Apollo Chamber Players find success programming music to world events The Apollo Chamber Players in Houston, Texas, create concerts in response to book banning, the refugee crisis, the war in Gaza and other world events. Thousands of people attend their performances.

Classical ensemble Apollo Chamber Players is tuned in to today's headlines

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Austin may be the capital of Texas, but it's in Houston where politics is playing out - playing out of violins, flutes and more on stage in the form of classical music. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited a chamber music group there that's using what's happening in the news to program its performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There is nothing old-fashioned about the Apollo Chamber Players. The name Apollo is an homage to the space-age past of Houston. These classical musicians believe what they play should speak to the historical moment. So this year's season took on this theme - censorship and banned books. That's thorny in Texas.

MATTHEW DETRICK: I understand organizations wanting to play it safe, but I don't think that's the right route.

ULABY: Matthew Detrick co-founded Apollo in 2008, fresh from a master's program in music from Rice University. Just like Houston itself, the group is multicultural, with musicians whose families are from Iran, Mexico and the Midwest. Detrick says the Apollo Chamber Players chose the silencing of voices as a theme after Texas made headlines for trying to ban hundreds of books in schools. The names of the concerts reflect that.

DETRICK: This concert is titled "Canceled," and it's confusing to people because it's not a canceled concert. But its title is "Canceled."

ULABY: The music Apollo plays ranges from brand-new commissions to works by composers like Aaron Copland, who wrote one of the great American symphonies.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF COPLAND'S "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

ULABY: Performed here by a full orchestra.

DETRICK: Aaron Copland is one of the most famous American composers, but most people don't know that he was canceled, in a way, during the 1950s anti-communist hysteria. He was actually summoned in front of the McCarthy hearings and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

ULABY: And that's why his string quartets belong in this program.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF COPLAND'S "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

DETRICK: It's very paradoxical that this composer that embodies the sounds of America was accused of being anti-American.

ULABY: Aaron Copland probably would have appreciated how this concert paired his music with new pieces commissioned for this series.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF LOGGINS-HULL'S "BANNED")

DETRICK: One of the main commissions was titled "Banned." That was for string quartet, flute and piccolo, and stomp box.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF LOGGINS-HULL'S "BANNED")

ULABY: That sound you hear is the actual slamming of books. Composer Allison Loggins-Hull also performed.

ALLISON LOGGINS-HULL: So I'm playing flute. I also play piccolo in the piece, and then I'm using this digital stomp box, which is kind of like a digital kick drum, to trigger the sample. So every now and then, you hear this bang, really, this booming sound.

ULABY: Loggins-Hull was inspired, she said, by imagining a pile of banned books.

LOGGINS-HULL: And I started to kind of imagine what the pile-up of the books would look like and then also, like, what they would sound like, you know, like slamming of the books.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF LOGGINS-HULL'S "BANNED")

DETRICK: There's also some moments where we had to shush during the piece that were kind of integrated into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS: (Shushing).

DETRICK: It's written into the score.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS: (Shushing).

ULABY: Apollo Chamber Players' Matthew Detrick says the program for the group's winter concert had already been planned when war broke out in Gaza. They kept the Ukrainian Christmas carols they had decided on but knew they needed to respond. Sadly, says Detrick, it fit with the existing theme.

DETRICK: Conflict and war and genocide is the ultimate forms of censorship, and this is testing the limits of free speech in many different ways.

ULABY: With battles on social media and college campuses about what's acceptable.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF GANZ'S "A SEPHARDIC CHANUKAH")

ULABY: The Apollo Chamber Players turned to a local Houston musician.

DETRICK: She's an Israeli American. Her name is Isabelle Ganz.

ULABY: And added this piece she wrote called "A Sephardic Chanakuh."

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF GANZ'S "A SEPHARDIC CHANUKAH")

ULABY: Ganz recommended including another work by a Palestinian American, so the ensemble commissioned artist Muyassar Kurdi. Her avant-garde piece is called "A Lullaby For The Children Of The Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF KURDI'S "A LULLABY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN")

DETRICK: She is calling attention to the families and children that have died in the war in Gaza and this ongoing conflict. What was interesting about this work is it came to us in a graphic score.

ULABY: So it came as fragments and drawings more than musical notations.

DETRICK: We have never tackled anything like this, so it was a learning experience for us, as well. We decided each of us in the quartet would start from a different part of the drawing and interpret it in our own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF KURDI'S "A LULLABY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN")

ULABY: Including humming and effects that sound like planes flying overhead.

DETRICK: So sometimes, we came together. Sometimes, we were apart. But it was a journey for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF KURDI'S "A LULLABY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN")

ULABY: When the Apollo Chamber Players first started, their concerts drew only a few dozen people. Last year, about 30,000 people saw them perform live. The ensemble has released half a dozen albums and commissioned nearly 50 original works over the past 15 years. And last year, they played more than 70 free concerts at places like schools and hospitals. Bridging politics and music, Detrick hopes, will help bridge people, as well.

DETRICK: Having more empathy - I think empathy is, you know, very much needed in our world today.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF KURDI'S "A LULLABY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN")

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF APOLLO CHAMBER PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF KURDI'S "A LULLABY FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN")

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