Enter the World of Big Cats with
Nat Geo Photographer Steve Winter

We caught up with wildlife photojournalist Steve Winter, who is our guest for On the Trail of Big Cats, the first of four presentations in our new National Geographic Live speaker series, presented by the Houston Symphony, beginning October 25 at Jones Hall.

Your photography is stunning. Did you learn photography at the Academy of Art, or elsewhere? Also, who’s part of your photography team?
Most of my photography skills come from my father, starting when he bought my first camera at 7 years old. He really emphasized composition and looking at the masters of painting and lighting. In the field, I have an assistant and camera man. What I do is extremely complicated and time consuming regarding permits and various laws in countries all over the world.

How did you capture the photo of the mountain lion with the Hollywood sign in the background?
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a photograph of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign?” All those cats in Santa Monica need to find their own territory. Eight months later, I received a text and a colleague said, “You’re not going to believe this, but a bobcat study

A remote camera captures a radio collared cougar in Griffith Park.

A remote camera captures a radio collared cougar in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

team has remote trail cams up in Griffith Park County and they got a photo of a mountain lion.” Then, my goal was to find out how to put remote cameras in downtown Los Angeles without them getting stolen and to find a location that would be perfect for that image. It took 15 months for me to get that photograph because the Hollywood sign is not lit. That was a 4-second exposure with a flash.

What is your favorite country for photographing big cats?
Any place that’s easy to work is my favorite. I love India because I’ve spent a lot of time there working on tigers. However, India is a bureaucratic nightmare and they don’t allow people to stay on past 3-4 years so it depends on the director of the reserve or national park at that time. I need a director that will work with me and allow me to place remote cameras that work 24/7 while I’m photographing for other stories.

Tell us the story of how you captured the photo of the tiger and her cub.
I spent 24 days – many of them atop an elephant – trying to get that photo. The cubs were so young and they were shy. The elephant was an anti-poaching patrol elephant with mahout (elephant rider). The tiger mother had grown up with that mahout and elephant and she was totally calm – she would lay right at the base of it and I would have to put my

MM766 Tigers in Bandhavgarh Natl Park India

Mother tiger and her cub in
Bandhavgarh Nat’l Park, India.

feet up because she could be sitting down there nursing for hours. For that photo, the cub tentatively got up and I put my eye to the camera with a 600 mm lens to get the shot, and when I looked up the cub was gone again. I was so stressed about waiting more than three weeks to get one picture that I didn’t look at the back of the cameras for two hours. The one perfect frame ended up being the cover of the Tigers Forever book.

What have you least expected in your work with National Geographic?
I was a photojournalist who didn’t take a photo of an animal until I was 34 years old, so I least expected working with animals. It just didn’t enter into my mind when I was in school at University of San Francisco in the Academy of Art program. I wanted to walk dusty village streets that had exotic cultures and people that really excited me as a kid, so I never in a million years thought I’d be a wildlife photographer. The fact that I’m the “big cat guy” now is amazing.

What breeds of cats are native to Texas? Have you photographed any?
You all have pumas and everyone talks about the jaguar that’s in Arizona, but I’m sure you have some jaguars that come over from Arizona and across the Mexican border. You also have ocelot, a small spotted cat, but pumas, cougars, bobcats and jaguarundi would be the dominant predators.

Can you discuss causes are you most passionate about?
Stopping the trade in tigers. We have three main problems with endangered species right now – trading rhino horns, elephant ivory and tiger bone. We have 5,000 tigers in the United States and there’s only 3,500 in the wild. Many of those tigers are in Texas kept by private individuals. China has tiger farms and they say, “Why should we do anything with

A male tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park.

A male tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park

our tigers when you have as many in the states as we have?” They really have about 7-10,000. My wife and I had the Tiger Temple closed down, a tourism operation that was constantly accused of being part of the black market. It turns out they were. My wife never gave up and kept writing articles for Nat Geo, so the tiger temples were removed about 4 or 5 months ago. We actually have these animals for the future; there’s no way you can trade in tiger parts and not affect the wild population. Unfortunately, wild tiger bone and skins are often more valued than these farmed animals.

