Now entering its fourth week, Houston Symphony is sliding into home base with the finale of its Living Room Series. The recital series was planned originally as a way to keep symphony audiences connected with the content they enjoy, to keep the artists thriving by being able to perform, and giving us all a necessary break from the onslaught of COVID-19 changes.
This Friday night brings the talents of Joan DerHovsepian, associate principal violist for Houston Symphony, her husband Erik Gronfor, a double bassist with the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, and their daughter Clara, a violinist who is a student at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. A prelude conversation starts at 7:30 p.m. followed by a recital at 8 p.m. along with a Q&A — all from the convenience of an internet connection.
"Erik and I enjoy playing music together, but we don’t often have the opportunity to do that during our normal busy lives during the year. During this time of staying at home, we’ve been drawn more to spending time together and enjoying music together," DerHovsepian said. "The viola and bass are instruments that are not normally in the spotlight in a solo role. It’s a delight for us to step out and play some music together. We’ll be playing some lesser known works for viola and bass. They’re gems, and they're nice character pieces that are uplifting, and we hope they’ll make [the viewers] smile."
The concert series has proven to be the next-best substitute for gathering in-person for live performances.
"There is no substitute for that live concert together, but this Living Room Series captures the connection we feel in a live performance. We’re together in the moment when the music is created and experiencing something at the same time. There is an intimacy behind it, even though we’re not in the same room," she added.
They should know because they, like many other symphony enthusiasts, have watched previous concerts before it was their time to perform.
"Each Friday night has been a different flavor, and it's unique to the player and household and family. It’s been fun for our family here to experience the others' concerts and enjoy them."
DerHovsepian is glad to see her instrument get a spotlight that it normally might not receive in a full concert. Violas are physically just a tad larger than the violin, so to the untrained eye — especially for people sitting hundreds of feet away in an audience chamber — the confusion is understood.
"You may not be able to pick out the viola line in an orchestral setting, but the violas switch it up all the time. They do something rhythmically exciting to add a juicy harmony or to support another instrument's solo," she mentioned. "Viola players often have very enjoyable parts, but they’re often nestled in the whole. They make the orchestra sound more colorful. The individual line might not be heard on its own, but it’s very important. The viola is the connective tissue of the orchestra."
What makes this particular installment of the Living Room Series special is that the Houston Symphony has forged a relationship with the Houston Public Library to cross-network the performance. Leading up to this Friday’s performance, the musician and Houston Public Library staff collaborated to create a reading list to keep families entertained during social distancing. They recommended two books: The Music Shop!, a quirky yet poignant modern romance that lays its scene within the walls of a music shop, and Chicken with Plums, about a famed musician whose violin is broken beyond repair and learns what his life means with and without the companionship of his violin.
"I was so pleased about it. I grew up in a home with parents who are avid readers, and books were a big part of our life rowing up. My mother has been in the same book club for 52 years, and she was the person who recommended one of the books that will be discussed before the concert," DerHovsepian said.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, Houston Public Library remains closed and unable to provide their regularly scheduled events, so by partnering with the Symphony, the organization provided a limited number of tickets to library card users to enjoy the performance.
Partnerships, especially types like this that weave together multiple organizations, generate the kind of excitement that speaks to donors of nonprofits. Donors like to see their charitable dollars achieve maximum use, so by supporting one organization, the dollars really are playing double duty by supporting an auxiliary public service. Partnerships also speak to the synergy that exists when two organizations collaborate. They enhance the bottom line and critical mission of nonprofit organizations, resulting in greater success than either entity could have achieved individually.
"I get a huge smile on my face when I hear about partnerships forming in places were you don’t expect them to. People are working in a different environment now than what we're used to, so now it’s about finding different opportunities and seeing what works," said Carmen Pena Abrego, Adult Services Manager for Houston Public Library.
The Library has partnered with Houston Symphony in the past as well as other performing arts groups in recent history like the Alley Theatre, ending with exciting results. Pena Abrego says that of the limited number of passes made available to library card holders, they were all claimed within 48 hours — a sure sign that the collaboration is working.
To bolster the partnership, the 7:30 p.m. prelude will include Musical Ambassador Carlos Andrés Botero along with special guest Helen Chou, International Services Manager with Houston Public Library. Chou will speak during about DerHovsepian’s book choices, her own suggestions for future reading, and how these books and much more are available through Houston Public Library.
Library cards are free, and now, with time on our side as well as the convenience of access to the library's services from the convenience of one's home, it makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity.
Pena Abrego mentions there are a multitude of features made available.
"The library is open to the public virtually and online, and that’s been true before COVID-19. Customers now can engage with the library through our website, mobile app, telephone and email. We have a much stronger collection of e-books, online collections and databases. With a library card, patrons can still place holds on electronic titles for books," she said.
She also mentioned that curbside services will open soon up at limited library locations, and the library is taking into account geography and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Complete Communities plan for future steps. Complete Communities is the mayor's plan to revitalize Houston's most under-resourced neighborhoods to create a more equitable and prosperous city for all Houstonians.
Other amenities available to card holders are audio books, free movies, documentaries and streaming services, as well as services for job seekers and people who want to learn foreign languages.
"That’s just a touch of what you can do with a library card," Pena Abrego concluded.
Streamed online via a private link to ticket holders, the Living Room Series recitals spotlight an individual Houston Symphony musician, and in some cases, musician members of their household. At only $10 for a ticket, there's hardly a better price in town. Those who purchase tickets will receive a private link to enjoy the prelude and live performance.
While the concerts are a one-time-only livestream, there are still ways to enjoy Houston Symphony's music via its social media pages and at houstonsymphony.org/listenathome. Both feature daily, free content updates including musician videos, blogs, archival audio and video performances, and more.
DerHovsepian's recital wraps up the four-week-long Living Room Series that has welcomed classical music lovers into the everyday lives of musicians. During the time of COVID-19, it has been a welcomed break from the doldrums of self isolation, and it's a series we deeply hope Houston Symphony will consider extending or reviving at a later point. But if not, it's been a fun ride, and we are all appreciative of the efforts made by musicians and Symphony staff alike.
Update 2 p.m.: The Houston Symphony has just announced five new concerts in the Living Room Series due to popular demand. For more information, visit their website.
Houston Symphony's Living Room Series takes place with a prelude at 7:30 p.m. and performance at 8 p.m on Friday. For information or to purchase tickets, visit houstonsymphony.org. $10. For information about Houston Public Library or to request a free library card, visit houstonlibrary.org.