If you happened to visit the H-E-B Plus store at Loop 1604 and Blanco Road Thursday afternoon, you might have been surprised to hear a pause in the piped-in country music, and the sudden sound of live violins.
A small “flash mob” of four Classical Music Institute (CMI) musicians appeared on the scene around 2 p.m. to wander the aisles and bring classical music directly to the people of San Antonio.
“The thing is, we’re trying something different,” said Donald Mason, CMI’s new executive director, during an interview the day prior. Mason arrived to the nonprofit organization in November to lead what he called an already thriving group into a new era of maximized potential, including unorthodox methods like the impromptu H-E-B concert. “That’s important to us, making classical music accessible for all.”
Though the flash mob idea predated Mason’s arrival, he said he’s all for finding new ways to reach potential audiences and students. His plans for the organization include growing the current summer education program to a year-round schedule, moving from the smaller Carlos Alvarez Theater at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to the main H-E-B Performance Hall to bolster audiences, and one day move CMI into its own building.
“We do need to think big, but make sure that we can actually reach those goals. But don’t stop dreaming big,” Mason said. A closer dream for the organization is international travel for CMI’s regular troupe of musicians and students.
With musicians hailing from 10 countries and San Antonio’s 11 sister cities, CMI is well-placed to expose students to the larger world.
“I see some visioning of us going international, doing the education piece in San Antonio, but then taking it out to the world, literally,” he said, “getting some experience for the kids and learning some music styles from other [countries].”
Last year during its annual summer education program, open to Bexar County students ages 8 to 18, the two-week program served 85 students, 83 of whom received at least partial scholarships. For the 2020 program, Mason said he hopes to expand to 115 students, including more scholarship potential to help lower-income students.
“We don’t want that student to feel like they can’t access the program because of the cost barrier,” he said. “My growth model is trying to get more community members engaged [by] sponsoring students.”
Though only one student from San Antonio Independent School District schools attended the 2019 program, Mason hopes to partner with the district to attract many more students, part of a long-range strategy to build the summer program into a year-round school.
Eventually, he said, his big dreams for CMI include a new, stand-alone headquarters, to house a recital hall for performances, administration offices, and classrooms for the expanded education program.
The CMI schedule of public concerts, like the Reflections and Remembrances program Feb. 22 featuring a world premiere by composer Ronald Villabona, will remain an essential component, Mason said.
“It’s important that we have our performance side, to showcase these international performers,” he said of CMI musicians and guest performers, “to show the kids that this is what it’s like to be a professional at the top of your game.” Then to be taught by those same professionals is inspiring for students, he said.
The H-E-B flash mob, a first for CMI, is just one piece of the larger goal, Mason said. “However we can spread CMI and make it accessible, then that will grow more students, that will grow more attendance at our concerts, and hopefully we’ll keep expanding.”
For the moment, 21-year-old Mikayla Cone said she’ll consider attending Saturday’s concert. Cone was caught by surprise while shopping at H-E-B for her mother’s birthday and followed violinist Sumire Hirotsuru from the gift cards section to the produce aisles to hear the assembled troupe play Mozart’s popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, as board member Genaro Solis-Rivero handed out CMI brochures.
“This is amazing,” Cone said. “I’m really pleasantly surprised. I feel like I got a free concert.”