ALIAS: A New Kind of Ensemble

Zeneba Bowers & Matthew Walker
March 7, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

What orchestral musician doesn't like to play chamber music? It can provide a healthy change from the orchestra, but what if chamber music opportunities in your area are few and far between, or are devoted to programming repertoire that doesn't really turn you on. Nashville Symphony violinist, Zeneba Bowers and a group of her friends wanted a chamber music creative outlet, so they did what entrepreneurial people do. They started their own ensemble. Zeneba's article takes us through the group's evolution. As you read, ALIAS: An New Kind of Ensemble you'll not only learn about them and their successful group, but you'll also pick up some tips along the way should you want to do something similar.

- Ramon Ricker

In 2002, I and a few other Nashville Symphony musicians founded a little group that we called ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. Now in its fifth season, ALIAS has followed an unusual path to become one of the city’s foremost classical music groups. Its eleven musicians (along with various guest artists) are not paid; rather, they donate their time, as the group’s three yearly concerts are benefit concerts for various nonprofit community organizations. The ensemble’s repertoire is selected by the musicians themselves, which give ALIAS programs an eclectic and unique structure.

Predictably, it all began in a Nashville brewpub where a handful of us musicians were regulars in concert black. We often found ourselves talking about seeking additional outlets for our artistic drive. Chamber music was an obvious companion to our symphonic work; the thrill of being part of the massive power of a 90-piece orchestra is naturally balanced by the increased artistic control and the more intimate environment of a smaller ensemble performance. Having accomplished the goal of winning a position (Assistant Principal 2nd Violin) in a full-time orchestra, I wanted to create this balance for myself and for my colleagues, something beyond playing Pachelbel's Canon at weddings.

Clarinetist Lee Levine came up with the name “ALIAS” itself, which highlights the idea that, as performers in a string quartet or other small ensemble, the musicians perform for the public in roles very different from their usual symphonic positions.

ALIAS’ first concert, a benefit, was typically varied: Henry Cowell’s “Homage to Iran” for violin, piano, and percussion; a string quartet by Juan Arriaga; Steve Reich’s “New York Counterpoint” for clarinet and tape; and Ravel’s String Quartet. It was barely publicized; our music was exhaustively rehearsed, but most of us knew almost nothing about promoting a show. A line in the weekly listings, a mention on the local public radio station, a few hastily made photocopied posters, and a little word of mouth was all we knew how to do. On top of that, the night of the concert found Nashville under a dire tornado warning.

Still, some 35 adventurous souls came out to hear this new group; moreover, the concert attracted the interest of, and was subsequently reviewed by, Marcel Smith, the classical writer for the weekly Nashville Scene. This was the first of dozens of articles (in all of the local papers) which would eventually play a large part in elevating ALIAS to its current prominence in Nashville’s music scene.

The press (and, by extension, the public) seemed to be intrigued by a number of things: The high level of artistry and polish of the performances comes from many weeks, often months, of advance preparation. The musicians are all performing music that they had selected individually; as a result, audiences can sense the love and enthusiasm that emanates from the stage. And the musicians do not play for money; they play out of need and desire to create music, to move others and themselves. More than that: they play for the benefit of local charities. There were also a number of singular events in the course of the group’s first season, such as performances of Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, Arvo Part’s “Fratres” for eight cellos, and a world premiere of a string quartet by Sean Watkins, the Grammy-winning guitarist from Nickel Creek. All of these things made for good copy, and helped get people’s attention.

The plethora of press coverage, along with frequent appearances on Nashville Public Radio’s weekly “Live in Studio C” broadcasts, created the public impression of a well oiled, highly structured organization. In fact, it was hardly organized at all, so some of the musicians worked to correct that state of affairs. Cellist Christopher Stenstrom designed a website for the group, www.aliasmusic.org, and also became the Executive Director of the group.

I enlisted the aid of a couple of local attorneys, from a firm well-known for its support of the arts (many key personal connections, like this contact, came from our musicians); with their help, Chris put together the daunting reams of government paperwork which were required for the group to become a corporation. ALIAS incorporated in 2003; at this time I officially became Artistic Director of ALIAS. The musician membership was solidified to include eleven musicians. We perform in many configurations (along with many guest artists), as dictated by the repertoire we all choose. We also continued to draw upon the knowledge and personal contacts of the musicians to further organize as a business: Upon incorporating, ALIAS formed a Board of Directors, made up of musicians and other members of the community. This body became the mechanism to support and encourage the growth of the ensemble.

