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UT director's goal: Think differently about classical music

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When it comes to culture, labels are vexing. They can be convenient for initially searching out an event, but they can be troublingly restricting.

Kathy Panoff, executive director of Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas, admits she cringes a bit every time she hears the term "classical music."

"For whatever reason, the use of the word ‘classical' means something that many audiences don't want to hear," says Panoff. "Why is classical music not considered a part of the music scene in Austin? I don't understand that."

To tackle the issue, Panoff sought and received a $450,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a three-year initiative that will allow the UT performing-arts presenting organization to expand its music offerings, commission new music from adventurous composers and even form a task force to delve into the reasons why there's a disconnect — in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," no less — between classical music and everything else labeled "music."

With matching funds from the dean of the College of Fine Arts and UT's executive vice president and provost, Panoff has a total of $900,000 for her three-year project. Coming up this fall are two shows that exemplify Panoff's forward-thinking vision: "Rappahannock County" and "The Infernal Comedy." Both are genre-bending, multimedia productions.

"Music is music," insists Panoff, who herself trained as a concert flutist before she turned her professional ambitions toward arts management. "And so-called ‘classical music' is a living, breathing organism not a dead thing. In the right hands, and in the right community, it can have relevance to our contemporary world."

Observers have been bemoaning the decline of classical music audiences for years. In its most recent periodic audience assessment, the National Endowment for the Arts found that the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical music performances had declined nearly 30 percent from 1982 to 2008. And that decline now affects all ages except people older than 65.

Panoff doesn't pretend to have all the answers to rectify the problem.

But she does have strategies for tempting people this season.

"I'm trying to bring people into the theater for other reasons," she says.

Take "Rappahannock County," for example, which plays Sept. 21-22 at UT's McCullough Theatre. Panoff is specifically calling it a music theater piece, not an opera, because, well, it's not really an opera.

Though the provocative multimedia performance — which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War — features music by renowned composer Ricky Ian Gordon and a libretto by Mark Stephen Campbell, Panoff hopes it will appeal to history buffs as well as musical theater aficionados.

Drawn from diaries, letters and personal accounts, "Rappahannock County" is a fictional song cycle that explores the Civil War's impact on one community in Virginia. Presented in a series of vignettes, five principal singers perform more than 30 roles that give voice to a range of characters including a slave woman left to the oncoming troops by her owners, a wounded teenage soldier, a pro-slavery preacher and a mortuary worker. Mathew Brady's moving Civil War photography illuminates the 90-minute piece, which is accompanied by a 17-member chamber orchestra.

"Rappahannock County" was commissioned by UT's Texas Performing Arts along with the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera and the University of Richmond. It's the first of several commissions to be funded by the Mellon grant. A double string quartet by UT faculty composer Dan Welcher, a work for string quartet and chamber orchestra by innovative musicmaker Kevin Puts and a large-scale music theater piece by John Luther Adams, written for percussionist Glenn Kotche of the indie band Wilco, are also on the slate in the next few seasons.

Tickets to "The Infernal Comedy," which plays the Bass Concert Hall Oct. 24-25, are already selling at a steady clip, Panoff reports. Likely that's due in part to the fact that the show stars John Malkovich.

"I would venture to say that if we polled our audience (for that show), most of them that had never heard a baroque orchestra," Panoff says. "Or know that one is featured in the show."

In a series of monologues, Malkovich portrays real-life Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger. The monologues are interspersed with haunting baroque arias sung by two sopranos.

If people come just because of the celebrity of Malkovich, that's fine by Panoff.

"We're trying to frame this form (of music), with all its complexity and beauty, beyond the narrow definition people have of it," she says.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699