Bohemian Rhapsody

Roving musician Adam Tendler lands in Houston.

By Rich Arenschieldt
Photo by John Conroy

Adam Tendler

Like the minstrels and bards of the Renaissance, musician Adam Tendler wandered through America for a year before alighting (almost by accident) as the newest enfant terrible on Houston’s diverse music scene. A map on his wall denotes a circuitous journey that attests to this 26-year-old’s wanderlust and a transnational musical exploration by an unsettled self and soul.

Tendler, the current artistic director of Houston’s Foundation for Modern Music, grins with satisfaction at the accomplishment. “I grew up in an artistically diverse and unconventional household,” Tendler said during a recent OutSmart interview. “My parents were divorced but still lived in the same house, and my two sisters were extremes of each other—one became a lawyer and a mother; the other appeared on the cover of Playboy and is a showgirl in Las Vegas.”

Tendler’s initial foray into music, as a pianist, was also unusual. “I came to music very late in life, during high school—atypical for someone who wants to be a conservatory musician. Most of my peers began their studies in childhood.

“In spite of lot of my inherent shyness and a number of phobias, I always wanted to be a performer,” Tendler said. “Growing up in rural Vermont and being so different from those around me, I figured that the easiest way for me to get along was to learn how to adapt. Music became the vehicle that I used to express myself without having to speak or say anything.”

Following high school, Tendler was accepted into Indiana University. “I was fortunate to get into IU. As most people know, it’s one of the most competitive music schools in the world.”

At university Tendler became passionate about performing modern American music, and after graduating in 2004, he began to plan a 50-state tour playing the music he loved.

“I tried to get grants to cover the costs, but most funders thought I was clinically insane to attempt such an undertaking. I had a couple of objectives: I wanted to perform outside the typical concert hall setting, and I also had to become comfortable with myself onstage. If I was going
to pursue a musical life, I had to make this work.”

The tour commenced with only five planned concerts. Through a combination of ingenuity and sheer force of will, Tendler accomplished his goal; he performed at least one concert in every state. “There were a variety of venues,” Tendler said. “I performed anywhere—in community centers, churches, recital halls and, on one especially memorable occasion, in a carpet store.”

During this time, Tendler relied mainly upon “the kindness of strangers” for lodging and support. “It was wonderful to insert myself into people’s lives, usually with great intensity for a short period of time and then depart for the next concert venue.”

It was also during this time that Tendler waged a more intimate internal battle, a struggle with his sexuality. He was closeted and essentially celibate during college, dating women in an attempt to provide grandchildren for his parents. While on tour, he met numerous GLBT individuals, but wasn’t completely reconciled to his own homosexuality. Some aspects of his life improved, while other, more embedded parts of his personality remained unchanged.

“In Houston, I realized that I had to be honest regarding my sexuality. I wasn’t functioning well and knew things had to change. Previously this had not been an issue with my family, because I had never wanted to be in any relationship—a safe tactic but one that led to a tortured existence. Everyone was avoiding the obvious, and I started to feel awkward with my own family.”

Since then circumstances have changed dramatically for Tendler. “After having been out to my parents for only six months, I brought my boyfriend home with me for Christmas.”

Post coming-out, Tendler is not as self-conscious as he used to be. “I think many gay men have a persecution complex [something that as a half-Jewish, half-Armenian gay male, Tendler is thrice predisposed to] and sometimes think, ‘Oh God, I’m a mess.’ But how we emerge from our roots determines what kind of character we become.”

Upon arriving in Houston, Tendler’s wanderlust abated, and opportunities for permanence appeared. “Houston was my 48th concert. I performed here for MECA [Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts] and also for people from the foundation, who subsequently invited me to stay. During late 2007, I worked with MECA and also apprenticed with the executive director for the foundation.”

This was a transitional period for the foundation. After the untimely death of the organization’s founder, Robert Avalon, the openly gay brother of Houston Mayor Bill White, “The foundation was working to determine their place within the arts community. Their initial organizational vision was, among other things, to serve as a vehicle for Robert’s music. He engaged people into modern music by exposing them to his music.”

With a mission to support the efforts of living composers through performance, outreach, and composition of new works, the foundation has had a challenging tenure trying to establish itself in this musically conventional city. Tendler worked with the organization to sharpen its focus and musical offerings. “Our purpose is to remind people that music is happening now and that there needs to be a vehicle for that work. When I came to the foundation, I wanted to strip away the glossy veneer of music and present works that were being created today, in their
raw state.”

Tendler has been blessed with beginner’s luck. Last season the foundation presented some highly successful concerts. During a sold-out Rothko Chapel concert, Tendler received a standing ovation for music that he had composed. “It was amazing to me that people were so moved by a piece that was very quiet and meditative. The last concert of the season was equally memorable.”

As this minstrel searches for funding for new endeavors, he remains optimistically philosophical. “I’m focused on what music I have inside of me and how best to extract it without concern as to how it’s perceived or accepted by others. Musical awakenings happen every day. You have to put yourself out there in the world, feel good about what you accomplish, and involve others in the process.”

Rich Arenschieldt contributed to “People to Watch” for the January issue of OutSmart magazine.


Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.

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