In 2004, ALIAS received its IRS nonprofit status (another feat of paperwork achieved, again, with generous assistance from the same firm; not all lawyers are evil, it turns out), and we began small-scale fundraising to cover our operating expenses. This was significant because, previously, the charities who were benefiting from the concerts had been responsible for hall fees and printing and ticketing costs. By becoming an official nonprofit organization, we were equipped to accept tax-deductible donations; this enabled us to handle all of the production costs, leaving the charities to collect the full proceeds from the concert ticket sales.

Our first fund-raising efforts were modest, even primitive. We kept a guest sign-in book at each concert to create a patron e-mail list. All the musicians provided names of people that they thought might be interested and supportive. We held a drawing for a dinner for two at a popular local restaurant (donated by the owner, another musician connection); the drawing yielded a lot more names. Gradually, the business-minded non-musicians on our board helped us to hone our fundraising efforts. Printed glossy brochures now accompany our letters asking fro support; we have received grants from the city’s Arts

Commision for the past two seasons; Chris Stenstrom’s web wizardry now enables patrons to donate online.

The ensemble’s concerts have benefited a wide range of nonprofit organizations, raising thousands of dollars over the past four years of its existence. A few of them are large, nationwide charities, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters; most are smaller, local organizations who benefit not just from the monetary proceeds but also from the exposure to the public through the media and through the concert itself.

One of the hallmarks of a standard ALIAS concert is that musicians will often speak briefly to the audience from the stage prior to performing. This may serve to shed light upon the pieces they are about to perform, or upon the performers themselves. This is central to one of the goals of the ensemble: To draw people in and help them to see why chamber music is so moving, whether it is early Baroque salon music or 21st century modernism. In the same interest of educating its audience, ALIAS recently began a series of Education and Community Programs, headed by cellist Michael Samis. These programs bring the ensemble’s innovative approach to chamber music to students of all ages, from preschool children to adults. These programs are designed to educate as

much as to entertain, and they often target communities that have little or no exposure to classical music of any kind. An additional benefit to this outreach effort is that it also raises the ensemble’s profile in the community, and encourages more people to help support our artistic goals.

Since the eleven musicians in the group choose what we want to play, the ensemble performs a wide variety of styles of music from all periods, not excluding jazz and swing; it continues to push boundaries by juxtaposing the new with the classic and the ancient on the same programs. ALIAS is at the fore where new music is concerned: It has collaborated a number of times with the Nashville Composers’ Association; it has shared its stage with the legendary bassist Edgar Meyer, performing his own music; it has welcomed composer Paul Moravec as it performed his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tempest Fantasy”; and this past season it presented one of the most daunting chamber works ever written, George Crumb’s “Black Angels”. It has also performed eight world premieres, and countless Nashville premieres of many different composers.

After playing at a number of different venues in the area, ALIAS has performed regularly for the past three seasons at the excellent facilities of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. For the 2006-2007 season, ALIAS is embarking on a collaboration with the Blair School and the Nashville Symphony. Entitled “Double Take”, the program presents chamber works throughout the season by well-known contemporary American composers whose symphonic works will also be played by the Symphony. Tied in with these concerts will be lecture presentations and performances with the composers themselves at the Blair School and at the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Plans for the future of the ensemble include recording and commissioning new works, as well as continuing our performances and community activity. The more global goals of ALIAS, though, remain the same as they were in its infancy: To give its musicians opportunities to express themselves artistically; to present musical performances of an extremely high level of artistry; and, therefore, to broaden the expectations of the “classical” music audience and to give them a reason to keep coming back. And to bring their friends.

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ALIAS Chamber Ensemble is a Nashville-based 501(c)(3) arts organization that was founded in 2002 by Nashville Symphony violinist Zeneba Bowers. Now in its fifth season, ALIAS has followed an unusual path to become one of the city’s foremost classical music groups. The ensemble is comprised of Zeneba Bowers, Alison Gooding, and Jeremy Williams, violins; Michael Samis, Christopher Stenstrom, and Matt Walker, cello; Lee Levine, clarinet; Leslie Norton, French horn; Roger Wiesmeyer, oboe and keyboard; Licia Jaskunas, harp, and Christopher Norton, percussion. You can read about these musicians and the ensemble at www.aliasmusic.org.

 

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