Big Brothers Big Sisters at the Houston Symphony


Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Jenna Barghouti (violin) chats with two of the unmatched "littles" from Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Jenna Barghouti (violin) chats with two of the unmatched “littles” from Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Big Brothers Big Sisters brought some very special guests for the Houston Symphony’s “A Frosty & Frozen Christmas” Family Concert on Saturday, December 12 at Jones Hall. A mentoring network, Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”) in the Houston area. Before the concert, unmatched “Littles” and their families enjoyed a breakfast reception sponsored by the Houston Symphony and Macquarie.

The balcony lobby of Jones Hall was full of excitement during the breakfast reception. Throughout the event, Houston Symphony volunteers helped the children make crafts. The highlight of the event was a “meet & greet” with the Houston Symphony’s four Community-Embedded Musicians. Children of all ages were awe-struck as they interacted with Jenna Barghouti (violin), David Connor (double bass), Anthony Parce (viola) and Hellen Weberpal (cello).

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman and Community-Embedded Musician David Connor pose with Joshua after the concert.

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman and Community-Embedded Musician David Connor pose with Joshua after the concert.

The breakfast reception and Houston Symphony concert turned out to be an extra special treat for one unmatched little named Joshua. Joshua, who plays the double bass in his school, has attended several Houston Symphony concerts at the Woodlands but rarely is able to make the trip to Jones Hall. Joshua remembered meeting Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman at one of the Woodlands concerts and was eager to reconnect with him. He was also thrilled to meet Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician and double bassist David Connor. After the concert, both Robin and David met Joshua in the lobby of Jones Hall to talk about playing the bass and what it’s like to play in the Houston Symphony. “I really enjoyed the performance today and want to thank Big Brothers Big Sisters for letting me go and allowing me to see my friend Robin and my new friend Dave,” Joshua says. “I was really excited to see them, seeing as I’m a double bass player too.”

If you liked this story, you can help support these and many other Houston Symphony performances and activities. To make a gift, visit You can also get involved and help mentor unmatched “littles” like Joshua through Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston. Stay inspired and happy holidays!

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Making Spirits Bright: Bringing Music to Our Community

The Houston Symphony's Community-Embedded Musicians at Crespo Elementary School preparing to accompany the winter student production of Mulan.

The Houston Symphony’s Community-Embedded Musicians at Crespo Elementary School preparing to accompany the winter student production of Mulan.

At the Houston Symphony, nothing gives us more joy than sharing the music we love, and as an organization we are committed to sharing music with as many people in our community as we possibly can. This means that in addition to our busy concert schedule, our musicians are out and about all over Houston visiting schools, community centers, retirement homes and many other gathering places where they play music and teach people about the incredible richness of the orchestral tradition. Many people we reach through our community activities have never been to a Houston Symphony concert before and are discovering the music we bring to them for the first time. This holiday season, we wanted to share with you just a few of the experiences our musicians have had this past fall. If you like what you read, please share this article to help spread the word to bring a Symphony experience to your school and community!

Houston Symphony Musicians in Schools

The benefits of music in education are well known, and Houston Symphony musicians engage students in a wide variety of activities throughout Greater Houston. When our musicians visit schools, they inspire music students and hone their technical skills. Associate Principal Double Bass David Malone recently completed the second of five coaching sessions that will take place this year with Memorial High School double bass students in Pasadena ISD, helping them problem solve phrasings, fingerings, positions and practice techniques.

Houston Symphony musicians interact with students at Cypress Springs High School.

Houston Symphony musicians interact with students at Cypress Springs High School.

The Houston Symphony is also partnering with eight Houston area high schools this year as part of our High School Residencies program, in which Houston Symphony musicians visit music students monthly, providing insight and practice techniques for music that the students are currently playing. As part of this program, Principal Oboist Jonathan Fischer, Principal Second Violinist Sophia Silivos, Associate Principal Violist Joan DerHovsepian, and Associate Principal Cellist Christopher French also performed works by Mozart, Britten and Dotzauer for orchestra students at Cypress Springs High School. Co-Concertmaster Eric Halen, violinist Tong Yan, violist Sheldon Person and Principal Cello Brinton Averil-Smith also performed string quartets by Schubert and Ravel for students at Pasadena’s Sam Rayburn High School—another Houston Symphony High School Residency. Throughout the performance the students were in awe of the communication among the musicians and of their flawless technique. They also enjoyed hearing the musicians share stories about their musical development throughout their student years and professional careers.