We read that you were once stalked by jaguars in Brazil. Can you talk a little about that memory?
I’ve been stalked by every big cat in the world! But that particular one was on the ranch where Teddy Roosevelt hunted jaguar in 1913. I went and saw the ranch because they said you could see a jaguar at dusk every day. There’s only one road on all these ranches because it’s the largest wetland in the world and in the distance I saw a jaguar. I got out of the pickup truck with a friend and we started walking, following this cat, and we got too close and when I looked up he was gone. That’s what jaguars do – if they see you, they will circle back around and he was sitting in the grass looking at us, waiting for us to come. When I finally saw him, he was only 12 feet away from me. I walked up a couple of steps closer to him so I could get his eyes looking at me through the tall grass. I couldn’t breathe, my heart was in my throat and the camera was shaking so badly I thought all of the photos would be blurry. But I got the opener to the first jaguar story in the history of National Geographic. That was incredible, but scary at the same time.

When I was doing my first Nat Geo history story, I was lying in bed one night and all of a sudden the stairs start creaking and I thought guys were coming to kill me. Then I heard

Steve Winter, photographer

Steve Winter, photographer

scratching and sniffing under the door and I’ve never been so scared in my life. I was there doing a story on a bird and that cat came to my door in a one-room shack on top of a mountain for one reason – I was the only person there and he just wanted to smell me. I whistled and that’s what got him to leave. I would walk back at night and all the hair on the back of my arms would stand up because we have a primeval part of our brains that knows we’re being stalked. I’d turn around and there was nothing there, but when I’d walk back, I’d see inside my tracks were the tracks of a jaguar. I called on the radio down the mountain and the naturalist said, “Oh, don’t worry; it’s just a black jaguar.” They didn’t want to scare me, but I saw it three weeks later when it actually came to where I was photographing. I marked my territory just like cats do and it went up the tree, bouncing across the branches. I didn’t get a photo of it.

What can audiences expect from your Big Cats presentation in Houston later this month?
The audience gets to go along with me in the field, see all these photographs I’ve taken and hear the stories behind them. I’ve had an incredible life doing something I’ve always wanted to do, even though my dream turned out completely different than what I thought it was going to be, which was photographing people. The lecture will have a lot of excitement, lots of laughs and take people on a great adventure that revolves around my experiences photographing jaguars, snow leopards, cougars and tigers.

Photos by Steve Winter

Posted in 2016-17 Season, Nat Geo Live | Leave a comment

Celebrating 50 Years in Jones Hall

The Houston Symphony has made its home in the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts since it opened on October 2, 1966.

Jesse H. Jones with President Franklin Roosevelt

Jesse H. Jones with President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Story Behind Jones Hall

Jones Hall is named after a man who financed extensive construction in downtown Houston, published the Houston Chronicle, and served in the Federal Government during the Great Depression in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation under Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, as the Federal Loan Administrator and then as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945.

Nobody knows more about Jesse H. Jones and his Hall than Steven Fenberg, the former historian of Houston Endowment, Jones’ philanthropic foundation, and author of a new book Remarkable Experiences, The Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts.

Fenberg traces the Symphony’s first performance in 1913 to a theater owned by Jones, the Majestic, where they remained for five seasons. Years later, Jones himself had the idea of replacing the Symphony’s home, the aging City Auditorium, though the project was completed under the co-direction of his widow and nephew.

To learn about the planning, construction and details of the building’s innovative architecture, read his insightful article in our latest In Tune magazine. We also include early details about future plans for the large-scale renovation of Jones Hall. You can pick up a copy of In Tune when you attend a concert, or read it any time online.

Listen to HPM’s Houston Matters interview of Steven Fenberg.

Listen to an earlier interview of Steven Fenberg and 50th Anniversary co-chair Alexandra Pruner with Houston P.A. host Laurent Fouilloud-Buyat, in his podcast here.

Don’t miss Fenberg discussing Edna Saunders, Houston’s influential arts impresaria, whose portrait hangs in the Green Room of Jones Hall.

Do You Remember 1966?

Transport back to the 1966 opening ceremonies, thanks to the wonderful unofficial online archive of the Houston Symphony Chorus. There you will find the digitized scrapbooks of local singer Lee Stevens, including items from the memorable Grand Opening events of October 2 and 3, 1966.

Jones Hall Grand Opening program

Jones Hall Grand Opening program.

You can see that weekend’s program listing the civic ceremony that officially made Jones Hall Houston’s property. You’ll also learn about the Symphony’s first concert in the new Hall.

The program listed events for the entire month, scheduled to celebrate Houston’s arts and the opening of this crowning performance space.

The scrapbooks include tickets, articles, photos and programs illuminating decades of Symphony and Chorus history. See the scrapbook.

Houston Symphony 100

Houston Symphony 100.

