Photo from Tetractys New Music: Density512 performs for a packed crowd at the first ever Here Be Monsters New Music Festival.



Our annual round-up of the best news, events, and performances in the Austin classical community is here! This year's list was compiled by a committee of KMFA staff and on-air personalities including Chief Executive Officer George Preston, Director of Broadcasting & Content Anthony McSpadden, Director of Events Stacey Hoyt, On-Air Personalities Dianne Donovan and Sara Schneider, and Director of Sales & Marketing Todd Hogan. It was such a big year for classical music in our city that we had to expand our list to the Top Twelve Highlights of 2023 - listed here in no particular order.

1. Here Be Monsters Music Festival by Tetractys New Music

On a beautiful Saturday in May, Austin's indie-classical music community came together at the Butterfly Bar for a five-hour event featuring 15 performances including 11 world premieres. Organized by Tetractys New Music, Here Be Monsters celebrated the unique culture and identity of Austin's music creators and featured Invoke, Montopolis, Kraken Quartet, Density512, Golden Hornet, LOLA, One Ounce Opera, Convergence, Goliath Was Bigfoot, Tom Echols, Less Than<10 Music, Nathan Felix, VAMP, Studio A (with Avek Dongol), and Tetractys New Music. It was an amazing glimpse into the incredibly robust new music scene in Austin that KMFA is so proud to support!

Photo from Tetractys New Music: Density512 performs at Here Be Monsters. | Video: Avek Dongol performs in the Draylen Mason Music Studio.


2. KMFA Expands its SXSW Footprint, Unofficially

KMFA has been a long-time sponsor of the SXSW Official ATX Composer Showcase with Golden Hornet, and this year's event at Parker Jazz Club was no exception. Several Austin artists leading the charge on revitalizing classical music for the modern age; Austin Unconducted, Density512, Invoke, Graham Reynolds, and Mother Falcon were all featured on the 2023 lineup. The event was standing room only for most of the evening and gave those in attendance a truly magical SX-experience. 

In addition, KMFA partnered with composer Nathan Felix for an Unofficial Day Party in the Draylen Mason Music Studio. KMFA's new space seemed the perfect spot to bring an eclectic mix of classically-infused music from the likes of Lucianna Astorga, Joseph Choi & Chunghui Kim, Mauricio Callejas, Perpetual Motion Quintet, Randall Holt, Catherine Davis, Thomas Echols, Inversion Ensemble, LOLA, Panoramic Voices, Kenzie Slottow, Peter Stopschinski, Norte Sur, VAMP, and more! The wonderful music was complimented by the premiere of new projection technology in the venue and the SXSW-vibe was made complete with music fans networking and enjoying complimentary beverages throughout the building. Stay tuned for more information on plans for a 2024 event coming soon!

Photo from Nathan Felix: KMFA Unofficial SXSW Showcase curator Nathan Felix on the stage in the Draylen Mason Music Studio. | Video 1: Panoramic Voices sings "Bridge Over Troubled Water" at the Unofficial SXSW Showcase at KMFA. | Video 2: Peter Stopschinski's "The Massacre of Spring." Recorded live at KMFA's Draylen Mason Studio, March 2023.


3. Austin Opera's Sweeney Todd

While all of Austin Opera's productions are impressive, if we must single out one performance from this past year it would be its sold-out production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. KMFA's Chief Executive Officer George Preston has seen the original cast on Broadway, the revival starring Patti LuPone, and the New York Philharmonic performance featuring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, and he exclaimed that Austin Opera's production would stand with any of those. Preston adds that if you're worried that it might not technically be an opera, he has heard no less a figure than Jake Heggie, composer of Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, refer to Sweeney Todd as "the great American opera," so we're happy to add it to KMFA's end-of-year classical highlights list, and look forward to more great pieces of music theater from Austin Opera in 2024! Listen to Dianne Donovan talk to Mela Daily (Mrs. Lovett) and Kevin Burdette (Sweeney Todd), as well as Artistic Director Timothy Meyers about the production here.

Photo from Austin Opera: Mela Daily (Mrs. Lovett) and Kevin Burdette (Sweeney Todd) in Austin Opera's Sweeney Todd.


4. Conspirare's Grammy®-Nominated Album, House of Belonging

Grammy® Award-winning Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare celebrated their 30th Anniversary with a new album, and another Grammy Nomination in 2023! The new album, House of Belongingfeaturing Austin's Miró Quartet, violinist Sandy Yamamoto, cellist Daniel Kopp, and pianist Carla McElhaney, was nominated for Best Choral Performance. It stems in part from two concerts Conspirare performed in the fall of 2022, which featured fifteen world premieres. House of Belonging is a musical exploration of home and belonging with works by Craig Hella Johnson, Shara Nova, Alex Birko, Kevin Puts, Michael Schachter, Derrick Skye, and more. Not a bad way to celebrate the group's 30-year contribution to the Austin music community.


