Former Austin Symphony conductor Maurice Peress dies

Maurice Peress, music director of the Austin Symphony from 1970 to 1972, died on Dec. 31. He was 87.

American-Statesman, Sept. 13, 1970

An assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Peress conducted the first performance Bernstein’s “Mass” at the Kennedy Center. The multi-media masterpiece is slated to be performed in Austin this June in celebration of “Bernstein at 100,” to be led by Peter Bay.

A professor and author, Peress was director of the Kansas City Philharmonic and conducted internationally with the Vienna State OperaPrague Spring Festival and all over China. He also conducted key productions of Bernstein’s “Candide” and “West Side Story.”

He taught at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and he led the Queens College Orchestra.

His 2004 book, “Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African-American Roots,” was widely praised.

Before coming to Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas, Peress conducted in Corpus Christi. For a while, he was music director in both cities. He led UT’s University Symphony Orchestra. In Corpus, he put together an annual opera, staging rarely performed works such as Hector Berlioz‘s “Beatrice and Benedick.”

Concerned with widening Texas audiences for classical music, Peress produced a series of televised “Concert Talks.” His Austin Symphony programs did not shy away from Gustav MahlerIgor Stravinsky and other composers that have fallen out of favor at times with the ensemble’s chief backers.

“His innovative and exciting concerts have inspired new enthusiasm within the community,” Jane Sibley, then president of the Symphony Society, told this newspaper in 1971 when Peress was signed to a three-year contract. “Needless to say, we are delighted that he is pleased with Austin and has agreed to another three years.”

Nevertheless, Peress, citing an overburdened schedule, announced his resignation at the intermission of the orchestra’s last regular subscription concert in 1972.

American-Statesman Amusements Editor John Bustin wrote of that concert: “It was, in every sense, a thrilling performance.”

‘The Nutcracker’ and “Drowsy Chaperone’ holiday tidbits

Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker” and the University of Texas’ “The Drowsy Chaperone” will be well worth your entertainment time this coming week. Here’s a taste of two articles about the shows.

 

The corps de ballet dance through a snowy “Nutcracker” scene in 2016, with Constance Doyle up front. Contributed

READ FULL “NUTCRACKER” STORY.

They come and go so quickly.

Oh, sure, some lucky ballet dancers manage to extend their careers for decades. Others happily switch to congruent creative roles at a convenient age. But just when you think you’ve identified all the major players in Ballet Austin — which opens its holiday treat, “The Nutcracker,” on Dec. 8 — myriad new faces joins the familiar ones onstage.

Already this season, veteran ballet watchers have noted a spate of younger talent on the Long Center stage. Now you can catch all of them through Dec. 23 because, for “The Nutcracker,” it’s all feet on deck.

PHOTOS: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Nutcracker’ through the years

Often a major role will be played by multiple dancers over the course of a long run. Watch for the relative newcomers during the Christmas party scene in Act 1, or dancing through snowflake magic as part of the corps de ballet later in the same act, or playing featured roles during the divertissements — the always diverting specialty dances — in Act 2. And elsewhere.

Some of these dancers are newly minted members of the main company; others serve in Ballet Austin II, the group’s farm team, as it were.

Now, we are not talking about the darling tots who hide under Mother Ginger’s huge skirt or play with gifts while teasing each other during the party sequence. These are professional dancers who have more recently come into the spotlight. Let’s introduce a few …

Natasha Davison (choreographer, center) and Nick Mayo (director, right) during rehearsals for “The Drowsy Chaperone” at the University of Texas. Contributed by Lawrence Peart

READ FULL “DROWSY CHAPERONE” STORY.

A show within a show, “The Drowsy Chaperone” tests the limits of the musical genre. On one level, it is a celebration of the giddy often mindless musicals of the 1920s. On another, it is a sharp critique of the stereotypes and cultural shorthand of the day.

As such, it makes an ideal candidate for a college musical theater program like the one at the University of Texas that, despite some high points, did not work out and will suspend operations — while Texas State University ramps up its efforts — with this carefully chosen material, while continuing to probe the history of theater for all its shifting meanings.

