Image: Ben Doyle

There’s an action-packed event Sunday evening at the MATCH, and it doesn’t involve football or commercials.  Known for their visceral, dynamic music-making on stage, Houston’s conductorless ensemble, Kinetic, returns to the stage to perform four works for chamber ensemble and orchestra in their first concert of 2019, “American Spaces.”

“We've definitely gotten more ambitious in our programming,” says Natalie Lin, violinist and founder of the group, reflecting on the evolution of KINETIC since their first season in 2015.  “I think everyone enjoys the challenge of seeing what repertoire we’re able to explore in the conductorless format and the potential for collaboration.” 

This program features J.S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 7, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite in the Old Style. Award-winning quintet Windsync and Houston Symphony horn player Robert Johnson will join Kinetic musicians on stage for the Stravinsky and Villa-Lobos.  “Robert Johnson collaborated with us last year on Britten, and we played with Windsync in 2017,” Lin says. “We're really excited to have them back—they share a lot of the values that we have in Kinetic and bring the kind of energy we can relate to.” 

Lin initially founded the 16-member string ensemble as part of a project for her doctoral degree, but it rapidly gained traction beyond the hedges of Rice, and now, three full concert seasons later, Kinetic has firmly established themselves in the Houston music scene. Playing without a conductor is challenging, Lin says, but breaking away from the hierarchical format of the traditional orchestra model has allowed for versatility as well as a fresh kind of synergy on stage.

“You’ll notice we stand when we play—it gives us a lot of range of motion, and permission to move freely to cue and gesture to one another,” she says. “For the audience watching that translates to a show that’s much more dynamic than the typical chamber or orchestral concert.”

Windsyc joins Kinetic for portions of the program.

Each of the pieces in “American Spaces” is connected to a narrative or impression of a location, and Lin says the program showcases both the intimate side of chamber music as well as the full-size ensemble. Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 7 is scored for a smaller group, and it’s a highly textural piece: surging wind melodies are sequenced with syncopated rhythms pulled from dances like the habanera, Brazilian tango, and polka. “It takes us to the street music of Brazil and South America— connecting us to the Americas in a broader sense,” Lin says.

If you’ve never heard of Dumbarton Oaks, it’s a lush hilly estate north of the Potomac in Washington, D.C, and its owners commissioned Stravinsky to capture the place. The form reflects the pristine, curated landscape of the estate gardens. It’s intricate, wildly rhythmic and percussive, and an example of Stravinsky’s artful, often darkly witty neoclassical style. “Stravinsky was listening to a lot of Bach during that time, and a lot of people have commented on the similarities between this work and Bach’s third Bradenburg Concerto,” Lin explains.

The ensemble will be performing the latter to open the concert, and they’re concluding it with Schoenberg’s Suite in the Old Style for string orchestra, which he composed after immigrating to Los Angeles. “For people who know Schoenberg as the avant-garde expressionist, this piece might be unrecognizably tonal,” Lin says. “He returns to neo-Classical writing and even baroque suite titles, like Minuet, Gavotte, and Gigue. It’s a surprising side of Schoenberg.”

There’s still a need to address the obvious: Why you should come to the concert instead of watching the Super Bowl? 

“When we were booking the date we definitely thought it could be problematic,” Lin recalls, chuckling. “But I think the experience of seeing a Kinetic show is something that’s very invigorating. When people think of a classical concert they picture something conservative and rather quiet, but we want to show that live classical music can be exciting, and very physical, and very visually engaging. There’s really nothing quite like it.”

Sunday, Feb. 3. Tickets $25. MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info and tickets at kineticensemble.org.

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