Looking for a June “festival” activity that doesn’t involve broiling in the sun and suffering heat stroke? In its 23rd season, the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival (TMF) brings conductors, faculty, and performers to the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. During June, Houstonians can enjoy a month of reasonably priced concerts, recitals, and performances of all shapes and sizes, finding relief from the heat while hearing today’s rising stars of classical music.
TMF is funded in large part through the generosity of the Olshans, two Houstonians who combined their passions for music and education. This couple loved attending summer music gatherings in Colorado and New England, so they decided that Houston needed its own summer musical offering.
The festival’s general and artistic director, Alan Austin, is a nearly native Houstonian with close connections to UH. Originally from North Carolina, the openly gay Austin came to the university to study with legendary violin teacher (and 50-year faculty member) Fredell Lack. With the encouragement of his teacher, Austin participated in the very first TMF festival in 1990. “My initial exposure to TMF was as a student. I played in the orchestra during the festival’s inaugural year,” Austin says.
“After graduating, I performed with many professional groups here, did some private teaching, and then in 1997 became the festival director. I had always wanted to do something that enabled me to combine performing, arts administration, and education. Since many of my former professors and colleagues taught and performed at the festival, I’d always felt very connected to it. This was a perfect opportunity for me.”
TMF had begun to jettison its “regional music festival” label by 1997, and was gaining prominence on a national level. “When I came to TMF I wanted to promote the festival as more of an international event,” Austin says. “As the result of the efforts of many people, that is now the norm. We bring conductors who regularly work with well-known orchestras—and the same can said of our soloists. It’s great for our students to see and collaborate with performers of this stature.”
This journey to prominence has taken time to accomplish, but Houston now hosts a summer music festival that nearly rivals those in Aspen or Tanglewood. “As our reputation has increased, conductors and faculty report that our students are among the best they have ever worked with. Conductors find the enthusiasm of our players refreshing and invigorating. Similarly, the faculty we bring are unique—singularly committed to this endeavor. They are teachers who want to invest time in educating students as well as provide them with an amazing performance experience.”
The festival consists of two main parts—an orchestral institute that showcases college-age students on the cusp of careers in music, and an opera program that focuses on “bel canto” singing. One hundred students are chosen from 400 applicants each year, many coming from the finest music schools in the country. Each student receives a scholarship and attends the month-long festival at no cost. “While here, students perform an orchestral concert every week,” Austin says. “Each time, they work with a new conductor. This is the core focus of our program.”
This year’s orchestral series, which highlights major works, opens on Saturday, June 9,with conductor Franz Anton Krager leading the festival orchestra, soloists, and the Houston Symphony Chorus in Beethoven’s stirring Ninth Symphony. Four subsequent Saturday evenings bring major works by Debussy, Strauss, Brahms, and others. Rarely heard gems presented this year include Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s lushly charming Violin Concerto and English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s funky and lyrical Tuba Concerto featuring long-time Houston Symphony principal tubist David Kirk. All orchestral concerts take place in the well-air-conditioned UH Moores Opera House just off Cullen Boulevard at Entrance 16, where ample free parking is available.
In addition to symphonic pieces, there is a wealth of other music-making—six concerts for classical guitar enthusiasts, four concerts showcasing TMF faculty playing chamber music, and a series for young pianists, chamber players, and singers. “This year we are very excited to have famed American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson on our faculty for this program. Her technique, familiarity with bel canto roles, and extensive knowledge about the operatic world make her an exceptional choice for the TMF,” Austin says. Swenson has appeared in most of the world’s opera houses and was, until recently, a regular at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Maturing into adulthood, TMF has now achieved musical acclaim. Director Austin proudly recounts what he hears from colleagues: “Conductors who come here to work with us say that the TMF is on a par with all of the national and international festivals at which they conduct.”
The festival runs from June 4 through July 1. For tickets and information, call 713/743-3313 or visit tmf.uh.edu.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.