Adam Bennett: You’re premiering new compositions by Michael Alec Rose. How did your collaboration with him come about? Where did you get the idea to propose that he write music about visual art?
Daniel Kopp: It’s great to be the artistic director and to be surrounded by so many smart and creative people—I’m not always the one coming up with the cool ideas! In this case, I met Michael through my friend Matt Lammers, who’s a violinist in Austin Camerata. He did his undergraduate at Vanderbilt, where Michael’s a professor. Michael had learned about Austin Camerata through Matt and told us how excited he was by our collaborations, especially at the ones at schools and retirement centers. So he told Matt that he’d like to work with us.
Then I listened to some of Michael’s music online and really liked it, so I called him. He was the one who floated the idea of doing something based on artwork, I think because we’d collaborated in our first season on dance and storytelling programs. It seemed like a good idea to continue to engage other media through our concerts.
He asked if there was a place in Austin with interesting art, and so I’d already worked with you at the Blanton before on the Midday Music Series, and thought of returning there. Michael was over the moon about the opportunities in the museum’s collection.
There are also pieces of music written to be played while the musicians move from one painting to the next. How does the tone of those pieces differ from the tone of the three main pieces?
Well, it’s interesting that the very first promenade, or interstitial music, is on one hand very simple and folk-like. But it’s also very rambunctious. Michael even called it “obnoxious”: as an attempt to reach out to the audience and pull them into the first painting. Then the promenade music changes over time: it takes from materials that are introduced in the music about the first painting, The Sacrifice of Isaac. That’s a very solemn march, like a march up the mountain, and then that march theme returns in the last promenade. And when we get to Madam C.J. Walker, some of the promenade music works its way into that piece. So the promenade music starts off disconnected but ends up connected by the end. They come together beautifully and in a way that you wouldn’t expect.
Austin Camerata has done other collaborations with strong visual elements—for instance, the performance of Color Field last year. In your role as the artistic director, how do you think about the visual elements to music performances?
What interests me about the visual component of a performance is that some musicians are more absolutist about music not needing any sort of extra-musical element, like visuals. To some extent I agree whole-heartedly that great music doesn’t need other components to be wonderful and to be enjoyed. But we’re trying to make connections, not because the music needs it, but because the music is so interesting and full of potential that it deserves to be seen in new perspectives. So Austin Camerata is all about exploring these perspectives, like last year when we did that program about colors explored by Ellsworth Kelly.
You’re playing some non-traditional venues this season: breweries, art museums, inside the state capitol building. If Austin Camerata could play at any non-traditional venue in Austin, where would it be?
Hmm, great question! Well, I can’t imagine how it would work from a practical perspective, but one of the places that’s so quintessentially Austin is Lady Bird Lake, downtown. It sort of combines the urban atmosphere with the natural beauty of the land. Doing something on the water of Lady Bird Lake would be amazing, both visually and in terms of its position in the heart of Austin.
Austin Camerata’s “Color Field” performance at the Blanton in spring 2017
Yeah, did you see Ragnar Kjartansson’s “S.S. Hangover” at Laguna Gloria?
I didn’t see it but I heard about Density512 doing music on a Viking ship. How did it work?
You couldn’t go on the ship, the ship was for performers only, so you’re stationed on the shore, but part of the sound component is the Doppler effect of how music changes in motion, and how you hear things differently from a quarter mile away versus right on the dock.
I’ve heard of two chamber music festivals happening on the water: Chamber Music on the Barge, a series in Manhattan, and then a festival on Caroga Lake. That’d be fun to play there.
Or you just need to find your own Viking ship. Anything else visitors should look forward to at the museum on Thursday?
In addition to the Michael Alec Rose compositions, there are some other interesting works. Female composers are consistently underrepresented in classical music. We’ve included two, one by Grażyna Bacewicz and another by Gabriela Lena Frank. And then there’s also a teaser of our final concert, which is a conductor-less string orchestra, playing three selections from Grieg’s Holberg Suite, in the museum’s atrium. We’re really excited by those, in addition to the premieres.
Austin Camerata performs at the Blanton on May 17 at 5:30 p.m.