We asked director Nick Mayo about the musical that plays Dec. 6-10 at the Payne Theatre. Getting into the 1920s spirit of the show, he sent us some telegraphic notes.

Warning: The plot is ridiculously complicated. You see, a musical theater fan called Man in Chair introduces a show within a show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” about a mixed-up wedding that includes gangsters, mistaken identities and exotic locales, all of which infiltrate the Man in Chair’s apartment …

Today’s hires, fires, gifts and honors in Austin arts

We lied. This post reports on no firings. You can relax.

Yet “hires, fires, gifts and honors” sounds like a good catch-all headline. We might use it again.

Zilker Theatre Productions makes two key hires

The group that has staged the Zilker Summer Musical for 60 years has taken on J. Robert “Jimmy” Moore as artistic director. Moore, remembered recently for “Buyer and Cellar” at Zach Theatre, will work alongside Executive Director Kate Hix, already in place. Also, one of those beloved behind-the-scenes heroes, Shannon Richey, has been drafted as director of production. Moore and Richey are trusted veterans who will undoubtedly bolster this free and singularly Austin tradition. No word on next summer’s selection.

J. Robert Moore is now artistic director for Zilker Theatre Productions. Contributed

RELATED: Moore joins the Brotherhood of Barbra.

Austin Opera elects new board chairman

Arts benefactors Gail and Jeff Kodosky. Contributed by Becky Delgado

Austin Opera‘s board of trustees has designated Jeff Kodosky, founder of National Instruments and inveterate arts lovers, as its next chairman. He takes over the position from Elisabeth Waltz, who has served as chairwoman 2016. Kodosky has been with the board and the company through thick and thin since 1996. I’m sure this quiet, smiling man could tell some tales about the group that almost went away at least twice, but also has triumphed repeatedly. Next up is “Carmen” in November.

Huston-Tillotson is now an all-Steinway school. Contributed

Huston-Tillotson is now an all-Steinway school

Following a gift of $800,000, Huston-Tillotson University will become the only institution of higher learning in Central Texas, the fourth historically black college or university in the country, and the 196th college or university to join the All-Steinway School club. University officials will unveil the Steinway pianos during their Charter Day Convocation 10 a.m. Oct. 27, 2017 in the King-Seabrook Chapel on the campus at 900 Chicon Street. In addition, Steinway artist Marcus Roberts and the Marcus Roberts Trio will headline a special concert.

Tracy Bonfitto is the Ransom Center’s new curator of art. Contributed by Pete Smith

Ransom Center selects new curator of art

Austinites generally think of the Ransom Center as a literary treasure trove with out-of this-world strengths in modern literature, movies, performing arts and photography. And, oh yes, the Watergate papers. Yet is also houses, preserves and exhibits a lot of excellent visual art, too. Over the summer, Tracy Bonfitto was named curator of art. She comes with sterling credentials from Getty Research Institute, the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She’s also a University of Texas grad.

I’m sure she will meld partnerships with the other distinguished and closely related cultural spots in that area of Austin, including the Blanton Museum of Art, LBJ Presidential Library, Briscoe Center for American History and Bullock Texas State History Museum as well as UT’s highly regarded Landmarks public arts program and its Visual Arts Center. Maybe the new Ellsworth Kelly house will help point the way visually and viscerally for more of a interrelated cultural campus.

Classical guitarist Matthew Hinsley named Texas Citizen of the Year

Earlier this month in Galveston, Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar, accepted the Texas Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers. Later that week at the AISD Performing Arts Center, Hinsley gave a brief pre-concert talk about what makes his nonprofit a nationwide model for arts-based community service.

Matthew Hinsley, executive director of Austin Classical Guitar, has been named Texas Citizen of the Year. Contributed by Austin Classical Guitar

We asked him to share his thoughts about the intersection of music and activities that many usually ascribe to the domain of social workers.

RELATED: Austin Classical Guitar honors the plight of refugees.

“In music school, in the most wonderful ways, I was taught to refine my musicianship,” Hinsley says. “Most everything at my core today — my work ethic, my sense of authenticity, my appreciation for individual strengths and weaknesses, my tenacity — has its roots in my relationship to guitar and the mentors who shaped me.”

