River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), based in Houston, TX, is a very creative an innovative ensemble, and in this article, Artistic Director Alecia Lawyer provides insight into how ROCO has conceived and launched innovative projects for more than a decade.
Alecia Lawyer – Artistic Director, ROCO
In founding ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) in 2005, I was lucky not to need to change things. I was not hired into a situation where moving forward in the classical music world meant needing to challenge the status quo. Instead, I was able to start fresh. Having been part of three startup groups that sought to engage audiences in different ways, I developed my own theories for building a successful and sustainable model that would focus on genuine connections.
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 thinking as much about innovation as I was about what worked and what didn’t work. I developed a framework 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 on authentic people and authentic experiences.
ROCO has been called an “arts disrupter” and a “trailblazer.”
Known as “the most fun you can have with serious music,” ROCO is a 40-piece professional chamber orchestra in Houston, Texas, with musicians, composers and guest conductors from all over the world. ROCO’s professionally recorded programs are regularly broadcast nationally on APM’s Performance Today. To further ROCO’s reach, full chamber orchestra performances are streamed live for free and past recordings are available on roco.org for free listening.
ROCO’s 12th season, “Go Boldly!” is full of 36 concerts of full chamber orchestra performances and chamber music in 16 different venues. This 2016-17 schedule will also add three compositions to our collection of 54 world premieres and commissions already under our belt.
ROCO’s mission is to Shape the Future of Classical Music through Energizing, Modernizing and Personalizing the Orchestral Experience. How do we do this?
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
ROCO stakeholders challenge every aspect of the concert experience. In turning tradition on its head, many concerts start at 5 pm and end by 7 pm, making ROCO more convenient for multi-generational families to join us and singles to plan more into their evening. Our house lights are on during the whole concert, allowing audiences to read the engaging program which escapes the accepted norm. The concert is 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 engage with musicians in the moment instead of making assumptions about what they think they don’t know. We also publish pronunciation guides for composers’ names and timings of 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 hates the piece!
Many people today don’t know how to pronounce Mozart, nor do they even know much of his music. Instead of this being a concern, we at ROCO see this is an entrepreneurial opportunity where every piece of music and every composer are possible to program, with well-known and little-known composers on an even playing field.
Our popular ROCOrooters music education and childcare program for kids 2 months to 10 years runs in tandem with and after the 5pm concerts on Saturdays. A professional music teacher leads kids 3 to 10 years old in a lesson about the theme of the evening and the piece they will hear, then takes the kids 5 to 10 years old into the concert hall to hear one piece live. Afterward, all ROCOrooters participants are invited to stay for pizza, movies and childcare with licensed workers 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 Day of the Dead 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 with the program repeated at the Texas Children’s Hospital.
ROCO also doesn’t underestimate 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, undertaking 54 world premieres and commissions with three more slated for this 2016-17 season. We co-commission some of our new works, as well, with groups such as the New Century Chamber Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to give composers multiple performances of their works.
Decisions to incorporate technology into the concert experience are never done for the sake of the ‘new.’ Instead, we seek and use new ideas to enhance the relationship between musician and listener while continuing the conversation with our audience.
One way we incorporate technology into our performances is the live streaming of each Saturday “In Concert” performance worldwide from 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 shared with partnering hospitals and nursing homes in DVD format for future viewing.
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 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. Delivered at critical moments during the work with photos and names of the musicians, the messages are timed so that they enhance the concert experience. The app, which uses dark screen technology, doesn’t disturb others who might want to take in the music without it. With the house lights on, the juxtaposition of the engaging technology into live performance doesn’t become a nuisance. Our first time to use the app welcomed 65 different screen uses, with user ages ranging from 13 to 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 who came an hour early to the hall 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, 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 request commissions and to select their preferred composer. Musicians are all individually owners of the artistic product with input in all aspects of 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. We have people jump into the deep end of the pool with us through our investor model of fundraising. If they donate a certain amount, they get tickets to our season instead of buying subscriptions. They feel a true ownership of the orchestra.
Individual musicians are sponsored yearly by either individuals or groups. Patrons can donate just a little and gather other donors to reach a chair amount. Some of our musicians even have groupies!
And many of these groupies are over 65. Our older audience members have tons of interest and enthusiasm, even and especially for the commissions. However, our audiences do skew younger than in most ensembles because of ROCOrooters and multiple venues. Through all of these parts of our mission we have cultivated a multi-generational audience. ROCO appeals to life-long learners and seekers of new experiences, stimulating musical conversation and 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!