Dallas — The halls are alive with the sound of music, new music that is, thanks to Voices of Change (VOC), Dallas’ premier new music chamber ensemble. It’s been an amazing journey for the musicians, composers and patrons whose passion to create something outside the classical music box continues to champion voices of 20th and 21st century classical composers.
Over 40 years, Voices of Change has presented more than 75 world premieres (25 of which were commissioned by the ensemble), performed music by more than 300 composers, and has made numerous recordings, including five CDs.
With the final 2014-2015 season performance set for May 3, VOC's 40th season has been a successful one: including two world premieres and a new commission.
But before we travel back through the 40-year journey, let’s explore the allure of new music.
What is new music?
VOC’s Executive Director Margaret Barrett was blown away when she listened to a recording of Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steve Reich’s new music while studying music composition at Baylor University.
“It made me realize how limited traditional western music is and that there is this whole other world of sound we are missing out on,” Barrett says. “Modern composers have something to say—and that something has to do with the world we live in today."
Barrett adds that much of Western music before the 20th century relied more on traditional harmonies, which music audiences understood and connected with. In the 20th century, some composers started to question this and began to wonder what would happen if they threw out the rules. As a result, new music was born.
Once more, from the beginning
Colorado native Jo Boatright started piano lessons under her mother’s wing at the age of 4 and a half, and in no time, playing the piano was as natural to her as anything. By the age of 12 she was performing as a soloist and had already developed a love for new music.
“I was always interested in it,” Boatright says. “I played, what was considered new music; Hindemith, Shostakovich, even Debussy, who was still considered relatively new when I was a child.”
Boatright majored in piano at Colorado College, where she met her husband Harvey Boatwright. In 1957 the couple left Colorado to attend the New England Conservatory of music in Boston where she performed with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. The next year she attended Tanglewood, a premiere summer training program for aspiring high school-age musicians.
“My whole experience during the summer of 1958 was the confirmation of my interest in new music,” she admits. The composers there that summer included Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss. “I also learned and performed Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen. One of the students there at the time was Mario Davidovsky, now a well-known electronic composer.”
In 1960, Harvey, now a professionally trained flutist, was offered a job with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the couple moved to Texas. The next year Boatwright found employment as the music director of the First Unitarian Church, a gig that lasted 43 years.
“I could bring anything [music] I wanted there, she shares. “ Much of what we performed was new music.”
Then in 1968 on a Sunday at the church, she met clarinetist Ross Powell, who Boartright quickly discovered was as much in love with contemporary classical music as she was. For the next few years the two pursued their new music passion.
Then in 1974 Boatright and Powell, ready for something new, founded a new music ensemble.
“It was his idea,” Boatright says. “He wanted to start a new music group and he was great at getting money out of the government! We were home grown and barely had enough money to pay the musicians, but Ross was able to secure several grants.”
Actually, their very first concert was under the name of New World Chamber Players, which then promptly ditched when Ross came up with Voices of Change, Boatright explains. “In our case ‘Voices’ referred to lines of music [in chamber music the instrument plays only one line with no one else playing the same line] and ‘Change’ to the fact that new composers were changing what was expected in chamber music.”
Early on, in addition to performing new works by Thom Mason, the six original members (musicians Ross and Sandy Powell, Ron Neal, Harvey and Jo Boatright and soprano Christine Schadeberg) performed as a Pierrot ensemble, named for Arnold Schoenberg’s groundbreaking 1912 work Pierrot Lunaire Op. 21, an odd combination of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment that was unlike anyone before or after had composed or heard. A setting of 21 selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation of Albert Giraud’s cycle of French poems, the work is atonal and still played today. (You can get a sense of what it sounds like in a video from the Chicago Symphony at the bottom of this story.)
And they’re off
VOC was off to a good start and getting lots of attention from the media.
“We were news and had no problem getting into the newspapers. Clearly we were there at the right time and it was a great place to be a pioneer,” Boatright says.
During the ’80s, the ensemble toured the European capitals of London, Berlin, Paris, The Hague, Edinburgh and Riga.
“Berlin was my favorite,” she admits. “A music critic who came to our concert there referred to me as the ‘Lioness of the Keyboard.’ I just loved that concert!”
Along the way, Boatright and company has had the privilege to work with two Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning American composers: George Crumb and John Cage. Other good things happened for VOC as well. She admits that the ensemble’s most widely known achievement was a Grammy nomination in 1999 for an album entitled Voices Americanos which featured all Latino/Latina composers.
“I was most proud of the musicians I worked with. Everyone was a top-notch, dedicated professional musician,” Boatright says. "When a work required a conductor we often used one of the members. Other times we invited world-class conductors such as Eduardo Mata with the Dallas Symphony and Leonard Slatkin with the Detroit Symphony. Slatkin conducted our first performance of Pierrot Lunaire. When soloist Christine Schadeberg performed it, she did it by memory and we required no conductor.”