Community-Embedded Musicians at Crespo Elementary School

Since launching our unique and innovative Community-Embedded Musician (CEM) program this fall, our four CEMs have been busy visiting many diverse communities throughout the greater Houston area. One of their most frequent destinations is Crespo Elementary School, where our new and exciting Houston Symphony School Residency at Crespo Elementary presented by BBVA Compass is well underway. With biweekly visits, the residency program at Crespo Elementary is our most in-depth partnership with a school yet, reaching approximately 420 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

Community-Embedded Musician Anthony Parce plays a student's composition.

Community-Embedded Musician Anthony Parce plays a student’s composition.

Recently, these students composed their very first pieces of music! Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians Tony Parce and David Connor introduced a unique rhythmic composition model to the students, who quickly learned to create and read rhythms. Not only did the students create and interpret works in front of the class, they got to premiere their friends’ new pieces. In the words of one of the 4th-grade students, “We’re going to be famous composers!” Thanks to our Presenting Sponsor, BBVA Compass and the BBVA Compass Foundation for making it possible.

For the first time ever, our CEMs also provided Crespo Elementary with live music for its winter student production this month. CEMs Jenna Barghouti (violin), Tony Parce (viola), Hellen Weberpal (cello) and David Connor (bass) enhanced the recorded soundtrack of this year’s production of Mulan. The quartet also brought a special intermission performance to the Crespo audience with lively Chinese Folk Songs by Zhou Long. The Houston Symphony is thrilled to have supported the Crespo community by participating in the Mulan production as part of the Houston Symphony residency at Crespo Elementary presented by BBVA Compass and the BBVA Compass Foundation.

Concerts at Jones Hall and Beyond

You may be familiar with our David Dewhurst Student Concert Series, in which students take field trips to Jones Hall to experience educational orchestral concerts that incorporate the curriculum they are learning in school. So far this year, over 35,000 students have come to one of our thirteen Student Concerts, twelve of which were at Jones Hall.

Twin sisters enjoy a free holiday concert at The Church Without Walls.

Twin sisters enjoy a free holiday concert at The Church Without Walls.

You may not realize that Houston Symphony musicians also perform at community venues throughout Houston. Recently, Tina Zhang (violin), Kurt Johnson (violin), Fay Shapiro (viola) and Kevin Dvorak (cello) performed a holiday program of works by Vivaldi, Dvořák and Corelli at Holly Hall Retirement Center, Brookdale Heights and The Buckingham Retirement Center. The entire orchestra also gave a free holiday concert with the CityWide Grassroots Chorus at The Church Without Walls (Queenston Campus) attended by approximately 3,000 people.

This holiday season, you can help support these and many other Houston Symphony performances and activities. To make a gift, visit Stay inspired and happy holidays!

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Kirill Gerstein Can Play with One Hand Tied Behind His Back!*

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, virtuoso pianist and long-time friend of the Houston Symphony, returns on January 22–24 to perform a program with Andrés and the orchestra that includes Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. We spoke with Kirill recently to welcome him back to Houston.

Houston Symphony Magazine: What is special to you about Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand?

Kirill Gerstein: It’s a wonderful piece that is perhaps not heard as often as many in the repertoire. It’s also a very different kind of Ravel than the Piano Concerto in G major, which I played with the Houston Symphony in 2010. Also, it’s in a special section of the repertoire, in that the piece is written for the left hand. Ravel really killed the competition in this arena, so to speak, because it’s such a masterpiece. It’s so cleverly written with how the orchestra and the piano are combined, and how it demonstrates the virtuosity that is possible with one hand. And I think, for various reasons, it’s one of Ravel’s darkest and most raw pieces, because often Ravel appeared like a precise Swiss watchmaker, where everything is perfectly in its place, perfectly masterful, and perfectly poised and beautiful. This is one of several of his pieces where the raw emotion and the darkness, as well as the triumphs, come through in a more open way.

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

HSM: You happen to be left-handed, is that correct?