His journey as a public servant through music began 21 years ago in Austin.

“In some ways — the obvious ones — that service grew directly out of my training,” Hinsley says. In other ways — perhaps less obvious — work in service stretched me from the very beginning and has never stopped. Because the myth for many young artists is that if you just get good enough at what you do, the world will come to you and watch you do it. But that notion is rooted in fallacy — because it is rooted in a model of the universe with oneself at the center. And that is not how the universe works.”

He believes that, as a public servant, he most constantly look at his community and ask who is being served and how can they be served better?

“It demands flexibility in every aspect,” he says. “It has led us to realizations that music can heal and engage so many people in such profound ways — but not perhaps the ways we thought we knew. So if it’s developing classroom-based systems for guitar education, or a Braille-adapted curriculum for students at Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, or the Lullaby Project at Travis County Jail, or musical puppet shows for kids in Austin Public Library branches — we live and flourish in this irony that while the world may not revolve around that which we have, it most certainly can interact in beautiful and mysterious ways with that which we can be.”

So an award from the National Association of Social Workers makes some special sense.

“It represents a vote of confidence that we have at least begun to leverage the great art we are so fortunate to have roots in, toward something that is reaching diverse people in unexpected ways,” Hinsley says. “What excites me most, is that each day when something new happens, we are made aware of just how many more opportunities for meaningful connection there are yet to explore.”

 

Don’t miss this final Romeo from Paul Michael Bloodgood at Ballet Austin

Paul Michael Bloodgood is a prince. He’s a family man. He’s a superb dancer.

And he’s dancing his last Romeo with Ballet Austin on Sept. 15 and Sept 17. This “Romeo and Juliet” is propelled by the kinetic music of Sergei Prokofiev played by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, of course with choreography by Stephen Mills.

Despite all the excellent talent onstage, for two of the three nights, all eyes will be on Bloodgood, who has long been a standout for the company.

I suppose every Romeo must come to an end.

More than 100 years of Austin Symphony history revealed in archives

How do we know that 15 pieces prepared for Austin Symphony‘s new season likely have never been played before by the ensemble? We answer that question in today’s newspaper.

READ FULL STORY HERE.

A reproduction of the first Austin Symphony program from 1911 alongside the group’s season brochure for 2017-2018

Here’s a little introduction:

Could it be true that this season the Austin Symphony will perform 15 works it has never before played? After all, the ensemble goes back to 1911. That is a lot of concerts, almost all of them consisting of at least three or four musical pieces. Surely, the major works of the classical repertoire have been performed here at least once?

“It’s part luck that so many pieces this season are firsts for the Austin Symphony,” music director Peter Bay says. “I try to include works that are well-known to everyone as well as works that aren’t. Sometimes, the selection of the soloist triggers ideas for the rest of the program, such as (pianist) Anton Nel’s interest in playing Mozart as well as something on harpsichord for our first concert.”

Just how would the symphony staff know what has been played during the past 106 years? Turns out, hundreds of printed programs have been preserved and are stored, high and dry, in a narrow storage room just off the entrance of the symphony’s offices on Red River Street. New public relations expert Rachel Santorelli, who comes to Austin from the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, gave us access to the trove, which includes reproductions of the inaugural program from April 25, 1911.

About the size of a Catholic holy card and printed on gray stock, it announces that the Austin Symphony Society will be led by Dr. Hans Harthan at the Hancock Opera House, a grand venue formerly located at West Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. The second page lists the new society’s “patronesses,” which include some Old Austin surnames, such as Pennybaker, Ramsey, Hancock, Brush, Bremond and Bickler. The list of musicians includes, even then, four women. The group’s first piece ever? W.A. Mozart’s Symphonie in C No. 28.

Taken as a whole, these preserved programs provide a rare look at Austin’s cultural, economic and creative evolution.

 

After Harvey, who preserves our culture?

The organized arts and humanities generally don’t save lives directly during emergency situations. Yet they save our culture — our shared memory — over the long run. Here are some ways the state and national communities are responding to Harvey and where the help will be most needed.

