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Cover Story - Posted August 25, 2017 10:27 a.m.
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Photos courtesy of Amarillo Symphony

Amarillo Symphony

“To me, it’s the only art form that still gives me goose bumps,” says Corey Cowart, the Amarillo Symphony’s executive director. “When you have 80-plus professional musicians all on the stage at the same time trying to express an artistic idea, it’s one of those rare instances of communal effervescence.”

Cowart is summing up what he loves most about attending the Amarillo Symphony’s monthly concerts. The organization is the oldest continually operating arts entity in Amarillo and begins its 93rd season with “Gershwin Rhapsodies” on Sept. 22 and 23 at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts.

“We’re fortunate to have a fantastic history and longevity, being here as long as we have been,” he says about the symphony, which first began as a 12-piece ensemble in 1924. Today, the orchestra has a $1.3-million budget and features 85 professional musicians, guided by Music Director and Conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos.

This marks Bairos’ fifth year at the symphony’s helm, the product of a two-year search that drew more than 200 applicants from 15 different countries. Cowart says Bairos has brought a fresh perspective and exuberance that has ended up stretching many members of the orchestra – and that’s a good thing. “He has a joy and passion for the classics, as well as exploring things that are new and different. That back-and-forth of standards as well as new works has pushed and grown the organization.”

Bairos has been instrumental in commissioning new work for the Symphony as well as re-introducing classical music standards that haven’t been performed in Amarillo for years. The individual instrumentalists appreciate this. “It can get very stale to come in and play the same thing for the 80th time,” says Cowart. “The ability to do something a little new or fresh helps add a spark of extra energy. It’s been positive from the performers’ standpoint.”

That commitment also attracts high-profile guest artists – the most impressive of which will be on-hand at the season opener this month. Pianist Aaron Diehl joins the symphony as it performs Gershwin’s familiar “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Second Rhapsody”, as well as composer Paul Hindemith’s “Kammermusik No. 1” and “Symphonic Metamorphosis”.

The 31-year-old Diehl is a rising star of the contemporary jazz scene, having spent the summer performing at the nation’s top jazz festivals. “He’s currently one of the most sought-after jazz musicians,” says Cowart of the Harlem-based pianist and composer. The weekend before he comes to Amarillo, Diehl performs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which is led by Wynton Marsalis. After Amarillo, he’ll perform a series of concerts across Europe.

When planning this year’s season opener last fall, Cowart and Bairos were brainstorming guest artists that could bring a unique energy to the performance of Gershwin hits. They had just watched Diehl perform Gershwin with the New York Philharmonic. “We said, ‘We need to find someone like Aaron Diehl,’” remembers Cowart. That thought eventually inspired the duo to approach Diehl himself, and it paid off. A fortuitous change in management allowed Diehl to add Amarillo to his schedule – this show represents his first under a new management company.

But Cowart believes the real star of the show will be Hindemith’s music. “People will come to hear Gershwin and the “Rhapsody in Blue” and Aaron, but they’ll leave talking about the Hindemith. “Symphonic Metamorphosis” is a piece they may not be familiar with, but it’s amazing,” he says.

Following that concert, the symphony returns Oct. 20 and 21 with a sure-to-be-popular celebration of patriotic American music featuring John Philip Sousa marches and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”.

The next month brings a performance of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3” (“Eroica”) on Nov. 17 and 18. If September’s Gershwin show was all about the guest artist, November will highlight the orchestra. Cowart says “Eroica” is one of Beethoven’s most significant and recognizable symphonies and “shows off the musicians in our orchestra.” It will be preceded in the concert by “Symphony No. 2” by Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary American composer Kevin Puts, the composer-in-residence for the Fort Worth Symphony. “Very few people may know Kevin’s music – they’ll be there for the Beethoven – but they’ll get this amazing treat on the front half of the concert,” Cowart predicts. “It is gorgeous.”

After the traditional Holiday Pops concert on Dec. 16, another highlight of the season arrives Jan. 19 and 20. “For our Mozart concert, we’re able to feature the musicians of the orchestra stepping in front of the stage,” Cowart says. The show includes Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” as well as “Sinfonia Concertante”, a classic which features solos for violin and viola. “We have our principle second violin Michelle Skinner and our principal viola Yael Hyken performing “Sinfonia Concertante”,” explains the symphony’s director. “It wins the prize for the most beautiful music that Mozart left us … with the most boring title possible.”

He says Amarilloans whose experience with the symphony may be limited to past Fourth of July celebrations should give it a shot this fall. “Orchestra is fortunate in that we are one of the more easily accessible art forms, even if you know nothing about it,” Cowart says. “If you truly know about a piece you can listen on one level, or if you want, just let the music wash over you like in a bathtub. Very rarely is there any form of dialogue or story or anything that you need to know. You’re able to sit in the audience and absorb whatever you want to absorb.”

Interact personally with the city’s oldest continuous arts organization by purchasing season or single-performance tickets via amarillosymphony.org.

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by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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