During those early days she says everybody wanted to be a part of what they were doing. “We were comrades and we all wanted to play a new piece of music.”
Over the years, Boatright says some things with the ensemble have changed, and some have not.
“I don't think VOC has evolved, but rather changed with whatever the living composers of today are putting out there for musicians to explore and perform,” she explains. “I'm speaking purely from the musical side of VOC.
“Unfortunately, the audience has not changed or evolved. It's still a small, adventurous group,” she adds. “Some have always loved chamber music, some are new to the genre. This problem is not just in Dallas but also in many cities that are fortunate enough to even have a new music ensemble.”
Grant support has decreased significantly over the years as well.
“There are more new music groups and other non-profits to share the pie with these days. Recordings, which are important to the whole field of new music, have not been forthcoming due to lack of funding, grant availability, and perhaps the internet,” she admits. “And touring has not taken place on the level that we did in the old days, also due to lack of funding.”
But one constant, she says, has been the high level of musical performance and press coverage and the small venues around Dallas to host mini concerts preceding subscription concerts.
“So considering all the factors that make up such an organization: musicians and music, board of directors and fund raising, audience and press, there have been changes,” she says. “But the core mission of VOC has not changed and that is, of course, what it's all about.”
In addition to her role with the Unitarian Church, from the early ’60s through the mid-80s, Boatright taught music at the University of Arlington, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Dallas and Southern Methodist University. Then, early in the millennium, Harvey and Jo headed back to their beloved Colorado where she now serves as the artistic director and pianist for the Walden Chamber Music Society in Buena Vista. She continues to serve VOC in an advisory capacity.
“It’s really a thrill to see VOC has made it to 40 years. I know the music will always be there.”
Passing the torch
In 1994, award winning violinist and Oregon native Maria Schleuning moved to Dallas when she was offered a position with the Dallas Symphony. Here she met her husband, former DSO member and current music director of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra, Richard Giangiulio.
Soon after arriving in Dallas, she discovered Voices of Change and in 1996 became the ensemble’s violinist.
“I just loved it—it was fun and more challenging than what I was doing with the orchestra,” Schleuning says. “Meeting and working with Jo was significant for me, monumental actually. Everyone associated with VOC was there because they were passionate about playing new music.”
Schleuning’s passion for music was ignited early in her childhood. As the youngest of three daughters growing up in Portland, naturally, she wanted to be like her older sisters—they both played a musical instrument: double bass and flute. Scheuling chose the violin.
“I knew this was what I wanted to do and I was so excited!”
From age 9 to 18, she played with Portland’s Youth Philharmonic, American’s oldest youth orchestra. There, she was introduced to contemporary classical music and fell in love with the new sound.
Further inspiration came when Schleuning met Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell when she was selected to perform in the Seventeen Magazine and General Motors National Concerto Competition. Bell took the grand prize but the next summer, she reaped the rewards of his sage advice.
“When we were at the Aspen Music Festival together the following summer, [Bell] told me a lot of wonderful things about his teacher, Josef Gingold,” she recalls. This was a factor that helped influence her a year later when she was applying for college. Gingold was considered one of the most influential violin masters in the U.S. Schleuning earned her Bachelor’s degree in music at Indiana University.
“That [studying under Gingold] was wonderful for me.”
Later she studied with Yfrah Neaman, a distinguished violin instructor, at the Guildhall School in London. In 1990, Schleuning attended Juilliard where she worked with Joel Smirnoff and earned her Master’s degree in music.
In 2009, after several seasons as a significant contributor to VOC’s success, Schleuning was appointed the ensemble’s artistic director.
Meet some of the composers
Voices of Change has worked with many leading composers and has premiered several new works along the way including that of David Dzubay, a longtime supporter of VOC; Xi Wang, an SMU professor and composer whose newly created commission premiered at the group's March concert; and Augusta Read Thomas, whose solo violin work Dream Catcher, written specifically for Schleuning, also premiered recently.
Schleuning says she was thrilled to be a part of the creative process that brought Thomas’s Dream Catcher to life.
“Augusta Read Thomas was a guest composer here one season and really liked my playing,” Schleuning says. “She wrote a piece for me as a gift, which was a huge honor, because she has had commissions from many of the world's great orchestras and musicians. She wrote the piece and sent me portions of what she had written for my feedback, so I really got to be a part of the process.”
Schleuning has recently recorded this piece for a seven CD set of her complete works, which will be available on the Nimbus label this summer.
Another important accomplishment for VOC is commissioning new work.
Having recently completed a second commission for the ensemble, Tibetan Fantasia, which premiered at the group's concert, composer and SMU professor Xi Wang knows their voices. (Read our review of Tibet Fantasia here.)
