Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts. Photo: David White
Maintaining perseverance through trying times is a unifying theme in River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s Saturday program “Courageous Catalysts,” which blend a selection of music that channels the fight to end racism and the determination of Texans to survive Hurricane Harvey.
“We invented a really interesting and wonderful program,” said Michael Stern, who will conduct the concert at Church of St. John the Divine. “It’s a wonderful confluence of shared musical interests, of shared philosophy about how music can be and how concerts can be and how you can mix things up with new music and old music.”
One of the works is Bruce Adolphe’s “I Will Not Remain Silent,” which premiered in 2015. The two-movement concerto, a musical portrait of a significant time in history, is inspired by the life of Joachim Prinz, a rabbi who befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. After fleeing Berlin in 1937, Prinz came to the United States, where he realized the nation’s civil rights inequalities were an injustice equivalent to what he experienced in Germany.
Both men were influential leaders at the March on Washington in 1963. In fact, Prinz pleaded with the large crowd to defy silence in an oration preceding King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the musical piece, the violin, played by soloist and ROCO concertmaster Scott St. John, represents the voice of Prinz.
‘ROCO In Concert: Courageous Catalysts’When: 5 p.m. Saturday Where: Church of St. John the Divine Tickets: $15-35; 713-665-2700, rocohouston.org
“They were an unlikely pair, this older rabbi from Germany and this civil rights activist preacher,” Stern said, “and they stood up for justice in a pretty powerful way.”
A concern for the rights of mankind is a direct connection between Adolphe’s work and Beethoven’s “Overture to Leonore No. 3,” the second of four iterations he wrote for his only opera “Fidelio,” which he wrote in 1805. Lasting about 14 minutes, Stern said, “this is the longest and most fleshed out, most virtuosic version of the overture.”
History resurfaces in the new work by composer Michael Gandolfi, titled “September 12, 1962.” The commission celebrates President John F. Kennedy, who would have turned 100 years old last May, along with anyone else who has displayed the courage to stand up for his or her beliefs to better society.
“Music, I think, continues to be the greatest prism through which we can understand and experience the world because it allows us to process what’s happening and also to shape our response to what’s happening,” Stern said. “It gives us an empathic way to communicate with other people.”
This human connection, established through the language of music, is what Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts said he hopes his fanfare, although lasting only a minute or two, will inspire. His first ROCO commission, “The Big Heart” is an optimistic and celebratory piece created for both orchestra and chorus, and is intended to bolster the spirits of Houstonians following the city’s catastrophic flooding.
“We are obviously a very divided country right now, and it’s a tough time,” Puts said. “But I think when something like this happens, we’re able to band together and sort of feel empathy for each other. That is one great thing about this country.”
For his short anthem, Puts worked with friend and prolific librettist Mark Campbell, with whom he has written three operas. Every word has a unique rhythm, requiring different needs musically, Puts said, so he prefers to know the exact lyrics before composing the music, which is how this piece was prepared. Campbell first wrote a poem, and he decided to name it “The Big Heart” in honor of what Houston was affectionately called after taking in people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The ROCO program also includes Jean Sibelius’s “Symphony No. 7 in C major, op. 105,” a profoundly spiritual and calming piece that the Finnish composer completed in 1924.
“We can gain strength from music,” Puts said. “It just gets directly to our souls, and it changes the way we feel. From my point of view, I think that there’s no more powerful artistic medium than music.”