5. Vox Luminis at Arts on Alexander

Arts on Alexander has been on a mission to showcase exceptional ensembles from around the globe and right here at home since it began in 2019. They succeeded once again this past October when they hosted Belgium's award-winning ensemble Vox Luminis in a program of cantatas by the young J.S. Bach. Under the direction of Lionel Meunier, Vox Luminis wowed the audience with their outstanding musicality, passion, and charisma. KMFA's Rideshare host Sara Schneider spoke with Meunier about these rarely heard gems among Bach's early works. Listen to their conversation here.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the home of Arts on Alexander, also hosted homegrown talent like Texas Early Music Project, La Follia, Ensemble VIII, Philharmonie Austin, and more this year. 

Photo from KMFA: Vox Luminis Artistic Director Lionel Meunier with KMFA host Sara Schneider.


6. Nathan Felix's Borderland performed by Panoramic Voices

While this year's KMFA Offbeat Concert Series hit homeruns with the likes of Daniel Fears, VAMP, and Adelante Winds, it was Nathan Felix's Borderland performed by Panoramic Voices that impressed us with its unique use of our beloved new home, including the Draylen Mason Music Studio. Sightlines Magazine wrote that Felix's immersive opera Borderland "dissolves traditional boundaries between audiences and performers, observers and subjects...staging the performances throughout different areas in the KMFA building, opting for staging choices and sonic palettes that push the audience's expectations about where spectatorship ends, and performance begins." The opera itself is based on stories about migration from immigrants Felix met and interviewed in Texas and throughout the United States. Panoramic Voices used the force of more than 100 voices to tell their stories. 

Video header from Nathan Felix: Composer Nathan Felix presented his new opera Borderland performed by Panoramic Voices at KMFA. | Video 2: VAMP Vocal Ensemble premieres "A Todas Las Mujeres De Mi Vida" (2023) by Laura Mercado-Wright, live at The Draylen Mason Music Studio as part of KMFA Classical's Offbeat Concert Series.


7. World-Class Women with the Austin Symphony Orchestra

There were so many wonderful performances by the Austin Symphony Orchestra in 2023, it's hard to cite just we won't! Instead, we congratulate Maestro Peter Bay and ASO for bringing in some of the top women in classical music over the past year. Pianist Michelle Cann dazzled audiences with her performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in February, Olga Kern displayed extraordinary virtuosity and stamina in presenting ALL of Rachmaninoff's works for piano and orchestra over two different programs on consecutive nights, and trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden played two works by contemporary women composers, Reena Ismail's Rosa De Sal, and the Texas premiere of Bohemian Queen by Clarice Assad, who was also KMFA's 2023 Draylen Mason Composer-in-Residence. Watch Dianne Donovan's interview with Mary Elizabeth Bowden here.

Photo from Sun News Austin: Michelle Cann performs with Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra.


8. KMFA Composer-in-Residence Clarice Assad

Following the inauguration of KMFA's first Draylen Mason Composer-in-Residence, Clarice Assad was chosen for the honors in 2023. The Brazilian-born Chicagoan and member of the uber-talented Assad family (Dad Sergio, Uncle Odair, and Aunt Badi), Clarice is renowned the world over for her work in jazz, world music, and writing in the classical genre. Assad began her residency in May with visits to schools in Central Texas, including the Ann Richards School, East Austin Prep, and Akins School, where she delighted music students with workshops to inspire them to compose music using shapes and sounds. She also demonstrated her workshop, VOXploration, with young students from Blackshear Elementary, spent time on the air at KMFA, and ended the week in a memorable and fun performance with Invoke in the Draylen Mason Music Studio.

Returning for the premiere in September, Clarice was on campus so much at the University of Texas that she was presented with a signature burnt orange hoodie! While here, she gave a talk to a composer's forum, spoke to students about her experience as a woman composer and vocalist, and gave a series of master classes to composition students in what shaped up to be an Assad-focused week here in Austin; performances with her father Sergio, presented by Austin Classical Guitar, rehearsals with the UT Symphony Orchestra, a performance of her music with UT's New Music Ensemble led by Marc Sosnowchik, and finally the premiere of the work KMFA commissioned of her, Baiao n' Blues, before hundreds of concert-goers at Bates Recital Hall. The performance, led by Maestro Douglas Kinney Frost, opened the UTSO's fall season, and was a real crowd-pleaser! See the performance in its entirety here

Video header from KMFA: 2023 Composer-in-Residence Clarice Assad introduction video. | Video 2 by Jack Kloecker: KMFA commissioned piece, Baiao n' Blues by Clarice Assad performed by the UT Symphony Orchestra at Bates Recital Hall, October 2023.


