Roll Over, Beerthoven
The Saengerrunde's new series turns classical music's "Three Bs" into brezels, bier, and bowling
We all proudly tout Austin as the live music capital of the world, but German immigrants began making music here before it was even cool. When they settled in Central Texas in the mid-1850s, they sang to preserve and honor their cultural heritage. In 1852, these Texasdeutschen had already formed a chorus, and by 1879, they formally created the Saengerrunde – arguably Austin's first "local band."
The Saengerrunde still exists today, making it Austin's oldest ethnic organization. The group maintains both male and female choirs, but it also manages non-music events that help to celebrate German traditions.
About a year ago, pianist Daniel Swayze started accompanying the Maennerchor (men's choir) and found its Monday night rehearsals to be a blast – equal parts music, beer, and camaraderie, with the emphasis on the joy of sharing music with others. He thought it would be great to bring that energy and laid-back vibe to an actual concert, so he asked about holding a performance in the historic choir rehearsal room. Because the Saengerrunde was founded on the love of German music, this would represent a new way to celebrate this delight with the public. The board enthusiastically approved. It even invested in a sonorous Bosendorfer piano and outfitted the room with acoustical improvements.
Within short order, the Beerthoven Concert Series was born – an ongoing presentation of great music by German-speaking composers, with lied (song) and chamber music for small ensembles performed in an intimate setting. The concept, Swayze explains, "is to encourage an open atmosphere, like what a house concert would have felt like when this music was first performed." The small venue creates an environment where people should feel comfortable letting their guard down.
Adding to the concerts' casual mood are some other Saengerrunde amenities. The Saengerrunde owns neighboring Scholz Garten and a Big Lebowski-style bowling alley – one of the oldest continuously operating in the U.S. These extra-musical perks are open throughout the program, so concertgoers can hit a strike as the musicians strike a chord. Moreover, Swayze has broken the program into 20-minute sets – bite-sized chunks of music with plenty of time between for the audience to grab pretzels, refill drinks, and chat. For the first concert, held this summer, he also enhanced the festive air with performances of German folk songs and classical drinking songs.
For the second concert, taking place this Sunday, Herr Swayze called upon Julie Fiore, Austin's resident opera renegade, to add some experimental flair. Fiore is the founder and director of One Ounce Opera, a self-proclaimed "punk" ensemble that reimagines and performs opera for novel contexts and audiences. In just a few years of existence, OOO has performed music that's run the gamut from Mozart to Queen, in bars and in the Blanton.
The group readily accepted the challenge to create an Oktoberfest spirit at this concert. Fiore worked with a vocal quartet to arrange excerpts from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus – an opera she chose specifically because of its famous party scene. They'll be injecting some interactive party games into the performance, though Fiore is quick to point out that this isn't as gratuitous and gimmicky an approach to audience fun as it might sound. "Because this opera has a lot of dialogue, there is a long performance practice of switching things up and throwing in some extra," she says. "This is already part of the tradition of this work." She wouldn't offer any more details for fear of spoiling the surprise, but she adds that "oohing and ahhing is encouraged."
Other works on this all-Deutsche program include music by classical's "Three Bs": movements of Brahms' Hungarian Dances for violin and piano, a solo suite for violin by Bach, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 101. Food, drinks from Scholz Garten, and bowling are included in the price of the ticket. By the time OOO comes out for the final act, Swayze predicts that the concert will "degenerate into a drunken party." Now, that's a whole new interpretation on "authentic performance practice." Prost!