Music City Classical

Though Nashville is famous as Music City, home to many different kinds of music, a lot of people don’t realize that includes a vibrant classical music scene. Nashville not only boasts a world class symphony orchestra, but also a number of smaller classical groups, such as ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, which has called the city home for over 14 years. In addition to being an accomplished and increasingly popular contributor to the city’s diverse musical scene, ALIAS is also heavily involved in something else equally important: community growth and arts engagement.
     ALIAS has 12 members — Zeneba Bowers (violin), Chris Farrell (viola), Alison Gooding (violin), Licia Jaskunas (harp), Lee Levine (clarinet), Leslie Norton (horn), Sari Reist (cello), Melissa Rose (piano), Christopher Stenstrom (cello), Matt Walker (cello), Roger Wiesmeyer (English horn, oboe), and Jeremy Williams (violin). Most of them also are members of the Nashville Symphony, while four serve on the faculties of Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music (Norton, Rose, Wiesmeyer) and Belmont School of Music (Gooding).
     Their 14th season began in October, and continues through 2016, with several exciting things on the horizon. Among the most notable are their third album and their winter concert, which will be held at Blair School of Music on Feb. 10. The album — spotlighting works by Pulitzer-winning composer Paul Moravec — will be issued in January.
     ALIAS’ winter concert features selections from the disc, as well as from Kenji Bunch and Gabriela Lena Frank, the composers featured on ALIAS’ two previous recordings. “This seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the release of our third CD, and to highlight ALIAS’ recording history,” Bowers, who is also ALIAS’ artistic director, says. “We love all three of these composers, and we’re really proud of our recordings of their music.”
     She points out how this disc differs from previous ALIAS releases. “The key difference is that ALIAS partners with two organizations, the Nashville Ballet, a cocommissioner of the new work, and Portara Ensemble,” Bowers says. “We performed all the works on the CD for a ballet with new choreography, as well as premiering them on ALIAS concerts. This kind of collaboration is not unusual for ALIAS, but it is unusual to have that many artistic entities involved in a recording project. It’s unusual for a ballet company to commission new chamber music; the way we approached the project, working with Moravec, the resulting piece, ‘Amorisms,’ works both as a ballet work and as a stand-alone chamber work.
     “The project is connected to Delos Records and Naxos USA, our previous labels, which both have a large interest in promoting and distributing the disc. Most importantly: The project continues ALIAS’ legacy of commissioning and recording modern music by important American composers, creating a lasting archive of great music from the 
modern era.”
     ALIAS goes to great lengths to ensure its albums are exemplary. “Each of our recordings is the result of something like two years of preparation or more,” Bowers explains. “It begins with an idea, meetings with various people, like the key figures of Portara and the ballet, identifying composers and feeling out their interest, coming up with a funding plan and a project timeline, talking to recording engineers and record labels, and so on.”
     ALIAS is also presenting repertoire from the concert event that was cancelled last season due to ice storms, including a world premiere by John Marvin. Other items spotlighted during the season will be pieces by modern composers Eric Ewazen, Andy Akiho, and Karim Al Zand, as well as 20th-century masters like Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Andre Jolivet, and the 17th-century composer Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli.
     “ALIAS has a reputation for collaborating with composers,” explains Walker, ALIAS cellist and a composer himself. “Seven of this season’s composers are living, which of course makes the collaboration much easier.”
     The group has a dynamic and intriguing history. Indeed, their name reflects a delicate balance its members regularly negotiate. “ALIAS was suggested by Lee Levine, our clarinet player,” Bowers says. “It was chosen because we are all full-time professionals either teaching or playing, and our work with ALIAS is our ‘alias,’ a second side to us people didn’t get to see before.”
     Their mission has also been as much about expansion and advocacy as preservation and authenticity. ALIAS performs and presents music from a variety of composers and sources, some of which date back centuries. In addition, they’ve been dedicated since their inception to refuting the conventional wisdom that classical music appeals to only older, upscale, culturally elitist types. The biggest way they’ve combated that notion has been through aggressive outreach efforts.
     They’ve given more than $35,000 to various local nonprofit groups over their tenure through an arrangement in which they annually pick a local partner to whom they donate 100 percent of every concert’s profits. ALIAS has played before more than 4,000 children and adults in various settings as part of their Community Education Program (CEP).
