ROCO is accustomed to exceeding expectations, and this year will be no different. The group, which kicks off its 16th season on September 26, has been on the forefront for both the technology it uses to present concerts as well as the diversity included in its programming selections. Yet, for ROCO, it's all just another day.
In the wake of COVID-19 and the trend for performing arts groups to move toward digital platforms, ROCO isn't losing any sleep. Having offered online video broadcasts for years, the veteran live steamers will make the concert available for free, an act it plans to continue until it's safe to welcome audiences into concert spaces.
The first concert brings a blend of new and old works. Composer and bandoneon soloist Richard Scofano will present the world premiere of his new work "La Tierra Sin Mal" ("The Land Without Evil"), and additional works include Jessie Montgomery’s brilliant "Starburst;" Fauré’s "Masques et Bergamasques;" Debussy’s "Clair de Lune;" Sibelius’ "The Tempest;" and Eric Whitacre’s "Lux Aurumque." Mei-Ann Chen will lead the 40-piece orchestra.
"It has been fun to be on the cutting edge to truly connect and offer our artists in conversation musically to the world," said Alecia Lawyer, ROCO's founder. "We [originally started live streaming] for more connectivity and accessibility and to break down barriers to what we do. It actually is making us feel bolder and more willing to take greater risks. I’m excited to embrace the top technology of the day."
Lawyer is a believer that accessibility makes the heart grow fonder, and introducing a digital component was a natural transition for the organization that has already blazed new trails for reaching its audience. For years, ROCO has used an app named "ROCO Houston" to complement its performances. The app provides musicians’ candid commentary in real time on a phone or tablet during the performances.
Never a group to leave the children out, ROCO is extending its online offerings to the growing generation of art enthusiasts. ROCOrooters, the group's music education component, will be going all digital this season, even pairing with the orchestra’s Unchambered line of events. The organization will offer downloadable materials ahead of time for families to prepare to watch the live stream of the full concert together, and then the following Saturday ROCO will present a free 30-minute morning ROCOrooters lesson via Zoom in which an instructor will connect the dots with children to encourage even deeper engagement in ROCO’s music.
ROCO has been trying to "meet people where they're at" in order to share the joy of classical and chamber music. Now, making the September 26 concert available via live stream - and at no cost to the watcher - is the next logical step for the moment to reach those audiences.
While the technological component is something the group has embraced for years and is doubling down on during the pandemic, the diversity of programming is something ROCO has welcomed since its founding 16 years ago.
In a recent study from the Institute for Composer Diversity — an organization that advocates for diversity and includion in music — ROCO placed No. 1 in the country for performing the works of women and No, 2 for the works of composers of color.
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For Lawyer, though, the ranking was the natural happenstance of engaging in dialogue from people who are at the edge of musical evolution. It was not so much intentional as it was the organic result of working with the best and brightest in the field.
"[This ranking] came because of authentic relationships. Authentic relationships lead to the best programming. It’s so important to start from there, and that way you wind up being in relationship with people who are exciting," she said.
The rankings reflect an analysis from 120 orchestral groups' seasonal programs, including hallmark names like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and National Symphony. Not that it was ever a competition, because showcasing diversity is usually what happens when an organization is focused on giving a voice to the ones who are writing the next chapter of great music, but it probably feels good to rank so high in this prestigious group. Well done, ROCO. Keep moving the needle forward.
ROCO's 16th season opener, Starburst, takes place at 5 p.m. on September 26 at ROCO.org/live. For more information, visit ROCO.org. Performances are also available on ROCO's Facebook and YouTube channel. To access ROCO's previous performances, visit roco.org/performance-archive. Free.