A chat with Fifth House Ensemble co-founder, flutist and entrepreneur MELISSA SNOZA

April 7, 2011

Melissa Snoza is a co-founder and flutist of Fifth House Ensemble (5HE), a large chamber ensemble based in Chicago founded in 2005, with 10 musicians as members.  The core instrumentation of the group has a wind quintet, string trio, plus bass and piano. The group was formed after the members met through the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as their work in Musicorps, the outreach program of the orchestra.  Musicorps is a music education and advocacy program, and members have the opportunity to teach, mentor, and perform at various community sites serving diverse constituencies in order to promote music awareness, appreciation, and encourage audience development.  Melissa says, “It was an eye-opening experience and we wanted to continue that kind of work on our own…and as part of a larger group so we could explore some mixed repertoire as well.  We were a group that liked playing together a lot and we wanted to adjust the classical music experience so that it’s something really living…”

LL:  What makes 5HE unique, and at the same time, how do you see 5HE’s role as part of a changing musical landscape with more musicians as entrepreneurs, creating their own opportunities?

MS:  There are definitely similar groups like us trying to answer similar questions in really different ways.  I think this has been a good way for us to engage different audiences and artists in Chicago who wouldn’t have worked together before. I think the way we work is unique; collaboration is central to our mission.  Whenever we work with a collaborator we don’t dictate to them exactly what they should do. We work collaboratively with various artists in the creative process and the final product has to be the result of collaboration.

I also think our educational work is unique in Chicago and has an important purpose as music in public schools is often targeted in budget cuts.  Students are able to interact with live chamber musicians, and I think good educational work is part of our responsibility as musicians.

About the bigger picture, the market place for the arts is definitely changing, and we are not unique in the questions we are asking and answering, such as looking for deeper meanings and creating meaningful collaborations, partnerships and programs that also are of interest to audiences.

LL:  What does the name Fifth House Ensemble mean?

MS:  The name comes from astrology, and the fifth house in astrology is the house of creativity, pleasure and the arts. And one thing that attracted us to that (name) was that we wanted to bring together different art forms through our work.

LL:  Can you tell me more specifics about the mission of the ensemble.

MS:  Well we have four major areas of focus, and the first of our four major areas of focus is our subscription series, which is basically our playground where we play with weird collaborations of artists from different genres, exploring storytelling in our performances, and these are all self-produced.  For example we did a modern retelling of Grimm’s Tales (The Weaver’s Tales) using physical theater (no dialogue, with the action being shown through movement). The actors’ bodies were used to tell stories.  (Their website describes the “The Weaver’s Tales” as “a Unique Twist on Grimm’s Fairytales, incorporating Music, Storytelling and a Feast for the Eyes in Physical Theatre and Fashion Design!”)

The second area of focus is our public performances in non-traditional and traditional venues.  A traditional venue is for example, the Miller Theatre, and a non-traditional venue is for example the Shedd Aquarium.  We build collaborative efforts between the organizations to create performances that are meaningful for the venue. We had a white grand piano donated for a performance of George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale at the Shedd Aquarium the day the baby beluga whale was there, it was fantastic.

The third area of focus is the ensembles’ educational work, where we link music to co-curricular subjects (for example: a rhythmic ostinato is similar to the meter of a limerick or the balance between instruments in a chamber group is similar to the living elements of an ocean ecosystem).  Our work helps students to interact with the art form on a completely different level. (For more on 5HE’s innovative educational work visit http://fifth-house.com/?page_id=175)

The fourth area of focus is entrepreneurship, and we travel to universities and conservatories and work towards helping artists to find their artistic voice as well as offering practical business advice, and ideas on creative marketing.  We’ve been a part of the discussions of music training changes that need to happen. Absolutely you can’t be a marginal musician to make it. You still have to be the best on your instrument, have skills, train at highest level…but it’s not enough.

LL: How do you choose your rep?  What is it about a work that says YES we’ll program it?

MS:  We have a lengthy democratic process regarding repertoire choices with each of 10 members nominating pieces each spring for the following year.  Everyone looks into 4-5 pieces contributed by each member—these are pieces that we all want to play before we die, and imagine 4-5 pieces x 10 people, and that’s a lot of pieces to go through. It’s a long process but important….we have to listen to all the pieces. And we rate each piece generally speaking, and then we look at balancing the instrumentation and give each piece a “programmability score” and prioritize the pieces at our programming meeting.  It’s a balancing act, we’re not just programming concerts but we’re programming stories.  We have main cornerstone pieces that we want to play but then we have to consider what pieces are right for each scene, and then we fit holes in with other music from our list as needed. It’s a balance between players, and also a balance between traditional and non-traditional works.  We start with the music we want to program over the entire series, and then we work with collaborators to think of some general story-line ideas….basically we create the story-line around our music choices. (For more on their process in choosing rep visit http://fifth-house.com/?p=1400)

LL: Can you tell me about one particularly successful program?

MS:  One that comes to mind is one that we took big risks on where we paired Beethoven and Carter, but it was our Cinderella and Devil program, “The Devil’s Work”, with the Beethoven Septet representing the “classical” Cinderella and Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord representing the Devil chopping up the three sisters and throwing them in a closet, and that’s perfect music for that.  What you get in the concert experience is not the entire Beethoven and not the entire Carter….you get a couple of movements of this, and one of that, in the same way as you would experience scenes like on TV or in a movie.  So when we first started programming like this it was a huge risk.

LL:  And what has been the reaction to programming works in this way, which obviously wasn’t their original intention….and the pieces are “supposed” to be performed in their entirety as well….

MS:  The audience response to programs like this has been so positive, even audiences including people who traditionally can’t stand classical music, audiences who have never seen classical music, and also we got this response from people who sit on the Chicago Symphony board.  It’s been great to see that people on all levels of engagement could enjoy music this way and as a chamber group we all have the same idea in our minds that helps us to engage, and whether it is a story or image, it helps us to play through the phrase a certain way.  And so this is our way of telling our audience what we’re thinking…so we’re all on the same level.   (For more about the above mentioned program “The Devil’s Work, visit http://fifth-house.com/?p=1286)

The Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble is a versatile and dynamic group praised by the New York Times for its “conviction, authority, and finesse.” Fifth House’s innovative programs engage audiences through their connective programming and unexpected performance venues. For more on Fifth House Ensemble, visit http://fifth-house.com/

The Artists of the Fifth House Ensemble:

Melissa Snoza, flute

Crystal Hall, oboe

Jennifer Woodrum, clarinet

Karl Rzasa, bassoon

DeAunn Davis, horn

Drew Williams, violin

Clark Carruth, viola

Herine Coetzee Koschak, cello

Eric Snoza, double bass

Adam Marks, piano

Laura Lentz ©2011

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