MasterMinds 2014 Revisited: Apollo Chamber Players

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As we come up on our MasterMind Awards 2015, part of the Houston Press Artopia bash, we take a minute to update you about last year's winners. First up, the Apollo Chamber Players (Matthew Detrick and Anabel Ramirez on violin, Matthew Dudzik on cello and Whitney Bullock on viola.)

The Apollo Chamber Players have been in a bit of a whirlwind for the last year and a half. There was the group's Carnegie Hall debut in late 2013. The group released its first CD, European Folkscapes, to critical success and won a MasterMinds 2014 award just a few months later. There have been several commissions of new works in 2014, including one with popular composer Libby Larson, another from fellow Rice University alum Karim Al-Zand and still another from traditional Japanese music expert Marty Regan. There was the group's first commissioning contest (it drew more than 250 entries from as far away as New Zeland). Oh, and somewhere along the way Apollo's violinists Matthew Detrick and Anabel Ramirez got married. (Yes, to each other.)

"It's been busy" Detrick tells us laughing.

Apollo focuses on the intersection of classical and ethnic folk music, hoping to explore the ways in which one has influenced the other. "Lots of groups say here's some wonderful music; we try to say here's some wonderful music and here's how it came about and why it's like it is."

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The group used its $2,000 cash prize from MasterMinds, in part, to fund its 20 x 2020 project, an ambitious undertaking that will produce 20 new commissions by the year 2020.

"The most important thing we've done in the last year is the commissioning project, I think. The MasterMind award gave us a little bit of breathing room and allowed us to think creatively and say, 'what do we do with this extra money?' In the past, we were looking at things year by year, just trying to get through. This is the first time that we've been able to think about something this long term."

The 20 x 2020 inaugural piece was Libby Larson's Sorrow Song and Jubilee which explored the exchange between Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and African-American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh in the late 19th century. "We all loved the way that Dvorak was inspired by African-American music and what an exchange that was. He was in the United States in 1892 to 1895 and he met this man, Harry Burleigh whose grandfather had been a slave and had thought him lots of sorrow songs. Dvorak took what he heard from Burleigh and incorporated it into his own works.

Working with Libby Larson was quite a coup for the group. "Libby Larson is a genius," Detrick tells us. "She's one of the top living composers and we literally sent her a cold-call e-mail presenting her with this idea of writing something that incorporated ethnic music in some way. At first, she wasn't going to be able to commit until after 2016 but then it worked out that she could do it right away. We loved working with her."

Another highlight of the last year came during a concert at Rice University. Always working to make classical music accessible to a general audience, the group was delighted to see a family eating pizza in the back of Duncan Hall. It set the ushers and stage crew into a bit of a tizzy, Detrick tells us but the group's members had a different reaction "No, that's not common etiquette for a concert but he, we thought it was great."

It seems 2015 will be just as busy as 2014 for the group. Four new members joined the Apollo board of directors. There are plans for more commissions, future commissioning contests, more performances, educational outreach programs and even plans for an office and staff member in the next two years (right now the second floor of Detrick and Ramirez's new house serves as rehearsal and office space). And the group is being sure to leave some openings for unexpected projects that might pop up. "There's always a little bit of serendipity in what you're doing but you have to allow yourself that opportunity."

See who wins the 2015 MasterMind Awards at the Houston Press Artopia starting at 8 p.m. on January 24. Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street. For information, visit houstonpressartopia.com. $45 to $100.

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