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Concerted effort

In the live music capital, Texas Performing Arts composes a contemporary vision for classical music performance by commissioning new works

Oct. 3, 2011

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Texas Performing Arts Director Kathy Panoff knows how much of the general public would define classical music.

“Music by dead white guys played by symphony orchestras,” says Panoff, a trained concert flutist. “The word ‘classical’ has been very narrowly defined, when classical music is truly like any other type of music, whether it’s indie rock or bluegrass.

Kathy Panoff
Director and Associate Dean Kathy Panoff (“KP” to those who know her) is poised to take classical performances at Bass Concert Hall in a new direction with funding from The Mellon Foundation.Photo: Brenda O’Brian

“It’s a living breathing organism that evolves with the passage of time, the context of our world, and the quality and the creativity of the musicians playing it,” continues Panoff, who is also an associate dean in the College of Fine Arts. “If we truly want to broaden the field and ensure a sustainable future, we’re going to have to make a concerted effort.”

Panoff has made it her personal mission to correct that common misconception of classical music — and now has resources to do so.

Texas Performing Arts (TPA) recently received a $450,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The three-year initiative will support classical music programming and community engagement through programming that interconnects both arts and academic disciplines, the formation of a classical music task force, and extended artist-residencies that will include three modern and innovative ensembles: So Percussion, eighth blackbird and Brooklyn Rider.

A new work scheduled for the 2013-14 season pairs the Kronos Quartet with the avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, while Illimaq — receiving its world premiere here in fall 2012 — is a drum kit opera written by John Luther Adams for percussionist Glenn Kotche of the alternative rock band Wilco.

The Mellon Foundation, formed in New York as a not-for-profit in 1969, makes grants in five core areas, performing arts being one of those areas. Institutions and programs receiving support are considered leaders in their fields, promising newcomers or in a position to demonstrate new ways of overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals. In 2010, The Mellon Foundation appropriated more than $36 million to the performing arts across the nation.

The Mellon grant, the first in TPA’s 30-year history, is being matched by Dean Douglas Dempster of the College of Fine Arts, university Executive Vice President and Provost Steven Leslie and contributions by new patrons, bringing total funding to $900,000.

Highlights from Texas Performing Arts upcoming season
video icon View a photo slideshow of highlights from the Texas Performing Arts upcoming season made possible by funding from The Mellon Foundation.Photo: Nathan Russell

“Research and development in the performing arts — or A&R as it is called in the record business — happens through the creation and performance of new work,” Panoff states. “You have to commission new work to be performed, test it in front of an audience and see what survives.”

“New classical works don’t sell the way that works like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony does,” Panoff says. “The classical music field has kind of done that to itself. They have taken an either/or approach, but this grant gives TPA a three-year protective commitment to be able to do both.”

Among the new works being developed is a piece by faculty composer Dan Welcher for double quartet, which will have its world premiere during the Texas Performing Arts 2012-13 season and feature the Shanghai Quartet and Miró Quartet, the university’s faculty quartet. Another work, composed by former university faculty member Kevin Puts, takes a similar approach, only with a string quartet and chamber orchestra.

The Puts composition will eventually be performed by the Miró Quartet with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Dan Welcher
Faculty composer and conductor Dan Welcher is developing a piece of music to be played by a double quartet, namely the Shanghai Quartet and Miró Quartet.

Panoff says the idea behind both pieces was to commission works that touring artists could perform with local quartets or chamber orchestras, thereby advancing the university’s reach and reputation.

The primary focal point, however, will be on large-scale work that combines music, theatre and dance. For example, the theater piece “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer,” starring actor John Malkovich as the real-life serial killer Jack Unterweger, was written for a baroque orchestra and two sopranos. It will be performed at Bass Concert Hall Oct. 24-25.

Likewise, a re-creation of Njinsky’s original ballet to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” pairs The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra with the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet to celebrate the centennial of its premiere.

“It’s an opportunity to bring people who have a strong affinity for theater, dance or celebrity to receive an unexpected opportunity to experience classical music in a different light,” concludes Panoff. “I believe in my heart if you get someone in a seat without any pre-conceived ideas about the experience, then you can generate some excitement.”

“It happens one person, one student and one Austin community member at a time.”

By Austin Powell
College of Fine Arts

For more information, contact: Leslie Lyon, College of Fine Arts, 512 475 7033;
Home page banner photo of So Percussion: Sally Mack