Casting aside conventional thinking has been the Hall Ensemble’s unofficial mantra since forming seven years ago. In an artform steeped in centuries of tradition, the chamber quartet has intentionally avoided concert halls, churches, and museums in favor of homes and, most recently, a well-loved coffeeshop on the Near Southside.
The brainchild of two Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra members –– cellist Karen Hall and husband Kevin Hall on bassoon –– the ensemble has never been more popular. By taking classical music to the streets, the Halls plus two other FWSO folks, violinist Jennifer Chang and violist Aleksandra Holowka, get to connect with audiences directly while challenging themselves musically outside their day jobs.
“We get a lot of comments about our personal interactions in homes,” Karen said. “I never hear that from our [FWSO] patrons, who talk about the music, the sound. In our house concerts we get comments on how we’re looking at each other, what our bows are doing. It keeps me on my toes. And audience members talk about how moved they are, much more than I hear at the symphony.”
The ensemble began sort of by accident. In 2008, the Halls were invited to a mutual friend’s home in New Mexico. Naturally, they brought their instruments, and to the Halls’ surprise, the homeowner had invited over dozens of friends. The audience ate it up, enraptured by the quirky mix of bassoon and cello and smitten with Karen’s impromptu between-songs commentary about the repertoire. One of the concertgoers invited the Halls to perform as part of a new series in Mexico.
After that performance, the Halls decided they wanted to do more work together. But with help.
“We knew we needed to do something other than cello and bassoon duos for two hours,” Karen said.
The Halls immediately brought on Chang and Holowka and played the house concert circuit. In 2010, they filed for nonprofit status to be able to raise funds and support a steady concert series.
The first of three scheduled programs at Avoca Coffee was presented last October. The second is Sunday. “Brilliantly Brahms” will feature works by Brahms, Bach, Samuel Taylor, and Matthew Lucier and guest performances by two FWSO players: clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi and violinist Sergey Tsoy.
The Hall Ensemble is a kind of experiment. No other chamber group in Fort Worth holds concerts in coffee shops; uses bassoon, cello, violin, and viola; and mostly eschews popular works for lesser-known gems –– only at Hall Ensemble concerts will you hear tangos by living composer Lucier and Argentine crooner Carlos Gardel.
Those concerts are also the only place you’ll hear Gregory Sullivan Isaacs. Last year, the Hall Ensemble commissioned the Dallas composer to write a dramatic cantata for voice and chamber orchestra based on the speech that President John F. Kennedy was going to deliver on the day of his assassination. Along with mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy from Texas Christian University’s voice faculty and Denton baritone Jeffrey Snider, the ensemble performed Undelivered to enthusiastic audiences in houses and concert halls in Fort Worth, Weatherford, and DeSoto. The scope of the project, though, was tough on the musicians.
“It was hard work and extremely expensive,” Karen said. “Looking back, it was good we approached it with a large degree of naïvete. I just dealt with the expenses as they came along.”
Karen said she hopes to undertake similar projects in the future, but for now she is focused on less costly concerts.
The Hall Ensemble is now at a crossroads. One option is to stick with what’s been working and be content with that. Raising funds through donations, grants, and ticket sales is mostly what gives the ensemble its creative freedom. The other path is to expand into traditional venues, which would mean raising more funds, mostly from larger, more established, and reliable sources.
“We have some soul searching to do,” Karen said. “We have to find how we can best serve the community.”
7:30pm Sun at Avoca Coffee, 311 W Magnolia Av, FW.