9. Inversion Ensemble & Density512 Tackle Björk's Songbook

Audiences basked in art-pop glamor over Halloween weekend with a special collaboration between Inversion Ensemble and Density512 that paid tribute to legendary Icelandic singer Björk with freshly reimagined versions of her most beloved songs including Venus As a Boy, Hidden Place, It's Oh So Quiet, Human Behaviour, and more - all set for voices and chamber orchestra. The two concerts featured new arrangements by James Tabata, Adrienne Inglis, Benjamin Dia, Marjorie Halloran, Carol Brown, Suzette Emberton, François Minaux, Nick Montopoli, Jordan Walsh, Sophie Mathieu, and Trevor Shaw. No matter if you've been a career fan of Björk or you were discovering her music for the first time, it was a mesmerizing evening of beautiful music.

Photo from Inversion Ensemble: Trevor Shaw conducts as Inversion Ensemble and Density512 perform the Björk Songbook.


10. Austin Unconducted with Daniel Fears

Austin Unconducted came blazing onto the scene last year with its cooperative-style orchestra that re-examines the long arc of musical tradition through a contemporary lens. from the beginning they knew they didn't want a conductor, but rather a democratic, collaborative, and representative approach to classical music - rethinking every step of the process. A Cornerstone of that approach is featuring a community curator, a voice who they think has an important message. Coming off the huge success of two sold-out KMFA Offbeat shows this past spring, Austin-based R&B singer Daniel Fears seemed poised to take on such a role. See Fears' video for "Keep On" recorded in teh Draylen Mason Music Studio here.

Fears, a classically trained trombonist, turned his focus to writing, producing and performing R&B music after suffering a lip injury while working on his graduate degree at Yale School of Music. He went back to his classical roots for the Offbeat concerts by pairing orchestration and string arrangements with his music. This caught the attention of Austin Unconducted and led to two sold out concerts earlier this month. The shows paired three of Fears' original songs with works for string orchestra. Inspired by Daniel's interest in Dub and traditional West African percussion music, the program spotlighted his intuitive musicianship and Unconducted's modern take on classical music. Daniel's songs were paired alongside works by J.S. Bach, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Charleton Singleton, as well as newly composed transitions between the pieces by members of Unconducted, offering concert-goers a fresh way to listen to each style. 

Photo by Todd Hogan from KMFA: Daniel Fears performs with Austin Unconducted in the Draylen Mason Music Studio at KMFA. | Video from Daniel Fears: "Keep On" taped in the Draylen Mason Music Studio.


11. Terence Blanchard and Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Terence Blanchard is one of those rare creative beings who is equally at home in the jazz and classical worlds. Texas Performing Arts brought the chamber version of his groundbreaking opera Fire Shut up in My Bones to Austin, giving audiences a different and powerful take on this "opera in jazz," and KMFA was honored to host Blanchard in the Draylen Mason Music Studio for two conversations about his work and new directions in opera, one with our own Dianne Donovan, and one with Dr. Charles Carson of the UT Butler School of Music. Watch Dianne's interview with Blanchard here.

Photo from KMFA: Terence Blanchard sits down with KMFA's Dianne Donovan to talk about his career. | Video by Jack Kloecker.


12. The Long Center Brings Itzhak, and The Music Critic to Austin

Austin is blessed to be home to The Long Center for the Performing Arts, and although it may be cheating a little, we're putting the spotlight on two different shows that graced the stage in the Dell Hall this year: An Evening with Itzhak Perlman and The Music Critic with John Malkovich. 

Undeniably the reigning virtuoso of the violin, Itzhak Perlman enjoys superstar status rarely afforded a classical musician. Beloved for his charm and humanity as well as his talent, he is treasured by audiences throughout the world who respond not only to his remarkable artistry, but also to his irrepressible joy for making music. Perlman brought his retrospective show to the sold-out Long Center this past February to share the story of his life and career through anecdotes, musical pieces and personal photos from his archives. Itzhak stopped by the Draylen Mason Music Studio at KMFA for a chat with Sara Schneider before the show. You can listen to the interview here.

Later in the year, the same stage was graced by the great actor, John Malkovich, as The Music Critic. This hilarious theater piece with music celebrating the immortal/infamous words of actual critics weighing in on some of the most beloved masterworks and composers in the classical universe. Playwright and violinist Aleksey Igudesman and his quartet provided the music while Malkovich's voice cascaded over the notes with biting passion and certainty. A highlight of the show was Malkovich reading a review of his own work as an actor, titled, The Malkovich Torment. You can listen to an interview that KMFA's Dianne Donovan did with Malkovich and Igudesman here.

Photo from KMFA: Itzhak Perlman stops by KMFA to speak with Sara Schneider and new CEO George Preston.