Variations on a theme

Chamber quartet celebrates San Antonio museum’s 40th anniversary with artful concert

Chamber quartet celebrates SAMA’s 40th anniversary with artful concert

The four members of the Agarita chamber quartet line up with their instruments.
Agarita's concert at the SAMA combines artworks with eclectic music, from baroque composer George Friderich Handel to 20th century pioneer of the nuevo tango movement Astor Piazzolla, and more. Photo by Natalia Sun

As does everything, art goes better with music. Not that the San Antonio Museum of Art needs any help with its 40th anniversary collection. It’s been on display since October 16, but this Sunday, December 12, chamber music group Agarita adds another dimension to the 40 works exhibited, which range from a mummified cat to a portrait of a Hollywood star retired in San Antonio. The compositions programmed correspond to the artworks, and reflect the same cultural undercurrents that birthed them.

It’s one of several shows Agarita will bring to San Antonians this month as the group works to share the thrills and culture of classical music with the community on a more approachable level.

“I’ve been to the exhibit and it has an incredible amount of variety of cultures and time periods,” says Agarita artistic director and pianist Daniel Anastasio. “So, in this program, I tried to capture that variety as much as I could, and also tried to give reference to specific pieces of art.”

One such artwork, Mary, Lady Arundell of Wardour by English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, is connected in the program with a musical work by one of his contemporaries in London, George Frideric Handel, with his Violin Sonata in D major. Although the works were likely created five decades apart within the 18th century, Anastasio hopes the two stately pieces can transport listeners to a similar place and time (when SoundCloud didn’t exist and major world changes didn’t necessarily occur between decades).

Another musical selection, Caroline Shaw’s Thousandth Orange represents the renewability of art — an apt theme for a collection comprising works viewed thousands of times over thousands of years across various locales. Using a basic four-chord structure, Shaw slowly begins to build an avant-garde spinning-out surge, which lasts 11 minutes and raises questions about what we consider to be very simple and how that simplicity can expand to contain infinite possibility. (Anastasio points out that Shaw was inspired by Brahms’ piano quartets in conceptualizing Thousandth Orange, one of which closes the SAMA concert.)

“Those bowls of fruit we see framed in museums: sort of lovely and banal at first glance but then richer when considered in the long story of humans painting things that they see, over and over and over again,” Shaw writes in the program notes. “Maybe after the 10th, or the 100th, or the 1,000th time one paints, or looks at, or eats an orange (or plays a simple cadential figure), it is just as beautiful as the first time. There is still more to see and to hear and to love.”

Thankfully, the museum and the chamber group both know it takes quite an attention span to view a thousand oranges. The concert only lasts 75 minutes, and visitors are encouraged to peruse the Great Hall while listening. Visitors can walk around if they want to, or take a seat and allow the ambiance to wash over them for the entire performance. This laid-back type of concert is common both for Agarita — which performs in spaces as unorthodox as warehouses — and chamber music in general, meant to be played in small, friendly gatherings.

Anastasio, an instructor at San Antonio College, encourages students to check out concerts in the middle of the day. As SAMA visitors will find, this leaves little to bail on under the weight of a tiring day, and plenty of time to act on inspiration afterward. These things take time to sink in.

“We’re trying to really shuck that whole idea of classical music being this ivory tower thing that you have to obey rules about,” says Anastasio. “But the flip side of that is that this old music is worth your time, and your interest, and your concern. We want to pay tribute to incredible works by those older composers while putting them right up against new works.”

It’s more unusual for Agarita to play without an external collaborator than with one, so this four-piece structure gives the quartet a rare chance to return to its roots, following SAMA’s example. After this centering exercise, the group will return to its outdoor concerts on its portable stage.

To pursue its mission of making classical music accessible to everyone, Agarita is bringing the “Humble Hall” stage to every district in San Antonio. On Saturday, December 18, the group will perform at the H-E-B on Grissom Road in the morning, and at McAllister Park in the afternoon. The group’s next guest, violinist Samantha Bennett, will join for a special out-of-town performance hosted by the Fredericksburg Music Club on January 16, 2022. More information on Agarita’s 2021-2022 season can be found at agarita.org.

The San Antonio Museum of Art will continue celebrating its anniversary through January 2, 2022. Its next special exhibit focuses on Portland-born Apsáalooke (Crow) Tribe artist Wendy Red Star.

The Agarita concert on Sunday, December 12 is free, as is admission that day to SAMA. For more information on the collection, visit samuseum.org.