Training Ground for Houston’s Cultural Excellence

Training Ground for Houston’s Cultural Excellence     By Philip Berquist

Major metropolitan cities provide endless opportunities for excellent music cultural events and Houston is no exception. The Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, Houston Ballet, Opera in the Heights, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Houston Civic Symphony, Houston Brass Band, Rice University’s Shepherd School and the Moores School at the University of Houston are world class. If these organizations can be considered “major league,” to use a baseball analogy, what constitutes “minor league,” the training teams? Please allow me to introduce “Virtuosi of Houston.” Virtuosi is a youth chamber orchestra that has been in existence for over twenty years. At that time there were two youth orchestras here -The Houston Youth Symphony and The Greater Houston Youth Orchestra (full disclosure, I spent two years on the Board of the Greater Houston Youth Orchestra). These were large student orchestras playing the original orchestral repertoire yet there was a void, however, since there was no chamber music youth organization. Hence, the forming of Virtuosi of Houston. A very similar, yet professional, organization had begun a few years earlier, The American Sinfonietta, a group of 40 musicians from all over the United States. This orchestra had three requirements for membership that were used to form Virtuosi of Houston — excellent musicianship, great love for music and great love and respect for fellow musicians.

In 1996 four people met at the exploratory get together for Virtuosi. Andrzej Grabiec, a splendid violinist at the Moores School, who had previously been certmaster for The American Sinfonietta and the Rochester Philharmonic, Carolyn Vandiver, who would become the first Virtuosi Manager. Earle Steinberg, who had been Chairman of the Board of the Greater Houston Youth Orchestra, and would form and lead the first Virtuosi board of directors, and Franz Anton Krager, international conductor, and the Hourani endowed professor of music and director of orchestras at the Moores School.

It was agreed that Virtuosi would have two conductors, Grabiec and Krager. I know them both well and have worked with them often during my many years of volunteer involvement at the Moores School. I once engaged Andrzej to perform a challenging work of the Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke, the Prelude in Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich, written for two violins. This thoughtful piece requires the “soloist” to play both violin parts. Grabiec was tremendous in his interpretation and his soaring virtuosity. Similarly, Franz Anton Krager and I had collaborated before as I produced a six-day Shostakovich Festival and a three day Sibelius Festival at the Moores School. Franz was the General and Artistic Director of both. Membership was open to students in the Houston area up to 18 years of age. Rehearsals were intentionally scheduled for weeknights to allow members of the Houston Youth Symphony and the Greater Houston Youth Orchestra to join and participate as well. The first performance took place in late 1996 with a performance of Mozart, Bach with an orchestra of 38 students. Slowly the board of directors grew with many influential people in the community. With board strength and leadership, the future was positive. Another Moores School of Music Society leader, Betty Jukes, recruited Zarine and Meherwan Boyce, both to fill essential roles for many years. Other leaders also made contributions such as Susan Love Fitts and Cynthia Martin.

Virtuosi of Houston performs at various venues throughout the year. These include stand-alone performances as well as being with the Houston Symphony during their annual Youth Symphony Festival. They also present during the Texas Music Festival each June at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston. They have also had the honor of being invited to and performing in both France and England. Virtuosi of Houston currently has alumni throughout the United States and abroad in colleges, universities, conservatories, orchestras and music companies.

Word is getting out about Virtuosi as several alumni have advanced to significant professional positions. These include Arne-Christian Pelz, principal cellist for the Hamburg Symphony, Beatriz Macias, solo flutist of the Luxembourg Chamber Orchestra and Emileigh Vandiver, professor of cello at the New England Conservatory of Music. The Orchestra Manager of many years, Karen Needham, additionally contributes to the organization by managing an ensemble program featuring string quartets and other small performance groups. These perform about 100 times annually at various Houston venues. There is also an annual Small Ensemble Summer Workshop with professional musicians coaching the students.

On March 30, 2019, Virtuosi of Houston will hold its annual “Gala Concert & Dinner.” The event, titled “Music in Motion,” is being organized by Interim Executive Director, Patti Murphy. It will be a unique program featuring ballet. There will be three distinguished honorees – Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet, Jane Weiner of Hope Stone Dance Company and Michelle Smith of MET Houston Dance Company. Each of the honorees will send some of their dancers to perform with Virtuosi. The second half of the program will be ballroom dancing for the entire audience.

Virtuosi of Houston has successfully filled a cultural need in the area by concentrating on chamber music for area students. The future is indeed bright for Virtuosi, and I would encourage the readers to find out more about the organization by attending a concert and hear for yourselves their remarkable performances.

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