Revel Solstice Festival

Revel inaugurated its contemporary chamber music festival with three programs offering music for everyone

Joel Becktell of Revel performs Ravel's <i>Boléro</i>.
Joel Becktell of Revel performs Ravel's Boléro.
Photo by Matthew Irwin

Revel Solstice Fest

Cobra Studios, 902 Gardner #21
June 20-22

You may have heard that classical music is in a bit of a crisis. Subscriptions are dropping. Conductors are pandering. Orchestras are disbanding. Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, has blamed fussy, staid audiences for turning away younger, enthusiastic ones, recalling himself how he refrained from expressing joy during one movement's performance so as not to upset the frown-faced blue hair next to him. Last weekend's inaugural Revel Solstice Festival spoke to Ross' notion that the word "classical" isn't relevant to the work being done on the contemporary stage.

Revel has been hosting house concerts since 2008, but, for the festival, the duo-turned-trio brought chamber music back into the chamber, as it were, using harpist Elaine Barber's Eastside studio as the setting. With guests including Trio Copine, the Zenith Quintet, and poet Nathan Brown, Revel hosted three programs playing off the idea of celebrating the summer solstice.

Thursday night's highlight had to be the "Stairway to Heaven" encore. I'm kidding, or, rather, Revel was kidding when it did close with the Led Zeppelin standard. It was a lighthearted conclusion to an evening centered on the theme of death with Debussy's last three sonatas, Nathan Currier's Sambuca Trio, and Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor. Heavy stuff for a hot night, but all too appropriate given the sense of foreboding I get from the Texas humidity.

Friday's program, which vacillated between minimalism and maximalism, was really lovely. Though Steven Snowden's "Steam Man of the Prairies," receiving its Austin premiere, wasn't what we'd call beautiful in the conventional sense, we recognized this sparse, industrial piece's more complicated relationship to beauty and emotion. In this work for alto sax, piano, and electronics, Snowden sought to bridge the gap of sound between the saxophone and piano by placing an electronic device inside the latter. "I love that sometimes you can't tell who's making the sound," said Revel's Carla McElhaney, who played the piano part.

The program ended with Ravel's Boléro, arranged by Revel for piano, four saxophones, harp, and violin. As McElhaney said of the wonderfully celebratory, one-movement piece, "You know it even if you don't know it."

Saturday's program, which I missed, featured Brown, who's worked with Revel before and whose poetry readings the group programs just like music. He does with words what Revel does with music, says McElhaney, but unlike lyrics, which more often than not agree with the music, Brown's poetry can start from the same place, thematically, then go off in its own direction.

Revel, likewise, has gone off in its own direction with programs such as these. Somewhere between the insanity of your average Austin music festival and the pomposity of the concert hall, Revel makes music for everyone. I highly advise you to attend a show, even if you think you've given classical music a try. As with food, there are many different styles and flavors, and you're allowed to dislike some of them. Plus, Revel has done half the work for you by getting rid of those persnickety old crowds.


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