Houston Symphony History

To own a beautiful and comprehensive history of the Houston Symphony covering the opening of Jones Hall and going all the way back to the founding days of 1913, treat yourself to Houston Symphony 100: Celebrating a Century.

You can see selected highlights from our story in a historical timeline here on on our Web site.

Celebrate With Us

Acclaimed violinist, Itzhak Perlman

Violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Come celebrate our 50 years in Jones Hall on October 22 with a special performance featuring Andrés and the Orchestra, with acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Learn more.

Posted in 2016-17 Season, eNews Article, History Archives, Houston Symphony Chorus, Houston Symphony Magazine, Specials | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Haydn’s The Creation: The Sistine Chapel of Music

Joseph Haydn as painted by Thomas Hardy in 1791.

Joseph Haydn as painted by Thomas Hardy in 1791.

On September 29 and October 1 & 2, 2016, the Houston Symphony performs Haydn’s masterpiece, The Creation. Learn more about the concert here.

When it comes to grand choral works from the classical era, most symphony fans will immediately think of Mozart’s Requiem. Full of darkness, terror and passages of transcendent beauty, this is one of the few pieces of classical music that has become famous enough to crop up in mainstream pop culture every so often. While Mozart’s final, unfinished masterpiece certainly deserves its fame, it has perhaps overshadowed another great choral piece of the same era that in many respects is its polar opposite and equal: Haydn’s The Creation.

Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Haydn's The Creation tells the story of the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis.

Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Haydn’s The Creation tells the story of the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis.

Whereas Mozart’s Requiem is a pessimistic work focused on death and the end of the world, Haydn’s The Creation provides listeners with a radiant vision of the Genesis creation story similar to that depicted in Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Mozart’s Requiem is music of darkness; Haydn’s The Creation, of light. Indeed, one of the most famous moments of Haydn’s The Creation is when the chorus says, “and there was light.”

Haydn finished The Creation in 1798, nearly seven years after his friend Mozart’s death. Despite their age difference (Haydn was almost 24 years older than Mozart), the two composers had been lifelong friends who frequently took inspiration from each other’s music. They would often gather with other friends to play chamber music in Mozart’s apartment in Vienna, Mozart on viola and Haydn on violin. Mozart famously honored Haydn by dedicating a set of six groundbreaking string quartets to his avuncular musical mentor, writing “A father [Mozart] who had resolved to send his children [the string quartets] out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Haydn's longtime friend.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Haydn’s longtime friend.

Mozart may have even played a role in inspiring Haydn to compose The Creation. In 1789, Mozart produced a version of Handel’s Messiah with updated orchestrations. This may have been Haydn’s first exposure to Handel’s famous oratorio, which had been premiered in Dublin decades earlier and was still relatively unknown outside Britain. He certainly heard it and other oratorios by Handel during the celebrated trips to London he took after Mozart’s untimely death.

Handel defined the genre of oratorio for all composers who came after him. Oratorios were grand works for chorus, soloists and orchestra that told biblical stories through music. Haydn was greatly moved by Handel’s Messiah, and was determined to make his own contribution to the genre of oratorio. Any music lover who has enjoyed Handel’s Messiah will be delighted by Haydn’s The Creation; perhaps the main reason it is less famous is that The Creation has not been incorporated into any annual holiday tradition.

Haydn was a devoutly religious man; at the end of every score he finished he wrote “Laus Deo,” Latin for “praise be to God.” He himself saw The Creation as his greatest masterpiece, as the culmination of his life’s work as a composer. His depiction of the creation of the world, however, reflects the scriptural interpretations of contemporary Enlightenment era culture. Whatever one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), Haydn’s The Creation engages with fascinating philosophical ideas that remain as relevant as ever.

The Austrian Imperial Library, where Baron Gottfried van Swieten worked.

The Austrian Imperial Library, where Baron Gottfried van Swieten worked.

Many of these ideas are apparent in the text of The Creation. Unlike Mozart’s Requiem, which uses a traditional Latin text, or Handel’s Messiah, which draws directly from the Bible, Haydn’s The Creation uses an original text inspired by both the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The ultimate form of this text was fashioned by one of classical music’s most important patrons: Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Swieten was one of the great taste makers in music history; a patron of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he was also a pioneering champion of earlier composers like Handel and Bach. Indeed, it was he who commissioned Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah. A learned man who fought for education reform and served as Imperial Librarian for many years, Swieten worked closely with Haydn on The Creation, drawing on many cultural influences current at the time.

