When Matthew Detrick founded Apollo Chamber Players 13 years ago, he wanted his ensemble to forge new horizons. Now the quartet is reaching for the virtual heights with its 20x2020 Virtual Festival, a new series that premiered last week and runs through November 1. Of course, this particular milestone project has been six years, three babies, and a pandemic in the making.

In 2014 the quartet undertook the seemingly Herculean task of commissioning 20 original works inspired by a broad range of ethnic and folk music. “We didn't want to be just another classical chamber group that plays the same repertoire of dead white males,” says Detrick, who also serves as Apollo’s artistic and executive director. “As much as we love performing Beethoven and Brahms, I felt we had a different, more contemporary calling.”

That first year saw the world premiere of “20x2020 No. 1,” Sorrow Song and Jubilee by Grammy-winning composer Libby Larsen, inspired by Black spirituals and Czech composer Dvořák. Equally innovative offerings followed, including MoonStrike (“20x2020 No. 18”), a collaboration with Native American composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and astronaut John Herrington that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing while exploring the moon legends of Indigenous people. “I remember driving home after one of the performances, seeing Houston's skyline in the distance and feeling more satisfaction than I have in my entire life,” Detrick recalls.

The final two installments in the series, composer Eve Beglarian’s We Will Sing with One Voice and In the Shadow of the Mountain by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, were scheduled to premiere this year as part of an in-person festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, which would feature selections from all 20 original commissions. But, of course, Covid-19 got in the way. 

Still, a setback never stopped the ensemble’s namesake, and it wouldn’t stop them. Apollo reinvented its last two 20X2020 installments, shifting from live concerts to 20 digital episodes (a new one drops every Thursday and Sunday) featuring the last two world premieres, as well as previous concert performances, new studio performances, and interviews with composers and artists. The virtual format presented opportunities that wouldn’t have been feasible in a live setting, Detrick says. “One of those ideas was to include as many dancers as we could as part of new digital collaborations.”

Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh and Chae Eun Yang in 20x2020 Virtual Festival's Splash of Indigo

Houston Ballet favorites Karina González and Oliver Halkowich were among those who created videos for the festival. Connor Walsh and Chae Eun Yang*, also of the Houston Ballet, contributed a video for Splash of Indigo, (“20x2020 No. 2”), which premiered August 30, using the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall as a background. “We've performed Splash of Indigo over a hundred times since the premiere five years ago,” says Detrick, who admits being moved to tears when he saw the dance for the first time, “but the beauty of Connor's and Chae's gestures, perfectly synched and synergized with the music, takes the piece to an entirely new world."

Altogether, more than a dozen musicians, 21 composers, eight dancers, and an astronaut have contributed to Festival 20x2020—a stratospheric collaboration if ever there was one. And while Detrick and the rest of his ensemble have mixed feelings now that the end is on the horizon, they’re just relieved to have actually completed such a bold endeavor. It’s been a long six years, he confesses. “When we started the project the four of us joked that by the end of it, we all might have kids—this turned out to be true. We've created new life and new art these past six years, and it's been the ride of a lifetime.”

Thru Nov 1. Free. Apollo Chamber Players’ Facebook and YouTube channels. More info at apollochamberplayers.org.

*A previous version of this story misspelled Chae Eun Yang's name. This has been corrected.

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