Music is a language unto itself, capable of inspiring people and joining them together. After 20 years of intimate shared expression, the members of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble seem to reach an even deeper level of communication.
The music itself is invigorating, but sometimes it is the interludes of silence, the momentary pause between each movement that reminds listeners they are privy to something special. It’s the same intimacy and familiarity found around the family dinner table.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary season, SOLI (which takes its name from the plural form of “solo” to imply the sense of individual parts coming together in harmony) clarinetist and co-founder Stephanie Key, cellist and co-founder David Mollenauer, pianist Carolyn True, and violinist and Artistic Director Ertan Torgul, seeks to entertain and educate San Antonians on the contemporary works of ensemble music, much of which they commission and perform for the first time during their programs.
The ensemble members are world class performers and educators – three teach at the music department at Trinity – who take their craft seriously, yet SOLI”s genesis sprang forth from an incident the founders jokingly refer to as “love and an earthquake.”
Key and Mollenauer began dating after she finished her schooling in the Northeast and moved back to San Antonio en route to graduate school in California. After they said their goodbyes and Key moved out West, they both thought it was the end of the relationship. Then Key was caught in Los Angeles during a large earthquake.
After hearing the news, Mollenauer flew out to California to bring her back to San Antonio since her school building was unsafe to enter. With no studies to distract them, the couple decided they had the time and desire to start a contemporary ensemble and got to work.
“Unlike New York, San Francisco, or L.A., we have a total niche market here and it has been great,” Key said during our conversation before a recent rehearsal. “We have a lot of commissions and invite a lot of composers to San Antonio who otherwise wouldn’t engage with this market, and we have a hardcore group of followers.”
While other ensembles focus their attention on childhood education and providing music to fans of the classical style, SOLI has made a point to connect with younger audiences.
“There has always been a perennial problem in San Antonio of getting young viewers to come out and listen to ensemble music,” Mollenauer said. “It is an unfortunate stigma of the symphony. People think it is just a bunch of dead white guys. They see it as walking into a museum because some of the stuff the symphony does is (100, 200) sometimes even 300 years old. But it is a living art and the musicians playing on stage are doing it in real-time. What we do is a communication between the artists and audience members. It isn’t something you can just capture, it is visceral and real.”
To add an even greater layer of depth and reality to its performances, SOLI often showcases new works written by composers who are 23 or younger. Sometimes these works are literally completed minutes before performance, meaning that the musicians share in the first moments of the composer’s creation with them.
Such modern and unscripted performances might seem odd at first, considering that several of the members play in the symphony where pieces were written hundreds of years ago and are rehearsed until they are perfected. But, according to Mollenauer, this is actually one of the most enriching parts of performing both contemporary and classical music.
“Performing contemporary music makes you look at old music with fresh eyes,” he said. “You no longer see it through the years of tradition and that is refreshing because when those pieces were written they were groundbreaking and new.”
While classical performers are clearly unable to work live with composers from the past, such as Beethoven and Mozart, working with contemporary composers adds an entirely new dimension to a player’s understanding of the spirit of classical works in their original context.
“These composers are living in our time after events like Sept. 11. This is the visualization of who we are now,” Key said.
“And it enables us to better understand the way older artists saw themselves during their time,” Mollenauer added.
Although the group beautifully articulates the way their classical and contemporary worlds marry, they do an even better job portraying this “historical harmonization” in their performances.
“An example is a Beethoven concert we did. We staged the whole thing around the Große Fuge – which was crazy ass music for its time,” Mollenauer said. It was 20th century music in the 1800s. It was so different that it made people angry and his (Beethoven) publisher made him rewrite it. We invited five composers to write a short piece based on this movement and then we played the Große Fuge, cutting to their pieces in the middle, and then back to the Fuge. It was neat to see them looking back and looking forward at the same time and to see it all as a living art.”
“The mind was hearing the juices of history … it was a call and response,” Key said, as our conversation quickly moved from SOLI to the spiritual and philosophical meaning of music and language.
As our dialogue came to a close, the other members of the group slowly joined us as they prepared for their rehearsal in anticipation of next week’s opening performances, which will showcase the 20th century’s most iconic chamber work (arguably) and inspiration behind SOLI: Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
The members of SOLI could be making more money elsewhere, but they have dedicated their time and energy to South Texas and, they hope that as the city continues to get younger and seeks new ways of expression, SOLI’s popularity will only grow.
“I think it is possible for us to reach everyone in the city, said pianist Carolyn True as she began taking out her sheet music and running through her scales. “Once people come to our concert and check us out, get out of their comfort zone and experience something new, we know they will get a lot out of it.”
SOLI opens its season with two performances of “Past” which will include Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and San Antonio native Robert Xavier Rodríguez’ sultry Musica, por un Tiempo on Monday Oct. 14 at Gallery Nord and Tuesday Oct. 15 at the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall at Trinity University. Both performances will take place at 7 p.m. and tickets can be purchased on the SOLI website.
From there, their season continues with two performances of “Present” on Jan. 13 and 14 and “Future” on May 19 and 20.
If you would like more information on SOLI and their performance schedule check out the information here.
John Burnam is a nonprofit consultant currently working with San Antonio Christian Dental, Eyecare San Antonio, The Louise Batz Foundation for Bedside Advocacy, and The San Antonio Non-Profit Council. He works in patient safety, community health and well-being, and nonprofit development. He graduated with a degree in Classics and Art History from Trinity University and a Masters of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt before returning to SA last summer. Interested parties can learn more at: www.johnburnamconsulting.com.
(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group has performed consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony, where SOLI musicians also perform.)