KG: Yes, but it really is of little help or difference in this case. More than being left or right handed by nature, I think that the training or conditioning that the repertoire provides us as pianists—the two-handed repertoire—is more crucial developmentally. I think the majority, if not every, pianist you speak to is going to have a very developed right hand because of the accent that the repertoire normally puts on that hand. The right hand is the one that does a lot of the visible virtuosic playing. But then, of course, hopefully every virtuosic pianist you speak with has equally developed hands. But it does take some extra work, in my opinion, to play with one hand alone, regardless of which hand that is. I didn’t find that my natural left-handedness made that much of a difference or gave much of an advantage in the performance of this piece.

HSM: Is there anything in particular you would like the audience to listen for in your performance of the concerto?

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

KG: I think I’d like to say no. That would be limiting and imposing on the audience. But in fact, I am very curious as to what the audience would hear. Somebody might pay mention to the clear influence of jazz in the music, and somebody might hear the beautiful melody of the second theme, and somebody might be taken by the virtuosity of the cadenza. So there’s really a lot to hear, and I think that a suggestion of what to listen for comes at the expense of the freedom and the fantasy for the listener’s ear. I would like to leave that to the audience.

HSM: You’ve been a friend of the Houston Symphony for quite a while now. Most recently, you were here to celebrate our tribute to Rachmaninoff—Rach Fest—in 2012, and you also helped select the Steinway piano that was a Centennial gift from the Houston Symphony League in 2013. This month’s visit marks your seventh performance with the Houston Symphony in a Classical subscription concert. What is it about Houston that attracts you?

KG: Houston is one of the orchestras I’ve been friends with for the longest part of my career. I remember playing there for the first time in the summer of 2004 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. I’ve played there many times with my good friend Hans Graf, as well as with several guest conductors. It’s actually very enjoyable, the way the musical relationship develops when you come several times, when you already know the people in the orchestra personally and musically. That’s a special feeling and, of course, I think there’s more musical trust when you have known each other for longer and have made music with different repertoire. Also, I always found the audience very friendly and open, and that’s the other crucial component. It’s a very enjoyable collaboration, and I always look forward to returning. It’s also fascinating to see the art of development over the years and how the organization and the orchestra change and evolve in an organic and continuous way. That is interesting for me to observe.

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

HSM: Have you performed with Andrés previously?

KG: No, this will actually be my first time. This is a special thing for me about this visit to Houston. We’re also going to be playing together with the Cleveland Orchestra, but that’s a few months from now, so this will be my first meeting with him.

HSM: We’re fortunate that a couple of weeks after you perform with the Houston Symphony, you’ll be returning to Houston for the International Piano Festival on February 5–7 at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.

KG: That’s correct. I’ll be playing a program that concentrates on fantasy in one way or another. The idea is to explore what composers call fantasy. Very often, I think it’s when the creative spirit takes them to places that don’t fit into some formal shape or genre. The composers use the word fantasy to describe these pieces, which are in this way the wildest children of the composers.

Don’t miss Kirill Gerstein with the Houston Symphony January 22, 23, 24, 2016! Get tickets and more information here.

*It is unlikely that Kirill Gerstein will actually tie his right hand behind his back for these performances, but he certainly won’t use it to play a single note!

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Jennifer Rivera Talks Handel’s Messiah

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera is one of the most dynamic personalities in opera and classical music today: her multifaceted career includes not only a busy schedule of international performances, but also blogging, arts advocacy and arts administration. Recently, I got to ask her a few questions in advance of her upcoming performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Houston Symphony this weekend.

Calvin Dotsey: Handel’s Messiah is one of the oldest pieces to have an uninterrupted presence in the standard repertoire—it has been regularly performed since its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Why do you think this piece is so enduring?

Jennifer Rivera: It’s interesting because while Handel’s operas fell out of the repertoire for many years, Messiah has always remained a part of everyone’s holiday presentations. I think the reason Messiah is so enduring is the same reason people are now rediscovering and loving hearing his operas—Handel has a gift for creating drama within melody, which is important even in an oratorio. The Messiah pieces are very emotionally compelling along with being just beautiful and exciting. That combined with the fact that people love to hear something familiar around the holidays makes the piece something we enjoy year after year.

