The SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Courtesy photo.
The SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Courtesy photo.

SOLI Chamber Ensemble will kick off its 21st season on Dec. 1 with a bang as the group puts on its first concert, “HEAR, as the newly appointed Chamber Ensemble in residence at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

As the group begins a whole new adventure in its home at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, its first performance will echo this move by connecting the audience to musical influences from across the globe while challenging their understanding of what it means to be classical music.

“With influences as far-reaching as India, Mexico, and the 1960s, ‘HEAR’ transports audiences to whole new worlds with each work. We have young composers and really well-established composers all represented within the same concert,” said Ertan Torgul, violinist and SOLI managing director. “It takes you to different places and to different eras.”

Comprised of Torgul, Clarinetist Stephanie Key, Cellist David Mollenauer, and Pianist Dr. Carolyn True, SOLI has pushed the barriers of contemporary chamber music since its inception. While traditional chambers play at the audience, SOLI has always worked to break down the invisible wall that separates the performers from the crowd.

Members of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble (from left) Stephanie Key, Ertan Torgul, Carolyn True, David Mollenauer. Courtesy photo.
Members of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble (from left) Stephanie Key, Ertan Torgul, Carolyn True, David Mollenauer. Courtesy photo.

“A great example of this can be found in our ‘Dance Party‘ program from a few years back. We served wine, put on a light and laser show with visual elements in the background, and played a variety of chamber pieces that covered everything from rap to Radiohead. While the elements themselves were great, the audience was also encouraged to drink and join us in cheering on the works.”

Interactive elements like the ones found in “Dance Party” are what make SOLI unique in the chamber scene and have earned it accolades, such as the recent 2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award for its efforts to make music and commission new works.

“Altogether, we’ve commissioned over 40 new works since we began 20 years ago, many of which have highlighted local San Antonio composers,” said Key, who plays clarinetist for SOLI Chamber Ensemble, assistant principal clarinetist for the San Antonio Symphony, and a member of the Houston Ballet Orchestra.

While SOLI certainly performs selections and pieces from historical composers like Beethoven and Mozart, it spends an equal amount of time exploring the contemporary state of music, often choosing pieces that force the audience to examine the instrumentation in a different way. In “Future,” the final performance of last season, Stephanie teamed up with local composer Fulbright Scholar and live electronics specialist Yvonne Freckmann in a piece entitled “Switch,” in which a reverberation function was played alongside the clarinet, producing a melody which was intended to produce the sound of a clarinet having a conversation with itself.

It isn’t just the chamber music that makes SOLI adventurous, either. The very composition of the instrumentation often leads it to uncharted waters in the music world.

“Although it is more common now than it used to be, the combination of instruments from three different families is a relatively new concept in the world of classical music and probably fewer than 1% of all chamber groups are composed of a cello, clarinet, violin, and piano,” Torgul said.

The uniqueness of this performance style and compilation is meant to invite a new audience into the classical world, and the attempts to bring a new generation of listeners is most readily seen in SOLI’s performance schedule, which includes everything from art galleries, where the audience engages with the ensemble while lounging on pillows, to SXSW.

The SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Courtesy photo.
The SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Courtesy photo.

When I asked them what they thought contributed to their exploratory style in a field of music that is often antiquated by its very nature, the members of the ensemble talked about their friendships off the stage.

“We have learned so much about each other over the years – we can finish each other’s thoughts, sentences, order for each other, breathe together, but still laugh at each other’s jokes and learn immensely from each other,” Key said. We are truly an extended family. But it is also a really good thing that David and I like each other (the two are married), as we spend a lot of time together! Playing together adds a special element to our relationship that is unique. The four of us really do like each other, which is not always the case with chamber ensembles. With SOLI, we each bring our own flavor and ideas to the mix, blending them together to form something that is uniquely SOLI.”

According to Torgul, it also helps that SOLI dinner parties are legendary. “In my spare time, I really like to cook, and since David is sommelier, we always have great wines paired with every meal. I’d say we are pretty well-rounded in our pleasure taking.”

And like an old married couple, the group has even been forced to implement a rule when it comes work discussions. “Because we all work together and three of us used to work for the Symphony, work conversations could get heated. Fortunately, we implemented a five-minute rule that forced us to move on to something more interesting,” Torgul said.

While SOLI has spent so much time together that its members are seldom surprised with anything that happens on stage, all of that has the potential to be thrown out the window this Monday and Tuesday as the group sets to perform Terry Riley‘s revolutionary work “In C,” an open-scored work for any instrumentation.

“This piece is going to be amazing,” Key said. “Because it is open-scored, we’ve invited anyone in the audience who plays an instrument to join us on stage. We’ve already had one rehearsal and expect about 50 musicians to participate.”

‘C’ takes the idea of collaboration to a whole new level. It creates this pattern that is never duplicated in any other performance because you could never do the same thing ever again, and we are going to have all sorts of instruments present, including a ukulele, euphonium, and I think even a harp,” Torgul said.

For those interested in attending either the performance at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts or Dec. 2 at Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, visit The Tobin Center Box Office for more details. A double CD release party will be held directly after the Tobin concert.

*Featured/top image: The SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Courtesy photo.

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John Burnam is the co-founder and principal of Burnam | Gray, a nonprofit consulting firm that seeks to help agencies ignite and scale best practices.