The Rockport Center for the Arts after Hurricane Harvey. Contributed by Rockport Center for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Humanities has pledged $1 million to cultural groups hurt by Harvey.

The National Endowment for the Arts is working with the Texas Commission on the Arts to assess the situation. NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu: “As the current situation stabilizes, the NEA is prepared to direct additional funds to these state arts agencies for re-granting to affected organizations, as we have done in the past.”

The Texas Library Association and Texas State Library and Archives Commission are working to coordinate a response for the affected library community.

While some smaller arts facilities have been devastated on the coast (see image from Rockport), the massive Houston Theatre District has sustained enormous damage, as it has in previous storms (much of it was built underground not far from Buffalo Bayou).

At the Alley Theatre, the small Neuhaus Theatre and its lobby were flooded. The same spaces were severely beat up during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

The Wortham Theatre Center, where Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet perform, took water on the Brown Theatre stage and out front of the house. The basement with its costume and prop storage, however, was totally flooded.

On the other hand, the Hobby Center and Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, came off relatively unscathed, although the parking garages were inundated.

It’s raining Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Earlier, we reported that an important photographic exhibit about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera would be seen at Mexic-Arte Museum come Sept 16-Nov. 26. Later, we learned that some local elements would be added to the touring show, including a piece inspired by Kahlo’s Blue House.

“Diego and Frida: Smile in the Middle of the Way” comes to Mexic-Arte in September. Contributed

Now we find out that the Butler School of Music and the University of Texas School of Fine Arts have commissioned a Spanish-language opera about the creative duo. Other partners in the deal are Fort Worth Opera, San Diego Opera and DePauw University.

To add to the buzz, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and composer Gabriela Lena Frank have signed on to create “The Last Dream of Frida & Diego.” It will premiere in Fort Worth in spring 2020, San Diego in 2021 and at UT’s Butler Opera Center in February 2021.

We love this. Austin Opera has co-commissioned several outstanding works, although not for a while, as has UT. It’s what an opera producer should do.

Preview: The lives of refugees echoed in classical music

This story about how Austin Classical Guitar will honor refugees in performances at the Blanton Museum of Art this week hits the papers on Thursday.

READ FULL STORY HERE.

Guitarist Isaac Bustos brings an irreducible point of view to “I/We,” a multifaceted concert on the theme of refugees coming July 28-29 to the Blanton Museum of Art.

Ovation after one part of Austin Classical Guitar’s “Narratives” last summer at the Blanton Museum of Art. It was actually three shows: “Persona,” “Process” and “Nocturne” (corresponding in part to birth, life, death). The series made literary connections to writers Fernando Pessoa, Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce. Contributed

“I know what it’s like to have your entire life in limbo,” Bustos says. “As a child, being treated differently because of my refugee status was difficult. Sometimes I fear that we lose sight of the human aspect of being a refugee, but a project like (this) gives a voice to people with diverse and often traumatic life experiences, and shines a light on what they went through.”

Multimedia producer Yuliya Lanina, part of an international group of artists assembled for this project by Austin Classical Guitar, comes to it with a potent personal connection as well.

“I came as a refugee from Russia in 1990, fleeing anti-Semitism and constant threats,” she says. “The U.S. welcomed me and my family, and we were given the freedom to build our lives without being punished for who we are. I want others who are now in a similar situation, or worse, to have that same opportunity.”

During the past season, the stories of refugees have repeatedly gripped Austin artists. …

ICYMI: Telling stories at the Austin Chamber Music Fest

The Austin Chamber Music Festival is now well underway!

READ FULL STORY HERE

Chargaux plays July 9 at the North Door. Contributed

The latest trend in chamber music — storytelling — might also be the most ancient cultural practice in human history.

Yet as Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, sees it, a new-fashioned style of storytelling is the perfect complement to an intense, intimate and often misunderstood form of music.

“Audiences often crave more from a concert,” Schumann says about the narrative impulse as she expects it to play out during the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival. “They want to take away a deep understanding of the music, rather than just a sonic-emotional experience. They desire a personal connection with the artists and the art they are creating, a narrative that ties together different composers, eras, countries and styles. It gives audiences a context that they can relate to and therefore feel closer to.”