CD: Handel wrote you a great part in Messiah. What do you think your voice brings to this part? Do you have any favorite numbers, and if so, why?

JR: I love “He was despised.” It’s so intense and well crafted—so often oratorio pieces, especially sacred oratorio pieces, don’t feel particularly dramatic. Handel had such a gift for creating dramatically compelling music. I think that each person brings his or her own artistry to these particular pieces, and I think the fact that I have performed a lot of Handel’s operas means I bring a lot of dramatic intention to the dramatic pieces.

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

CD: When did you first begin singing? What inspired you to pursue a career as an opera singer?

JR: I started taking lessons when I was nine years old because I was performing in local musical theater and didn’t want to ruin my voice by “belting.” I ended up with a legit voice teacher who had sung opera, and she began teaching me true technique at that tender age. It could have gone horribly wrong, but she was a very good, careful teacher, and I liked developing the extremes of my range even as a kid. I didn’t know much about the career part of opera, but I knew that I liked exploring the whole range and dynamic capabilities of the voice, and that’s what lead me to classical singing.

CD: In addition to singing, you are also an active writer and blogger and have frequently contributed to publications like The Huffington Post. What inspires you to write? What do you want people to know about the music you sing?

JR: I started writing mostly as an outlet for communicating with people when I was alone on the road, but it has developed into more arts advocacy as I’ve gotten further along into writing. I started trying to talk to people about opera through my articles in ways that wouldn’t intimidate them and would allow them a window into what we do both through the insider’s perspective but also by highlighting my love for the art form and all I think it has to offer. I hope I can encourage people who might think opera or classical music isn’t for them to give it a chance because I truly believe music can be transformative, and I don’t want anyone to miss out.

George Frederick Handel, c. 1726–1728

George Frederick Handel as depicted by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726–1728.

CD: If someone who loves Handel’s Messiah wanted to discover more music similar to it, what would you recommend?

JR: As I mentioned above, Handel’s operas have started to come back into the standard repertory, and I’m so glad because they are some of my personal favorite operas. There are so many to choose from, but one of my absolute favorites of his operas is definitely Agrippina, which has such incredible music and is smart and even funny. (And I happen to be on one of the recordings of Agrippina!) Recently I sang in a very underperformed opera called Faramondo from his later catalogue – I wondered since it has been so forgotten whether it would be great – and it was! Some incredibly amazing virtuosic, dramatic music.

CD: What do you like to do when you aren’t practicing, performing, or traveling to your next engagement? 

JR: I have a son who turns three this month. That answers all of the above questions. :) Actually, I also have a position at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City as Director for Artistic Development, and when I’m not performing, learning music, writing or spending time with my son, I am fundraising and helping to produce contemporary operas because I’m very passionate about contemporary opera as a wonderful way for new audiences to experience opera.

Don’t miss Jennifer Rivera in Handel’s Messiah at the Houston Symphony December 18, 19 & 20, 2015! Get tickets and more info here. Learn more about our performance at Sugar Land Baptist Church on December 17 here.

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Reginald Smith Jr. Wishes You a Very Merry Pops!

Reginald Smith Jr. will sing with the Houston Symphony at our 2015 Very Merry Pops concerts.

Reginald Smith Jr. will sing with the Houston Symphony at our 2015 Very Merry Pops concerts.

Baritone Reginald Smith Jr. has had a busy 2015: he has traveled to Russia and across the United States for opera and concert performances and was also a winner of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the world’s most prestigious opera singing competitions (past winners have included Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson and many other stars of the world’s opera stages). Despite his busy schedule, this charming and down-to-earth Atlanta native and current Houston resident found time to answer a few questions about his upcoming performances with the Houston Symphony. At this weekend’s Very Merry Pops holiday concerts, Mr. Smith will treat us to his rendition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well as other favorite Christmas songs.

Calvin Dotsey: We all know the classic song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What’s the secret to singing it really well? 

Reginald Smith Jr.: You know, the big secret to singing the song is simply… sing the song! Everyone knows it. If you try to get overly animated with the song, you can sometimes lose the pure Grinchiness that is already so wonderfully written in. So, for me, the key is to really sing and enjoy each and every word of this holiday classic. It has always been one of my favorites, and I am so excited to sing it this year with the Houston Symphony!