“I went to almost every VOC concert after I moved to Dallas in 2009,” she says. “I met each member in person and I know the sound of each musician. That’s how I can comfortably write for the ensemble.
“Music is so true to me,” she adds. “I express and release my emotion through music, which sometimes, can’t be expressed through any other media.”
Another composer with whom Voices of Change has a long association with is fellow Oregonian and music professor David Dzubay.
“I knew Maria first through the Portland Youth Philharmonic, then as fellow students at Indiana University, and then through Voices of Change,” he says. “I first worked with VOC in 1992, when Jo Boatright programmed and performed with Carter Enyeart the premiere of my cello sonata written that year while I taught at the University of North Texas.
In 2003, following the cello sonata, the group recorded and released a full CD of Dzubay’s music, including two song cycles that he conducted, and a short string quartet and Capriccio for violin and piano, performed by Jo and Maria. In 2007, Joe Illick (VOC artistic director from 2006 to 2007) and VOC commissioned All Water has a Perfect Memory for clarinet, piano and string quartet, one of his favorite works.
Dzubay first discovered VOC through his teacher Donald Erb, who has also composed works for them, including a memorable solo clarinet work for the ensemble’s co-founder Ross Powell and the chamber ensemble piece The Devil's Quickstep.
“It has been an honor to, in a way, to pick up his thread and have a continued relationship with Voices of Change over the years,” he says.
When 36-year-old violinist Mary Alice Rich discovered that she had focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects a muscle or group of muscles, she turned to composing.
“It was one of those great surprises of life,” Rich shares. “But I knew I could teach and I could write. So she taught violin and began composing.
“I knew Maria through our shared students. I always had great respect for her, she’s a great player, a very caring teacher and she really values education.”
As a result of the relationship, Rich got on board with Voices of Change by becoming part of VOC’s education committee. Along with fellow committee members and composers Margaret Barrett, Francis Osentowski and Alexander Djinov, the team is on a mission to bring the sounds and insights of new music to kids in schools around the metroplex, including underserved schools.
“We want to reach out to the community and give kids a positive experience,” Rich says.
So the committee came up with several innovative projects including My Neighborhood Project, a poetry contest conducted in seven underserved DISD elementary schools. The kids were asked to write poems about their neighborhoods then they wrote little bits of music and with the help of their music teachers, weaved the kids' melodic material into songs, which were then performed by the kids or high school soloists.
Rich remembers one little boy coming up to her and asking her for another piece of paper because he wanted to write another poem for his mom.
“He was so excited,” she says. The kids love the programs!”
Schleuning also loves going into the schools. “We’ve got to take music to the schools because music speaks to the heart. These programs are making a difference around the Metroplex and are making a younger generation fall in love with new music.”
VOC today and tomorrow
As Voices of Change artistic director, Schleuning does her best to find a balance, when deciding what music the ensemble will perform.
“I like to program an ‘older’ new work—one that perhaps is recognized [like Bartók or Shostakovich] with something that is more recent [written in the last ten years or so]. At the same time, I try to balance atonal and tonal music—I realize that some modern music is difficult for the listener, especially if they are new to it,” she says.
“I think it is important to present something a little more classically oriented to bridge that divide. Also, that is the music that has led to what we are hearing today, so the influence is strong and it is interesting to hear the connection. I also try to include new techniques, such as electronics or visuals into our season.”
While Schleuning acknowledges that [new music] can be a hard sell to audiences, it provides musicians many opportunities for growth.
“Playing new music keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking, keeps your mind searching and keeps you in shape, physically,” she says referring to when composers ask musicians to play their instruments in unconventional ways, including plucking piano wires and playing the violin while holding it in an upright position close to the floor.
There is no doubt Voices of Change has a great deal to offer Dallas: Four season subscription concerts; four pre-concert forums facilitated by Dr. Laurie Shulman (discussions about the concert’s composer and music); innovative educational programs including their Texas Young Composers' composition contest; house concerts; free SoundBites (wine tasting and music the evening before each concert) and other gatherings and celebrations. Check it all out here.
“It’s important that I always remember that the mission of Voices of Change—to be the voice for new composers, to educate and inspire North Texas residents about new music and to establish Dallas as a city that celebrates creativity and innovation in all artistic mediums—is greater than my personal career, that’s something I got that from Jo and Ross.”
» The May 3 concert, 7:30 p.m. at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium, features the following program:
Dmitri Shostakovich: Waltzes for flute, clarinet and piano
Thomas Schwan: Piano Trio
Bela Bartók: Piano Sonata
Kaija Saariaho: Serenatas for cello, piano, percussion
Peter Schickele: Serenade for Three for clarinet, violin, and piano
» Here's a video of Chicago Symphony performing Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: