Getting Started in a Great Town for Start-Ups

Classical 91.7 announcer Jaemi Loeb recently completed her doctorate at the UH Moores School of Music.  In the first of a series of occasional articles, she describes her experiences starting a brand new orchestra here in Houston.

It's no secret that Houston has a vibrant music scene, filled with world-class professional ensembles of all kinds. Many cities can boast professional orchestras, opera and ballet companies, but few can lay claim to the adventurous, entrepreneurial culture that Houston's musicians and audiences have created.

So, when, after four years living and working in Houston, I found myself a newly-minted "doctor of conducting," I immediately began to attempt to create a new kind of orchestra. During my time pursuing a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in Orchestral Conducting at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, I had built a network of professional relationships at the university and around town. Like many musicians who come here for school, I used these to string together a few professional positions in advance of graduation. My husband and I were in no hurry to leave Houston, so I started talking more seriously to friends about my utopian orchestral vision and why the Heights was the perfect neighborhood for it.

As I shared my pipe dream with musician friends, their response was consistently positive.  I knew then there was a niche to fill and so the Houston Heights Orchestra was born.

This new neighborhood orchestra is built on the simple premise that music-making should be fun. We are made up of music students, professionals, and amateurs, creating a diverse group. For us, great music is a way to build community within and around the orchestra. That includes playing standard repertoire and new music side by side, and including the players in as many decisions as possible.

Before I began to ask for commitments from players or plan a season, I set about securing rehearsal space and concert venues. With no funding, these were not easy to find. I knew I'd be able to find some donations, but until those materialized, I wanted to keep financial commitments minimal. After floods of emails to local churches and schools, All Saints Catholic Church on 10th Street offered to help with rehearsal space. Misha Penton, Artistic Director of Divergence Vocal Theater, who had recently opened the Divergence Music and Arts performance space at the Spring Street Studios in the Heights, was generous enough to make us an affordable offer for the use of the venue for our first concert. With those two pieces in place, I began recruiting players, volunteer staff, donors, donated services, etc.

Many businesses around town have donated goods and services to help the Houston Heights Orchestra get going. I have been very lucky to be able recruit a great team of players and staff, and those all-important first donors, to get the project off the ground. One of our most important resources has been the International Music Score Library Project (www.imslp.org), an online music library that provides music scores free of charge to anyone with internet access; this means players can print their own parts so that the orchestra doesn’t have to buy expensive sheet music.

We have two professional Chamber Ensembles-in-Residence (The Apollo Chamber Players and WindSync) affiliated with the Orchestra, as well as a Composer-in-Residence (Richard Ford). These enthusiastic professionals donate their time and expertise and act as an important core for the group.  The ensembles-in-residence offer leadership in their sections of the orchestra and variety for our concerts with their occasional program appearances.  Composer Richard Ford provides us with new music to perform (we’ll be premiering one of his works in December).  

Our volunteer staff includes a marketing director, a logistics manager, and a chamber music coordinator.  In my capacity as Artistic as well as Music Director, I play an active role in the administration and logistics of the ensemble besides merely conducting, but this new neighborhood orchestra has come together thanks to an energetic group of players and a very capable staff.

The Houston Heights Orchestra is very excited to make its public debut on Friday. We hope to become a staple of the cultural scene in the Heights and begin to get to know our audience as friends and neighbors at the reception that will follow the concert.

You can find out more about the Houston Heights Orchestra online at www.HoustonHeightsOrchestra.org, and you can follow it on Twitter: @HeightsOrch and at facebook.com/houstonheightsorchestra.