Reginald Smith Jr. rehearsing "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with Michael Krajewski and the Houston Symphony.

Reginald Smith Jr. rehearsing “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Michael Krajewski and the Houston Symphony.

CD: You are a recent alumnus of the HGO Studio, so you have been living in Houston for a while. Do you have any favorite spots in our fair city? 

RS: Houston has so many hidden gems. I am very fortunate that I live close to one them! In the mornings, when the air is still crisp and the sun is rising, I love to take a walk along Buffalo Bayou. It is stunningly beautiful, incredibly relaxing, and on some rare occasions, one can see the ducks and turtles playing in the water. It is remarkable that I can enjoy all of these things in the middle of a major metropolis such as Houston.

CD: When did you first start singing? 

RS: Well, I began singing at an early age. I am so very fortunate to have grown up in a musical household. My mother sings gospel and was the church choir director when I was growing up, so my brothers, sisters and I quickly became the core of the choir. Even to this day when we gather as a family, we will still sit around and sing gospel music together as a family. It is always a highlight of my trips home.

CD: When did you know you wanted to pursue singing as a career?

RS: Interestingly enough, before ever wanting to sing for a living, I always wanted to be an educator. I unapologetically and unashamedly often admit to being a “choir nerd.” I love choral music and choral works. Consequently, besides having a degree in Vocal Performance, I also have a degree in Choral Music Education (K-12). Although I love teaching and working with young students, I really made the decision to pursue a career in performing during my collegiate studies. I think it has been a good choice so far.

Reginald Smith Jr. posing with the four other winners of the 2015 Metropolitan National Council Auditions.

Reginald Smith Jr. posing with the four other winners of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

CD: You recently won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. What was that experience like?

RS: The experience at the Metropolitan Opera was exhilarating! It seemed almost like a dream. Imagine, one day you are in your cozy apartment in Houston; the next day you are at the Metropolitan Opera and Maestro Placido Domingo passes you in the hallway. Come on, how awesome is that?! The people were so amazing to each of the finalists, and we all got along so well. It was truly an extraordinary experience. It is a memory that I will have forever.

CD: What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you while performing?

RS: When I was in high school, I sang with a fantastic community chorus for high school students. We came from all over the city of Atlanta and were a select group of about 30 kids. The big concert of the year was always the alumni holiday concert, and one year, I happened to be a soloist. As I began to sing my solo, I felt a buzz in my pocket. Then, a strange noise soon followed. I saw people in the audience look around with disapproving scowls at the sound of what was clearly a cell phone that had not been turned off. As everyone looked around to see who didn’t turn off, I realized that I was the culprit all along! Yep, my cell phone was ringing in my pocket on stage while I was singing the solo. Absolutely mortified, I slowly and discreetly slipped my hand in my pocket and turned it off without anyone noticing. After that experience, I always turn my phone off before every rehearsal and performance and don’t take it with me. (Paige, if you are reading this, I’ve finally admitted all these years later that it was me!)

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski leading the orchestra in rehearsal for Very Merry Pops.

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski leading the orchestra in rehearsal for Very Merry Pops.

CD: You will be sharing the Jones Hall stage with St. Nick himself during our Very Merry Pops concerts. If you could ask Santa for anything for Christmas, what would you ask for?

RS: Well, growing up I was always taught that it is better to give than to receive. Even to this day, I never expect presents, but I always wish for others to be safe and happy. That being said, I do think that one of those little hover boards would be fun. Maybe I will ask Santa to get one for my nieces and nephews. Then, I’ll be helping others… and I can just try it out on Christmas!

CD: What do you like to do when you aren’t practicing, performing or traveling to your next concert?

RS: One of my favorite things to do is cook! I like to cook and try new recipes. In college, I would often have friends over to my place for “Dinner and a Disney” (because I love animated Disney movies too! #NoShame). When I am travelling, it is not always the case that you have the luxury of a kitchen. So, I try to take advantage of that when I am home. I love to catch up with friends, relax and cook some down home Southern cooking. Y’all should come on by!

Don’t miss Very Merry Pops with special guest artist Reginald Smith Jr. December 11, 12, & 13, 2015! For tickets and more information, click here.

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