Known as “the most fun you can have with serious music,” ROCO is a 40-piece professional chamber orchestra in Houston, Texas, comprised of musicians, composers, and guest conductors from all over the world. ROCO’s full chamber orchestra concerts are not only live-streamed for free on roco.org, they are also available any time on the site as free audio streams. Additionally, the orchestra’s professionally recorded programs are regularly broadcast on American Public Media’s Performance Today radio broadcast.
ROCO’s 12th season, entitled “Go Boldly!”, boasts thirty-six concerts of both full chamber orchestra performances and smaller chamber music ensembles across sixteen different venues. The 2016-17 season will also add three more compositions to our collection of fifty-four world premieres and commissions!
When I founded ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) in 2005, I was fortunate to be able to build something from the ground up. I was not hired into a situation where innovating in the classical music world meant needing to challenge the status quo. Instead, I was able to start fresh. Having previously been a part of three startup groups that each sought to engage audiences in various ways afforded me some unique insights. As a result of those experiences, I was able to develop my own vision for building a successful and sustainable model that would focus on genuine connections between the musicians and the audience.
Based on my personal relationships, I selected unique musicians to become a part of ROCO. In addition to being exceptional artists, it was critical that ROCO performers had both the right personality and sensibilities to be able to connect with our community in authentic ways. I wasn’t focused as much on innovation as I was on what worked and what didn’t. I developed a framework that allowed me to try different ideas that were also fiscally sustainable.
The most surprising discovery is that, after 11 years with ROCO, I am convinced that every situation or problem in the arts can be solved by working on relationships: musician to listener, musician to musician, board to musician, organization to community, and so on. We make sure everyone is valued. We provide a 360° view of the organization and its inner workings. We even have a “No Jerks Allowed” policy written into our by-laws, insisting instead on authentic people and authentic experiences.
ROCO has been called an “arts disrupter” and a “trailblazer.” Our mission is to Shape the Future of Classical Music through Energizing, Modernizing, and Personalizing the Orchestral Experience. How do we do this?
ROCO stakeholders challenge every aspect of the concert experience. We turn tradition on its head, starting many concerts start at 5pm and ending by 7pm, thus making it more convenient for multi-generational families to join us and singles to plan more into their evenings. Our house lights are on throughout the entire concert, allowing audiences to read our engaging, boundary-pushing programs. The concert selections are not printed in order. Instead compositions are listed alphabetically so that the conductor or musician calls what is next from the stage. As pieces are introduced, audiences are able to engage with musicians in that moment, instead of making assumptions about what they think they don’t know. We also publish pronunciation guides for composers’ names, as well as timings for the pieces. If a person knows how long a piece is, he or she can absorb the music much better – and know how much longer it is if he or she dislikes the piece!
Many people today don’t know how to pronounce Mozart, nor do they know much of his music. Instead of this being a concern, we at ROCO see this is a fantastic entrepreneurial opportunity. All pieces of music and all composers are possible to program, and both well-known and little-known composers can play on an even field.
Our popular ROCOrooters music education and childcare program for kids 2 months to 10 years runs in tandem with our 5pm Saturday concerts. A professional music teacher leads the 3-10 year olds in a lesson emphasizing both the theme of the evening and the piece the older children will hear, then takes the 5-10 year olds into the concert hall to hear that piece live. Afterward, all ROCOrooters participants are invited to stay with licensed childcare workers for pizza and movies until 10:30 pm, allowing parents to enjoy a date night. Sometimes we joke that ROCO is in the business of “saving marriages, one concert at a time!”
As part of our Creative Collaborations programming, our Annual Día de los Muertos Musical and Literary Ofrenda is a five-way collaboration with ROCO, Inprint (literary organization) authors, artists from Lawndale Arts Center, members of Houston Hispanic Forum (Hispanic advocacy group), original compositions from Musiqa (new music composers and presenters) – all supported by the Mexican Consulate.
Our yearly Peter and the Wolf performances at the Houston Zoo, in collaboration with InterACTive Theater Company, raises awareness about the Zoo’s conservation projects. This year we are delighted to repeat the performance at Texas Children’s Hospital.
ROCO also understands how important it is for musicians to smile and create joy on stage, a hallmark of ROCO performances that is, unfortunately, unusual in classical music.
Classical musicians are not necromancers. We are live performers who share an “in the moment” conversation with the audience. ROCO has a deep commitment to new music, having undertaken fifty-four world premieres and commissions, with three more slated for this 2016-17 season. In order to give composers multiple performances of their works, we co-commission some of our new works, partnering with groups such as the New Century Chamber Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Decisions to incorporate technology into the concert experience are never made just for the sake of being ‘new.’ Instead, we seek and implement new technologies to enhance the relationship between musician and listener, all while continuing our conversation with our audience.
One way we incorporate technology into our performances is by offering world-wide live streaming of each “In Concert” performance through our website. This past April, we hosted 135 individual screens from as far away as Sweden, each of which had multiple people watching. The live-stream video is kept as an archive and then shared in DVD format with partnering hospitals and nursing homes. This allows them to view the performance any time!
We also were the first professional orchestra to debut the Octava app, which delivers real time commentary to audience members via their smart phone or tablet, all while a piece is being performed. Although the app was developed to offer program notes, ROCO saw an opportunity to include commentary from the performing artists themselves. Delivered at specific moments during the work, along with photos and names of the commenting musicians, the messages are timed so that they enhance the concert experience. The app, which uses dark screen technology, doesn’t disturb those who might wish to take in the music without it. Since our house lights on, the juxtaposition of the engaging technology into live performance doesn’t become a nuisance. The first time we used the app, there were 65 individual screen uses, with user ages ranging from 13-91 years old. Many of our older patrons were very excited to test the new platform. In fact, the most enthusiastic one was the 91 year old; she came an hour early to the hall just to be sure she downloaded it and could operate it without distraction!
The ROCO brand is dependent on our musicians and living composers, not dead ones. Music is a living language in which the composer becomes the matchmaker between musician and listener. We market and present our people as individuals, because it matters that Brook Ferguson is our principal flutist and Richard Belcher is our principal cellist. Even our commissions are personal. Our principals are our featured soloists and are offered the opportunity to not only request commissions, but select their preferred composer. The musicians are all individual owners of our collective artistic product, and they have input on all aspects of the performances.
Our business model is based upon relationships, not transactions. The typical churn or ‘moves management’ that characterizes growth strategy for orchestras doesn’t apply at ROCO. Through our investor model of fundraising, we have people jump boldly into the “deep end of the pool” with us. If they donate a certain amount, they get tickets to our season instead of buying subscriptions. They feel a true ownership in the orchestra.
Individual musicians are sponsored annually, either by individuals or by groups. In fact, patrons can group together to sponsor a chair, with each donor giving just a little. Some of our musicians even have groupies!
Many of these groupies are over 65; our older audience members have boundless interest and enthusiasm, even (especially!) for the commissions. However, our audiences do skew younger than those of most ensembles, both because of ROCOrooters and because of the wide variety of venues in which we play. Thanks to the breadth of our mission, we have cultivated a multi-generational audience. ROCO appeals to life-long learners and seekers of new experiences, continually stimulating new musical conversations and ever-expanding knowledge.
ROCO has a place, some music, a person, a moment, with which you can connect. You are a friend we haven’t met yet, and we look forward to our musical conversations with you!