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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. We've been bringing you stories recently about local music scenes, scenes that flourish not in New York or Los Angeles, but in cities across the country. Today, Houston - maybe rockabilly or hip-hop? Nope. In Houston, NPR's Wade Goodwin found a more unexpected style of music.

(Soundbite of music "Heartsounds IV")

WADE GOODWIN: When you think about Houston, what do you think of?

(Soundbite of music "Heartounds IV")

GOODWIN: The Astrodome? The livestock and rodeo show? Oil companies? How about Debra Winger on that mechanical bull at Gilly's and John Travolta in a black cowboy hat? What was the name of that movie again?

(Soundbite of music "Heartsounds IV")

GOODWIN: I can't fool you. You knew all along that Houston is famous for its contemporary classical music scene, didn't you?

(Soundbite of music "Heartsounds IV")

GOODWIN: Didn't you?

Ms. SARAH ROTHENBERG (Concert Pianist; Artistic Director, Da Camera): I think that, you know, the Houston cultural scene is one of the best-kept secrets in the country.

(Soundbite of music "Heartsounds IV")

GOODWIN: Sarah Rothenberg is a concert pianist and, for the last 15 years, the artistic director and inspiration for the group known as Da Camera. You're listening to Rothenberg and Da Camera play George Tsontakis' "Heartsounds."

(Soundbite of music "Heartsounds IV")

GOODWIN: Rothenberg lives half of the year in New York City and the other half in Houston, and she says her colleagues in New York are often surprised to hear about her thriving career in Texas.

Ms. ROTHENBERG: Part of this has to do with just a certain national attitude about what Texas is about. And I will say - as I refer to myself as a formerly provincial New Yorker - when you go to a place like Houston, Texas, you discover just how complex America is. And all the stereotypes that people might carry around really go out the window.

(Soundbite of music, "Heartsounds IV")

Unidentified Man #8: (Singing) This is (unintelligible). He invented the summer storm. (Unintelligible)

GOODWIN: Da Camera is an ever-changing collection of vocalists and instrumentalists from all over the world, each invited by Rothenberg to join her for a season of performances in Houston. Rothenberg says she's been able to grow an audience for new music by simply taking the time to explain what people are about to hear and what they should listen for.

Ms. ROTHENBERG: I introduce almost all of the concerts myself. I write a number of the program notes. When we do new music, we have composers come down. So, you know, this is a social thing, as well, music. It's a communicative art.

GOODWIN: Contemporary classical music does have a bit of a reputation - some of it probably earned of being difficult to listen to. Nevertheless, Rothenberg says audiences will hang in there with challenging compositions if you don't bludgeon them with an endlessly dissonant cacophony that, by the end of the evening, has them contemplating suicide. And complementing the concert experience by locating the performances next to world-class pieces of visual art helps, too.

Ms. ROTHENBERG: We're in residence at the Menil Collection, one of the great, great art institutions of this country. And every year, I develop programs that are corresponding to exhibits in the Menil Collection, bringing together visual art and music.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWIN: The Menil displays a revolving collection of 15,000 works. It's best known for The Rothko Chapel, devoted to the work of 20th-century American painter Mark Rothko. The museum has six spaces filled with contemporary art that it turns over to a variety of music groups.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWIN: You're listening to Musiqa, an ensemble made up of five composers and music professors from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the Moores School at the University of Houston. The group was started six years ago by composition professor Anthony Brandt.

Professor ANTHONY BRANDT (Music Composition, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University): Contemporary music is often treated as being academic. We figure the best remedy to that is to get it out of the academy and into the city.

GOODWIN: In addition to playing at the Menil, Musiqa has its own subscription concert series and gives free concerts at the Houston Museum of Contemporary Art to grow its audience. And Brandt says that contemporary music doesn't have to be cerebral, it can be fun.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWIN: So how did this all come about in Houston? Some of the credit goes to the success of the Houston Symphony and the Houston Grand Opera. Both have reputations as places where contemporary music can get a hearing. Artistic director Aurielle Desmarais says the symphony commissions one new piece every season, and they give it careful thought. They have to, or they'll hear about it.

Ms AURIELLE DESMARAIS (Artistic Director, Houston Symphony): If it's a terrific piece of art, then it almost always resonates. We know what our audience can tend to respond to. It's a little more conservative, so it does respond to a less aggressive, kind of out-there harmonic language.

GOODWIN: Classical music lovers who've learned to keep an open mind from listening to the Houston Symphony then bring those open minds to performances by Da Camera or Musiqa - or to the concerts of another Houston contemporary classical music organization, The Foundation for Modern Music. Adam Tendler is its artistic director.

Mr. ADAM TENDLER (Artistic Director, Foundation for Modern Music): It's unusual that we have so many modern music organizations. But it's also special that we're not polarized and that we're not all competing for the same musicians, competing for the same funding. We all kind of recognize each other's struggle, and we recognize the struggle of modern music in general.

GOODWIN: That struggle would be considerably more pronounced without Houston's public radio station, KUHF. A number of public radio stations around the country that used to play classical music have switched to news talk, but not KUHF. It is the hub around which the city's classical music scene rotates. And Houston composers and performers not only get airplay, they're also on the air as staff.

Mr. CHRIS JOHNSON (Disc Jockey, KUHF): Good afternoon, I'm Chris Johnson. Thanks for joining me on this Monday afternoon concert here on KUHF Houston Public Radio. We continue with music by young American composer, Nico Muhly.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWIN: The station has state-of-the-art recording studios and broadcasts from the campus of the University of Houston near downtown. Want to hear the latest? Today, Moores School professor, composer and pianist Tim Hester is recording his new CD.

Unidentified Man #9: Okay, sounding good. Stand by.

(Soundbite of clicking sound)

Unidentified Man #9: Okay, we're rolling for (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of clicking sound)

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWIN: There's one more thing. With prices over $100 a barrel, oil money is once again floating around this city - patrons of the arts rolling in dough. How's the contemporary classical music scene in Houston, you cleverly ask? Thriving.

Wade Goodwin, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And you can hear the music of Houston Group's Da Camera and Musiqa at npr.org.

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