Consider, for instance, that The Creation does not start with a void of nothingness. Instead, it draws on classical Greco-Roman mythology, beginning with a depiction of Chaos to which God will bring order. This primordial chaos is depicted in the famous instrumental overture, which contains bold and unsettling harmonies that many commentators have seen as ahead of their time.

This uneasy, even disturbing atmosphere is only resolved with the entrance of human voices and the famous “and there was light” chorus. Though it is on the whole a profoundly optimistic work, Haydn’s The Creation isn’t just sunshine and smiles the whole way through: it contains the full spectrum of human emotions. For instance, one dramatic chorus inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the great war of heaven and the casting of Lucifer and the fallen angels into hell.

The Age of Enlightenment also saw increased interest in science and philosophy across Europe; many thinkers were fascinated by the study of nature and how it could help human society. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, for instance, famously argued that nature was fundamentally good and that human society needed to be reformed in accordance with natural law.

The Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel.

In this context, the Edenic paradise depicted in Haydn’s The Creation isn’t just a look back at a world that has been lost forever, but a reminder of the possibility humans have of living in harmony with nature. Haydn’s The Creation ends before the unfortunate business with the snake and the forbidden fruit. Instead, The Creation focuses on the wonder and beauty of the natural world, insisting that despite the problems of society, the world is fundamentally good, if only we strive to perfect ourselves and live in harmony with nature.

Today, in an era where the natural world is constantly under threat and violence frequently ravages communities both near and far, Haydn’s message of hope could not be timelier. Ultimately, however, it is the emotional power of his score that makes this one of the great masterpieces of music history. After a long career of composing over a hundred symphonies, dozens of string quartets, numerous operas, masses, concertos, sonatas and other pieces, Haydn knew the art of music as well as anyone ever had.

He poured all of his skill into this, the most ambitious project of his life. The music’s melodic inventiveness, originality and contrapuntal richness are dazzling; the orchestral writing is full of wit and color; the choruses full of grandeur and majesty; and the vocal solos truly soar. In the end, all of this musical genius serves to create a feeling of joy and optimism in listeners. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, it reminds us of the power of art to renew our appreciation of the world in which we live.

Hear Haydn’s The Creation live at the Houston Symphony! For tickets and more information, click here.

Posted in 2016-17 Season, Classical, Houston Symphony Chorus | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Future of Orchestral Music is Now

Victor Agudelo

Victor Agudelo, one of the winners of the Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition. 

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a composer? Picture a blank manuscript page, whether on a computer screen or old-fashioned paper, with endless sets of five lines marching across the page…empty. Now imagine filling that space with notations that define sounds, melodies, harmonies, dissonances and instrumental effects.

You must make thousands of decisions: Which instruments play when? How long is a note? How loud should it be played? How many instruments play at the same time? Will this music be fast and driving with spiky harmonies, or will it be lyrical and melodic? Will it use familiar harmonies, or will it explore new sound combinations? Is an instrument even capable of making the music you’ve written for it? Can a musician play that fast or will she end up in a twisted and tortured pile of flesh? Is there a story to the music, or is it a pure exercise in sound?

Imagine you are responsible for providing all of this musical information to 90 musicians in an orchestra, and somehow it all has to make sonic sense. Sounds pretty intimidating, right? Now you can begin to imagine the task of a composer writing for an orchestra.

Success as a composer definitely requires skill, talent, imagination, a point of view and perseverance. Then there are the factors of opportunity and luck. At least one of these factors—opportunity—is being provided by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony during the first Classical subscription concerts of this season.

Benjamin Krause

Benjamin Krause, Co-winner of the Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition

After sifting through 51 outstanding scores submitted by 40 composers associated with five universities in Houston, Bogotá and Medellín, Musical Ambassador/Assistant Conductor Carlos Andrés Botero and Senior Artistic Advisor Aurelie Desmarais selected four finalists. Andrés Orozco-Estrada then chose the two winning compositions: Pathways by Benjamin Krause (Shepherd School of Music, Rice University) and El Sombrerón by Victor Agudelo (Universidad EAFIT).

The composers will each have these works performed on the first half of the opening Classical series program on September 23, 24 and 25, 2016. The second half of the program is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1—impressive company for these young composers, if a bit daunting.

“I wanted to give a chance to young composers who have been studying and working very hard to have their music performed,” says Andrés. “One of the most important things for composers is to have their music played for as many people as many times as is possible. For the Houston Symphony’s Young Composer Competition, I chose to concentrate on supporting and rewarding the work of composers in three cities that have been very
important in my musical life: Medellín, Bogotá and Houston.”

