Classical Music

ROCO Ditches The Conductor In Friends

ROCO's gone rogue. Well, kinda. The group will perform without a conductor this weekend for Friends.
Photo by Joel Luks
ROCO's gone rogue. Well, kinda. The group will perform without a conductor this weekend for Friends.
We get by with a little help from our friends. In celebration of that, ROCO’s In Concert series continues on February 18 with a celebration titled Friends at Rice University’s Lucian and Nancy Morrison Theatre at the Brockman Hall for Opera.

This concert showcases the orchestra, as the ensemble performs conductorless, with Artistic Partner and Concertmaster Scott St. John leading from the chair. The evening begins with Ingeborg Bronsart von Schellendorf’s “Jery und Bätely: Overture,” followed by the premiere of Brian Raphael Nabors’ “Upon Daybreak,” inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”

Other program items include Antonin Dvorak’s early favorite “Serenade for Strings” and Joachim Raff’s “Sinfonietta.” Completing the program, the African-American spiritual “Keep Me From Sinking Down” spotlights St. John in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral setting featuring solo violin.

The concert is part of the overarching season’s theme of gratefulness, and ROCO Founder Alecia Lawyer explains how this concert fits into the larger picture.

“We’re focused on the things that we are grateful for this whole season. What are we grateful for? Our family, the future and the idea that, especially given that this is a conductorless concert, it really matters we're all friends,” she said. “Together, we’re approaching it as friends as opposed to a job. There's a real relationship here. It's not just lip service. It's true meaning of the word friends, and that's what I love about it.”

Did anyone catch that part about performing conductorless? Lawyer says it sounds daunting, but it’s something they are better able to do because they practice and perform together so often.

“We really do have a sense of mind melding. We have played enough together to [make it work well],” she said.

For compositions that have a very normal tempo, the challenge is less. Yet, for pieces that have many variations, more effort is required.

“You have to learn the piece not from memory so much but I would say muscle and sound memory so that when you're playing it, you know what's coming,” Lawyer said. “You know what to expect, and you listen to the instrumentalist who leads that section [for your own cues].”

The group has been rehearsing at the Houston Center for Musical Arts in lead up to the performance, and it has recorded their sessions each time. Lawyer says that by listening to the recordings, the musicians can provide instant feedback on how well they are playing off each other. By implementing this practice, they hone the product in order to deliver a stellar performance.

While ROCO is excited for this weekend’s format, it isn’t abandoning its cherished conductors all together. But they are keeping their eyes and ears open for when they encounter someone who fits well with the organization's style of music making for future concerts.

“We always approach chamber music or music in general as human music, and that's why it takes kind of a special conductor to work with us. They have to be our collaborator and our convener but not someone who stands up and tells us what to do,” Lawyer said. “That's why our conductors are so special for us. They're more of a colleague. We are listening to each other internally as much as we're watching [the podium].”

ROCO’s “Friends” will take place 5 p.m., Saturday, February 18 at Rice University’s Lucian and Nancy Morrison Theatre at Brockman Hall for Opera, 6100 Main. For tickets or info, call 713-665-2700 or visit Tickets are pay-what-you-wish with a suggested price of $35. The performance will also be livestreamed free at, Facebook, YouTube, and