     Yet, while all those things are commendable, if ALIAS’ music weren’t exemplary, its other goals would be jeopardized or compromised. ALIAS’ impressive track record includes a Grammy nomination for the group’s 2011 release Hilos (Threads) with Gabriela Lena Frank (coproduced by Bowers). They followed that with the release of Boiling Point: Music of Kenji Bunch in 2012. They’ve debuted 23 world-performance works.
     Listening to any ALIAS album, the precision and beauty of the compositions and playing reflect the musicians’ high caliber. Bowers got hooked on violin in public school after seeing an instructor playing it — the major reason she’s such an advocate for ALIAS’ community program.
     “My college violin professor and friend Lynn Blakeslee, who passed away in August, was a huge influence on me,” Bowers says. “It’s impossible for me to overstate Lynn’s impact on my professional life. I credit her with completely changing my technique, helping me diagnose technical problems in myself and others so I can solve problems on my own, and giving me the thick skin I needed to make it in this tough business.”
     There’s also an interesting personal component in ALIAS’ success. Bowers is married to Walker. Walker’s father was a jazz drummer, and that’s a principal reason those strains have found their way into his approach as a composer, and into some of the pieces performed by ALIAS over the years.
     As ALIAS’ profile and reputation continue to grow, the personal and professional bond between Bowers and Walker remains equally strong. “I love working with Matt,” Bowers says. “For some, it would not be a great idea to work so closely together in our three jobs [Nashville Symphony, ALIAS, and their travel business, Little Roads Europe], but we have found a groove and it works for us. We each have unique strengths, and we let each other take the lead as necessary to achieve our goals.”
     Still, looking back, Bowers admits it took some time to get things going smoothly. “In the beginning, our challenges were establishing a nonprofit organization, developing our board, managing the administrative functions, establishing an audience and our reputation, and getting all the musicians on board,” she says.
     “Our challenges today are about finding balance and finding some time for seeking out and creating new musical opportunities, time in our ever-increasingly crazy schedules to handle all the work we do, and time for all the musicians to rest and think so we can bring our best to the stage,” she continues. “We also challenge ourselves to continuously educate the community and potential donors about the valuable and important work we do with community outreach.”
     This season’s nonprofit partners are Safe Haven Family Shelter, Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic Violence, and the Nashville Freedom School Partnership. ALIAS’ Nashville home base is in Turner Hall at the Blair School of Music, where they are also a resident ensemble. Another among their season initiatives will be increasing the number and scope of CEP programs. Past locales for these events have ranged from the Park Center, Dismas House, and Tennessee School for the Blind to many Metro schools.
     As if all this weren’t enough, there have also been some changes in ALIAS’ support structure. Heather Lefkowitz is the new executive director, while Georgeann Burns is now board president, replacing longtime chair Stacy Widelitz.
     “Georgeann has been an asset to the ALIAS organization since she joined the board,” Widelitz says. “As vice president, she has been of tremendous help to us with her wise counsel and clear-eyed vision of the future of the organization.
     “Heather is the perfect person to be our next executive director,” he adds. “This new team is poised to take ALIAS to the next level, and that’s exciting news for Nashville.”
     While Bowers and Walker acknowledge Nashville isn’t the mecca for classical music, they feel the amount of work they’ve done over the years has helped woo more people to classical events, including many who may be seeing or hearing their first performance of a chamber music ensemble. ALIAS performances outside of Nashville also provide the ensemble an opportunity to spread the word about the breadth and scope of the city’s music scene. “Yes, we work hard to make it clear that Music City is more than just country music,” Bowers says.
     Oddly, one thing that might be considered a strength — regular classical radio programming on WPLN, WRVU, and now at times on WMOT — isn’t really seen as that big an asset, at least in terms of getting more people to their concerts. “I’m not sure about that — whether the radio programming has had a positive impact,” Bowers says. “I do know we have a loyal audience base, and we’re always looking to expand that to people who may not consider themselves classical music fans but like our eclectic repertoire. We’re also encouraging new audience members who encounter us through our 
community outreach.”
     When asked about special highlights and memorable achievements, the first thing that’s mentioned is the Grammy nomination. But they also cite an appearance on the nationally syndicated radio show Performance Today, as well as an engagement at The Schubert Club in Minneapolis, which they rank as their favorite venue 
outside Nashville.
     With its new structure in place and the season underway, Bowers prefers looking to the future rather than the past. But she doesn’t hesitate when asked if she ever anticipated ALIAS would survive for 14 years while establishing itself as an important part of Nashville’s classical music scene.
     “Absolutely not,” she concludes. “When we started we just wanted to perform with friends and give back to the community. It’s been one wild ride, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity.”
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