Emerging composers from five music schools in these three cities, who are currently studying or have recently completed their studies, were invited to submit scores for consideration. The schools are Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and Universidad
Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia; Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia; and, in Houston, Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. The compositions would be between six and 12 minutes in length and
make use of an orchestra no larger than is being used for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Carlos Andrés Botero, who combed through thescores with Aurelie Desmarais, comments, “We were looking for pieces that are well-composed for the orchestra and have a point of view. As a young composer, you can concentrate so much on technique that the music sounds too academic. You can also be greatly influenced by music of other composers to the point your music sounds like theirs. We wanted to discover a composer who is developing his or her own voice—someone who writes original music with something fresh to say.”

Both composers will attend rehearsals as well as performances of their pieces in September. They will each receive a composition encouragement prize of $5,000 and, if the sheet music of their piece hasn’t been professionally printed, they will receive a full set of orchestra parts.

Aurelie, who works closely with the Symphony’s music director to select guest conductors, guest artists and repertoire for the Classical season, believes in the importance of performing music of today. “It’s wonderful to hear music written in this century. That it is influenced by what is happening in today’s culture can be very energizing. More and more, audiences are searching for genuine musical experiences that are relevant to them, whether the music was written in the last decade or 128 years ago, as was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.”

Andrés will speak with both composers during the performances to learn about them and their hopes for the music the audience will hear. Although both pieces have been performed by orchestras, this will be the first time the Houston Symphony and Andrés will turn their artistry to this music. This is all in the hopes of discovering and supporting orchestral repertoire for the future. Perhaps the Houston Symphony is playing the music of the next great composer. After all, even John Adams, Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Mahler were at one time in the position of these young composers.

Join us at Jones Hall to venture into the future of orchestral music, courtesy of the winners of the first Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition, September 23, 24, 25, 2016.


Posted in 2016-17 Season, Classical, Composers | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cushney Roberts Tells the Story of Motown

Spectrum will appear with the Houston Symphony as part of our The Men of Motown concert this July at Jones Hall.

Spectrum will appear with the Houston Symphony as part of our The Men of Motown concert this July at Jones Hall.

On July 16, the Houston Symphony presents The Men of Motown Featuring Spectrum, a concert celebrating the rich musical legacy of some of Motown’s greatest artists. Headlining the concert will be the vocal ensemble Spectrum, one of the best Motown-style ensembles around. Spectrum vocalist Cushney Roberts took some time to share a bit of the remarkable history behind this music.

Well into the 1950s, music recordings by American black artists were classified as “race” records and were typically forbidden or severely restricted from radio airplay on “white” stations. Many of the songs were rerecorded, or covered, by white artists who often prospered from broader airplay and sales while the original artists struggled. Perhaps most notably, songs by Fats Domino and Little Richard were covered by Pat Boone (“Ain’t That a Shame,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”); Big Momma Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was covered by Elvis Presley; and The Beatles covered Chuck Berry, the Marvelettes and Little Richard with “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “Long Tall Sally,” respectively.

Since airwaves cannot be controlled, white audiences first heard these “forbidden” tunes on black-oriented radio programs. The demand grew, and white-orientated stations were pressured into playing recordings by the black artists. The “crossovers” moved into an arena where a larger, more lucrative audience awaited.

Spectrum I RCCL WR promo 2

“Groomed at Motown’s finishing school, well-mannered young black performers thrilled audiences with their flashy, yet classy, costumes and exquisite choreography.”

Paralleling the era of segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, named for Detroit: Motor City. He envisioned a style and presentation of music that would capture the attention of all of America’s youth. By tapping into a deep pool of talented young performers, writers, musicians and producers, he mined great songs and presented them to an eager public. Groomed at Motown’s finishing school, well-mannered young black performers thrilled audiences with their flashy, yet classy, costumes and exquisite choreography.

Once on the airwaves, the music took root, and the cornerstone of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s Vietnam and Civil Rights era found its place in American history. The Motown sound shared top rankings on the American pop charts with America’s British Invasion, while it made its mark on Britain and beyond. Gordy’s acts made regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and numerous TV specials.

An American institution and unique musical and entrepreneurial phenomenon, Motown stands as a shining example of a merger of American ingenuity and talent.

–Cushney Roberts

Don’t miss Cushney Roberts and Spectrum perform the Music of Motown at our concert on July 16! Click here for tickets and more information.

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