The rehearsal abruptly paused.
“Does it feel like we’re dragging?” soprano Allison Stanford asked.
“Yes!” pianist Cheryl Lemmons and clarinettist Leslie “Pinkie” Simmons collectively replied.
The trio, rehearsing in Lemmons’ Ridglea Hills apartment, was halfway through Franz Schubert’s “Totus in Corde Langueo.” Now with a livelier tempo, the rehearsal resumed. Simmons bobbed and swayed in time with the unfolding melodies, her eyes casually following Stanford’s lead. Lemmons made light work of the busy piano reduction — an extended solo at the end left her joking about how lonely the work’s conclusion felt.
The Little Trio was polishing up before its Saturday concert at Arts Fifth Avenue. The chamber group’s off-the-beaten path approach to classical music refrains from exclusively focusing on classical music in lieu of a blend of country, Western Swing, Irish folk songs, and pretty much anything of quality that can be arranged for voice, piano, and clarinet.
“Nothing is off the table,” Simmons told me after the rehearsal. “We keep throwing it on the table and picking things out. Nothing gets thrown away.”
The musicians each have extensive professional performing experience. What drew the women together was an appreciation for a variety of genres and a hunger to reach larger audiences than they could as soloists.
“We have to get out of our ivory tower as classical musicians and bring music to the people,” Lemmons said.
The ensemble formed in mid-2016, when Stanford met Simmons at a concert organized by Open Classical, a Dallas-based performing arts organization that uses the open-mic concept to reach new fans. Lemmons joined the trio last fall after moving to Fort Worth from Abilene. The musicians maintain a steady but not hectic performance schedule in North Texas. In addition to eclectic repertoire, The Little Trio peppers improvisations and interactive games throughout its recitals.
One audience favorite involves asking a listener to cut any number of words from a selection of prose. The remaining fragments are then used as text for an improvised song. A similar activity asks someone in the audience to suggest a phrase that is used as the basis for a spontaneously composed song.
As Lemmons, Simmons, and Stanford solidify their repertoire, they are making plans for the future, which they said will include competing in chamber music competitions, performing regionally, developing an educational outreach program, and forming a nonprofit. Children have much more than listening skills to glean from chamber music, Simmons said.
“We want to work with younger students,” she said. In a small ensemble, “there’s no one to hide behind. You can’t simply stare at music. Chamber music helps their communication skills,” because each musician has to follow and fit in with the others.
The concert at Arts Fifth Avenue will feature Irish folk songs, classical music favorites, improvisations, indie-pop arrangements, and a sure-to-be-popular closer — Bob Wills’ “Big Balls in Cowtown.” Proceeds from the concert will go directly to Art Fifth Avenue. The benefit concert is a way of giving back to the location where Stanford and Simmons met. The musicians said the event will be low-key, like all of their performances. Stanford likened her group to a band.
“I’m lead singer, Pinkie is the guitarist, and [Lemmons] is the rhythm section,” she said.
As a genre, chamber music is performed often enough in Fort Worth, thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and Mimir Chamber Music Festival. What has been missing are native ensembles, especially with the recent disbanding of the Hall Ensemble.
Chamber music, with its low overhead and flexibility, offers a bright future for classical music, the three musos told me at the end of our interview. Conservatories and colleges of music often direct performers toward careers soloists, sometimes to the detriment of small ensembles, Stanford said.
“Musicians are so focused on chasing their solo careers that they forget what a gift they can have in each other,” she said.
The Little Trio
Sat at Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 5th Av, FW. $15. 817-923-9500.