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14 April 2011

Classical music isn't dying in Houston

by Joel Luks (Culture Map)

Divergence's Misha Penton celebrates a new concert space & an obsessed woman

Some claim that classical music is dying. Yes, there is trouble out there.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has had its share of financial issues and the Syracuse Symphony folded into nothingness. 
But if you attend one of power femme Misha Penton's performances, her collaborative approach tells a different story. Like the character she plays in Divergence Vocal Theater's (DVT) upcoming show Klytemnestra, with performances on Friday and Saturday. Penton is gaining a loyal following, kicking ass and taking names —but nicely. And she does not need a 501(c)(3) designation to do so.

She prefers to work under a fiscal sponsorship model and avoid the required infrastructure a non-profit demands. 

Last year's Selkie: A Sea Tale was over capacity, standing room only. 

Adding to the glam of Klytemnestra is the debut of the company's brand new space at Spring Street Studios, a welcomed addition to Houston as the city is lacking intimate concert spaces, suitable for unamplified chamber music, that don't smell. A grand opening musical fete is scheduled for later in May. 

Though plenty of churches are available, the limited availability of smaller halls forces groups like Divergence Vocal Theater, whose artistic product is more holistic, to create site specific works. It's like staging Guys and Dolls in a church and pretending you are not in one. Spaces are indeed conducive to the work being produced. 

"In the back of my mind, I have always wanted to open my own performance space," Penton explained. "But the right circumstances did not present themselves. When I learned about Jon Deal's plans for Spring Street Studios, I carved out the space I wanted before any construction took place."

Dismiss any visions of a traditional concert hall. This 2,300-square-foot space feels more like a lounge, with great acoustics, furnished with funky chairs, stools, benches and floor pillows, creating a cool casual studio ambiance in an attempt to break down the imaginary fourth wall dividing the concertgoer and performer. When fully operational, Penton envisions Divergence Music and Arts as a space for chamber music, performing, multi-arts, intimate special events, classes, lectures and workshops. She will rent it out on a case by case basis.

" I focus on intimately connecting with people that are interested in my work," Penton said. "I am interested in community building, not necessarily to sell 500 tickets."

It's what Penton calls boutique arts. DVT's strategy is to keep performances small, cool and fun, taking the experience of the audience very seriously into consideration. Programs are kept to about one-hour long, with the second half turning into social soiree. 

For the creation of Klytemnestra, Penton partners with composer Dominick DiOrio in an effort to move away from original adaptations into the direction of company created operatic works. In true collaborative fashion, Misha handed her text to DiOrio with little instructions.

" The music for Klytemnestra has both modern and neo-Baroque elements," DiOrio explained. "Misha's libretto is already so inherently musical. My phrases simply flowed out organically from her text."

The spoken text was written by John Harvey, taken from his new translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, recently presented by the University of Houston Honors College as part of Dyonisia 2011. Penton's creative team also includes pianist Kyle Evans, violist Meredith Harris, actor Miranda Herbert and dancer Meg Brooker, an Isadora Duncan protégé. 

" Klytemnestra is a deeply psychological character," DiOrio continued. "She broods, obsesses and waits for her love. She has rituals that she repeats over and over again, day and night. In designing my score, I wanted to weave this sense of repetition into the formal design. So you will hear ground basses, ritornelli and a passacaglia. There's even a quote from a Bach cello suite at a suitably dramatic moment in Klytemnestra's ruminations."

DiOrio was inspired by Richard Strauss's opera Elektra. Fitting, given that Elektra is the daughter of Agamemnon and seeks revenge of her father's murder at the hands of Klytemnestra, his wife. 

" My harmonic choices are extrapolations on chord progressions that Strauss used to symbolize Klytemnestra's dramatic moments in his opera," D'Orio said. "It's all very well thought-out and planned, much like our heroine's netting of Agamemnon in a trap."

On Saturday following Klytemnestra, composer and experimental music guru Chris Becker will spin while the creatives at Culture Pilot put on an interactive media display.

It's the move into inspired programming, not just original art, that will embed the walls of Divergence Music and Arts. And that's a good thing.