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Competing with the Big Boys
by Rich Arenschieldt
Drawing on a decade of musical leadership, Matthew Dirst, founder and artistic director of the Houston early-music group Ars Lyrica, proves that a small, focused ensemble can compete with Houston’s operatic and symphonic Goliaths. Even in the somewhat arcane world of sackbuts and other “period instrument” oddities, Ars Lyrica’s programs have managed to astound local, national, and international audiences.
Dirst came to Houston in 1996, having been offered a tenure-track position teaching musicology at the University of Houston. Nationally known as a harpsichordist and specialist in early music, he had just received a doctorate from Stanford. “I was fortunate to arrive here at a time when there was an increased desire for music that I knew and loved,” Dirst says. “There wasn’t much period-instrument performance happening.” Only one presenter, Houston Early Music, was bringing similar artists to Houston, none of whom were local.
“I was heavily involved in presenting oratorios, operas, and cantatas, utilizing the vocal and instrumental talent available at U of H,” he continues. “Eventually, it became clear that Houston needed a resident, professional-caliber period-music ensemble.
“Additionally, at about this same time, several other talented Baroque specialists relocated to Houston. As a result, we were able to create the nucleus of an ensemble that then took on a life of its own. We started on a small scale, formed a board of directors, became a nonprofit organization, started to raise funds, and then presented concerts.
“We are fortunate to be in a city where there is substantial support for the arts, especially from local foundations,” he says. “As the result of this support and the contributions from individual donors and ticket revenue, we have experienced steady growth throughout the last decade.”
Houston currently has four established organizations (Ars Lyrica, Mercury, Houston Early Music, and Bach Society Houston) that focus on this musical genre. They combine forces once each year to collaborate on the city’s annual Houston Early Music Festival.
Ars Lyrica’s upcoming season, entitled “The Power of Music,” reflects the impact that music has had on audiences throughout history. On its May program, Ars Lyrica will present an English-language oratorio by the era’s musical superhero, George Frederick Handel. “Most audiences know his Messiah, but few of his other works,” Dirst says. “For us, this represents a move towards performing large-scale, complex pieces—at least one substantial oratorio per season. These require substantial vocal forces, additional soloists, and a larger orchestra. This repertoire is thrilling for us to present and exciting for audiences to hear.”
Though “early music” has had a consistent, albeit small musical presence in Houston for the last 30 years, Dirst and other presenters constantly work to attract new listeners. “We have been actively building an audience for this music, using performers who audiences know, appreciate, and are excited to hear,” he says. “Our patrons are musically astute, and as a result, I can be adventuresome in our programming. For me, it’s all about juxtaposing the familiar and the exotic.”
In what could be considered a rather unusual pairing, Dirst’s personal life seems to be a case of life imitating art. His partner, Sixto Wagan, previously lead DiverseWorks, Houston’s wildly contemporary performing and visual arts “mosh pit”—quite a contrast with Dirst’s elegant rococo sensibilities. “Sixto is currently the Director of the Center for Arts Leadership at U of H,” Dirst says, “drawing on his extensive knowledge of the performing and visual arts to connect the university community with outside artists.”
Revealing his own passion for making classical music more accessible, Dirst says “We are always seeking to expand our audiences. First, it’s necessary to convince people that live performance is worth hearing (as opposed to music from an electronic device). Once that happens, they quickly discover the inherent beauty of what we offer.” Commenting on several refreshing interpretations of Baroque masterworks by choreographers, performance artists, and musicians—all seeking to reinvigorate centuries-old music—Dirst says, “Now that we have [the downtown Hobby Center’s] Zilkha Hall, that is a distinct possibility.”
With three other local groups now in the early-music mix, Dirst realizes that presenting consistently high-quality performances is critical. “There is competition for audiences. This simply forces us to be at the top of our game with each concert,” he says. “Every time we perform, it must be more compelling, more interesting, and it must motivate people to return to us.”
Evidencing their commitment to excellence, Ars Lyricareceived a 2011 Grammy nomination for their recording of Marc Anthony e Cleopatra by the obscure German composer Adolf Hasse. “We had some heavy competition—The Berlin State Opera, London’s Royal Opera House, and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre—opera companies with multi-million-dollar budgets,” Dirst says. “We were simultaneously thrilled and humbled to be nominated—and it was a blast to go to L.A for the ceremony.”
The 2014–15 season features six varied programs, including a Valentine’s Day offering that features the talented gay countertenor John Holiday, who lives with his partner in Rosenberg, Texas. “This season opens on Sunday, September 7, with Flying High,” Dirst says. “This features a work by Handel that chronicles the adventures of the mythic Icarus and his ill-fated attempt to reach the sun. Not many people know this piece, but the music is terrific.”
When: September 7, 6 p.m.
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
Tickets/info: arslyricahouston.org, 713.315.2525.
Rich Arenschieldt wrote about activist/author Sean Strub in the April issue of OutSmart.