The Olmos Ensemble, a staple in the San Antonio chamber music scene, has reached the next stage of its development with the release of their first album, Olmos Live.
The ensemble is much more than a collection of San Antonio Symphony musicians offering periodic concerts at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. Olmos intentionally gives each audience member the freedom to choose the cost of his or her own ticket, thus providing live chamber music to all socioeconomic classes of the city. The power of this is not to be underestimated--Olmos is trying to strip classical music of its upper class stigma and cultivate new audiences for an art form in danger of decline. Eric Gratz, artistic director and violinist, shared that “everyone should have access to the arts. It’s not a high society thing...it’s finding the balance between preserving the spiritually satisfying element of [classical music] and keeping it relevant.”
In addition to performing in venues that range from distilleries to churches, members of the Olmos Ensemble purposefully program chamber music that runs the gamut of styles and eras. “I feel more so even than the work I do in the symphony, we really get variety into these programs. It’s fun for the musicians, keeping us on our toes and giving us something new to tackle, and I hope that that gets communicated to the audience.” says Paul Lueders, oboist. Olmos Live is a perfect representation of these aims and values with its diverse playlist spanning hundreds of years of music history.
Rustiques, a trio for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon by Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957), was commissioned by the French state in 1946. Canteloube spent his life traveling throughout the French countryside to record and transcribe folk songs, and Rustiques is a compilation of some of those most beloved songs. I relate the piece (commissioned and composed during a time when France was healing from WWII) to America’s musical response to the September 11 attacks, recalling memories of hearing “God Bless America” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” on the radio. It’s a beautiful piece of music that combines the oboe, clarinet and bassoon in a sort of intricate, je ne sais quoi counterpoint conducive to both freedom and restraint, and, although the recording reveals subtle inconsistencies inherent in live performance, Olmos sounded great. They played melodic lines with alacrity, blending their sounds together and balancing shifts in tone color with expressive ease.
My favorite piece on the album is John Harbison’s (1938- ) Twilight Music, a trio for violin, horn, and piano, commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1985. Filled with extended techniques, the work is a great example of how composers and performers in today’s age are striving to meet modern audiences’ entertainment values with deeply musical and fulfilling compositions. Olmos’s performance of this demanding work is better than opening up a package of Starburst candy and getting two pink ones in a row right off the bat...San Antonio is truly lucky to have such a solid, expressive horn player in town, not to mention the absolutely incredible playing of his two colleagues. Their accuracy of rhythm, pitch, articulation, and tempo, combined with their commitment to musical intent and artistry, is alone worth buying the album.
The final piece on the CD is Quintet in F Minor, Op. 99, No.2, by Anton Reicha (1770-1836). Reicha is to the woodwind quintet what Haydn is to the string quartet; without him there would be no platform for wind quintet repertoire. He played flute in the same orchestra as Beethoven (who played viola), was the dedicated teacher of Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, and Franck at the Paris Conservatoire, and composed his 24 woodwind quintets from 1811-1836. The Quintet in F Minor, Op. 99, No.2 is an engaging assortment of archetypes and schema from the Classical Era that stylishly spotlights each instrument's characteristic qualities (flashy flute, noble horn, doodle-det clarinet...you get the idea). I especially enjoyed the flute part in the last movement. For a live performance, the Olmos Ensemble winds nailed it (not in the reddit way) with their detailed treatment of glitzy lines, solo projection, group sound, and push/pull of tempo.
Olmos is awesomely engaging our city in a pseudo-reinvention of the concert tradition with their voluntary donation tickets, diverse venues and programs. As Paul Lueders shared, “the Olmos Ensemble is a great place to start for someone who is nervous to go to a classical music event. You have this idea of this big hall, these elite musicians on the stage kind of far away from you...[but] what chamber music is, is you have this classical repertoire brought closer to you in a very inviting venue, this beautiful church, the very first row only feet from where I play. We really feel that connection...if you’re scared to go to a classical event, this is a good place to start. It feels like a nice family intimate environment.”
This access to affordable, extraordinary art is all fine and well, but is it working? More often than not, I notice that the concertgoer scene is the same: a sea of white hair, the perfume that you can smell seemingly all the way to Austin, the kitten heels and pinky rings...what else can be done to bridge the generation gap and cultivate new audiences? It’s a true concern that has the Olmos Ensemble creating great art, and I for one hope that they continue to evolve and contribute their talents here in San Antonio.
The Olmos Ensemble's CD is available at olmosensemble.com, Terra Nova Violins, or at their season finale concert, which takes place at Laurel Heights Church on May 15th, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.