Ensemble Interview with Apollo Chamber Players

We caught up with the Apollo Chamber Players‘ Matt Detrick in advance of their upcoming release, BLURRED BOUNDARIES (out 4/9/16) to discuss a bit about their 20X2020 commissioning project and their experience working with contemporary composers; check out the full interview below!

Your first album EUROPEAN FOLKSCAPES debuted on Navona Records in January 2014. How is BLURRED BOUNDARIES similar/different from the first album? What’s new with Apollo Chamber Players since then?

First and foremost, the new album continues our exploration of the rich folkloric and cultural inspirations in classical music. While European Folkscapes was more of a sampling of folk music selections, Blurred Boundaries takes our journey a few organic steps further with the launch of a multi-year commissioning project, 20×2020. The first three commissions blur the lines between genres and illustrate how contemporary composers use folklorism in uniquely personal ways. The new album also highlights our aim to provided fresh contexts and a contemporary perspective on more traditional repertoire.

What can listeners expect to hear from BLURRED BOUNDARIES? What do you want listeners to take away from the album?

We hope listeners will enjoy the variety and breadth of music on this disc, as it represents the core of our programming. Educating listeners and audience-members is also an important aspect of what we do..there are so many composers who, for whatever reason, have been forgotten or overlooked. Florence Price, for example, is a wonderful case in point: She was the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. Her music is beautiful and full of the vibrancy of purely American music, jazz and spirituals. We were pleased to have found (and edited) her lost Five Folksongs in Counterpoint work and are honored to present the premiere recording on this album.

We hope listeners will also question the notion of what it means for music to be labeled ‘classical.’ To us, music is a global language, and we hope that by bringing to light folkloric elements – illustrated by commissioning new music in this context – audiences’ perceptions can be enhanced in ways that are richer and more meaningful.

The 20X2020 Project received 254 entries from 30 countries and 36 US states. Could you explain the concept behind 20X2020, and what the selection process was like?

20×2020 is our multi-year commissioning project, with the aim of commissioning 20 new folk music-inspired works by the end of the decade. We launched the project in 2014 with a new string quartet by Libby Larsen, and we will be premiering our 7th commission next month! It’s an ambitious goal, but one that we feel exemplifies the uniqueness of Apollo. Our home city of Houston, TX, is incredibly diverse, and creating new music in this manner allows us to better serve and engage with the various cultures that call Space City home. The cultural context creates an immediate connection with audiences here and across the country when we tour. Classical music, especially ‘new music’, can be incredibly intimidating for people…our goal generally (and specifically via 20×2020) is to foster cultural awareness and broaden – in numbers and diversity – a global audience of classical, chamber, and new music lovers.

In 2014, we held an International Commissioning Contest as part of 20×2020 and received an incredible response. We were most surprised that there was such a passionate interest in folk inspired composition among living composers! It was a fantastic exercise in connecting Apollo with composers who share our interests. Erberk Eryilmaz, the winner of the contest, is a gifted composer, quite unique in his approach to composition. The commission we received from him, Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan, is unlike anything we’ve ever played before. It incorporates stomping, talking, whispering, and myriad meter changes, underpinned by folk music from the Turkish and Thracian region, which transports the audience to exotic places. This commission is also the first to use instrumentation larger than a string quartet, with an added double bass, percussion and clarinet.

This record includes commissions from some fantastic composers, including fellow PARMA Artists Libby Larsen and Marty Regan. Had you worked with them prior to the 20X2020 Project? What drew you to their compositions?

We had not worked with either Libby or Marty prior to the start of the project. We were quite familiar with their music from recordings and live performances, however. Libby is such a delight to work with – she’s an icon in her own right, very deservedly so. But there’s no sort of pretension with her at all…she 100% about music and creating affecting interpretation. She left a lasting impression on all of us, the musicians of Apollo, our board of directors, and audience! Libby has a singular compositional voice, and we were drawn to this and the fact that she writes music reflective of the times in which we live.

In 2010, the Houston Grand Opera commissioned an operetta from Marty Regan – this was our first encounter with his music and were immediately hooked. After becoming more familiar with his music, and particularly his interest in Japanese traditional instruments, we approached him about writing a work for 20×2020. Marty has an innate sense of the music of Japan, and he was able to weave our programmatic wishes perfectly into the creation of Splash of Indigo.

Do you have any upcoming performances featuring works selected from 20X2020?

Yes! We feel passionately that our commissions, and new music generally, needs to be performed as much as possible for many different audiences. In fact, we aim to include at least one 20×2020 work in any program we present, whether a main stage concert or educational performance. There is no ‘barrier of expectations’ with children, and it’s a beautiful thing to reach younger generations with new music, new art, that connects with our shared and individual cultural heritage.

A concert on the horizon which we are particularly excited about is for Piccolo Spoleto (in Charleston, SC) this coming June. We will be performing 20×2020 commissions Sorrow Song and Jubilee and Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan, by Libby Larsen and Erberk Eryilmaz, respectively, on this program.

Three of the charts on the album (“Plantation Melodies, Five Folksongs In Counterpoint,” and “Four Japanese Folk Songs”) were not chosen from the 20X2020 Project. How were these pieces selected for the album?

These selections are ideal, and evocative, companion pieces for the commissioned works. They were selected from specific concert programs in which they connected with the theme of a 20×2020 work to be premiered. The Price and Burleigh pieces illustrated importance of African-American folksong to the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, this inspiration manifested through Libby Larsen’s ‘Sorrow Song and Jubilee’. Marty Regan’s Splash of Indigo explores the links between French Impressionist music and the unique structure and harmonic vocabulary of Japanese folksong. Komatsu’s Four Japanese Folk Songs – virtuosic and elegant in their own right – provide a pure example of Japanese folk music.

Of special note, Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, a forgotten work by a seminal African-American composer, existed only in manuscript form prior to this recording’s release. This alone merits its inclusion.

What albums or artists are you listening to right now?

I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan…this iconic music is never too far removed from my daily listening. (As luck would have it, the composer of our fourth commission, Israeli-born Gilad Cohen, is also big on Pink Floyd; our commission from him, Three Goat Blues, evokes Floydian soundscapes.) Radiohead is another favorite of mine. On the classical spectrum, I’ve been enjoying new Gramophone release of Argerich and Barenboim, “Live from Buenos Aires”, Navona’s ‘Requiem for the Living’ by Arthur Gottschalk, and any of Giuliano Carmignola discs of the last decade. I’ll say it’s a bit dispiriting that the majority of albums being released these days are of repertoire that’s been recorded ad nauseum. Parma/Navona is unique in its appreciation and commitment to new music and living composers!

What does the rest of 2016 hold for the Apollo Chamber Players?

Our Cuba Libre! season finale concert in May features the next 20×2020 commission, by Rice faculty composer Arthur Gottschal, based on Cuban folk music. Apollo will also be the featured ensemble for Houston Ballet’s upcoming production of Cacti, performing onstage with company dancers. In June as I mentioned earlier, we close Piccolo Spoleto’s season in Charleston, SC, and for the rest of the month we are the resident string quartet for the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio’s Summer String Festival. Our 2016/17 season begins in October, and I’m pleased to announce that we are planning four new commissions next year -stay tuned!

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