Music

Musical journeys part of Coral Gables CAP Summer Concert Series

Written By Mathew Messa
June 20, 2023 at 5:24 PM

The Sinta Quartet is, from left, Danny Hawthorne-Foss, Joe Girard, Zach Stern and Dan Graser. The saxophonists are changing the way the musical instrument is marginalized. The foursome performs Thursday, Aug. 3, as part of the Community Arts Program Summer Concert Series. (Photo courtesy of Community Arts Program)

In the second installment of the Community Arts Program Summer Concert Series on Thursday, June 22, audiences will certainly hear the musicianship of Mark Kowoser, the principal cellist for the Cleveland Orchestra, which has made him a sought-after guest soloist for major symphonies. But this year, Mark Hart, executive and artistic director of the Community Arts Program, says the concert experience will be even more personal in the intimate surroundings of the Coral Gables Congregational Church.

Hart, who founded the Community Arts Program a decade ago and its after-school Conservatory of the Arts is always looking for ways to improve the audience experience he says. The Summer Concert Series has been held at the church since 1985. The 2023 series began on Thursday, June 8, and features performances each Thursday through Aug. 17.

This year, audiences will hear from the performers throughout the evening about their background and their relationship to the music they are playing.

Mark Kosower, principal cello of The Cleveland Orchestra performs Thursday, June 22 and is featured in the first master class open to any musician young or old on Friday, June 23. (Photo courtesy of Community Arts Program)

The idea came from a survey of those who attended last year’s series and also feedback that Hart, well, took to heart.

“What I found was so many people would either ask me after the concerts, or I would get phone calls and emails from people asking me about the artists and wanting to know more information about them,” says Hart, adding that when he floated talkback idea, he was met with the overwhelming response, “Yes, we would love to hear more about the artists and their stories in this setting.”

This year’s lineup is diverse and packed with talent.

Kowoser, joined by pianist Melivia Raharjo, will perform the music of Beethoven, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Krenek, Myaskovsky, and Martin at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 22 in the historic church.

On Thursday, July 6, it’s 5 String Swing with Steffen Zeichner, violin; Flexter Henderson, clarinet, saxophone and cajón; Greg Diamond, guitar, and Benjamin Whitman, bass. They’ll perform songs from Cole Porter to George Gershwin and talk about their love of the music from the Great American Songbook. Enter the world of The Big Easy on Thursday, July 20 with New Orleans’ musicians Shannon Powell, drums and vocals; Kyle Roussel, piano; and Grayson Brockamp, bass.

5 String Swing, led by Grammy-winning violinist Steffen Zeichner, pictured top left, will perform July 6. Clockwise are Ziechner, Flexter Henderson, Benjamin Whitman and Greg Diamond. (Photo courtesy of Community Arts Program)

Dan Graser, one-fourth of saxophone group Sinta Quartet, is one of the artists that will share his story when they headline the CAP series on Thursday, Aug. 3.

Formed in 2011 by Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard and Danny Hawthorne-Foss when the four members were attending the University of Michigan, the Sinta Quartet is a rarity — a professional classical saxophone quartet.

” . . . Frequently people would see a saxophone quartet and think ‘Oh that’s probably going to be a jazz thing,’ or ‘That’s probably going to be a pop or light classical and then jazz thing,’ ” says Graser. “If there’s one thing (that) I think people have gotten a better sense of, it’s just how much of a chameleon the saxophone can be.”

After touring extensively around the U.S. and the globe, and releasing two albums, Graser believes they are widening the narrow view around what the saxophone sound — that it can be a classical instrument and not pigeon-holed into jazz or pop. “Both of those are fine art forms, but the saxophone is capable of a lot more,” he says.

Graser and the quartet will perform a program titled “New Traditions,” which features works by traditional composers Antonín Dvořák, György Ligeti, and bluegrass musician Bela Fleck.

Performers featured in the concert series will host a two-hour master class and jam session open to anyone, from kids to adults, the Friday morning following their performance inside the Coral Gables church. Kosower will host the first in the series on Friday, June 23 at 10 a.m. Other classes and jam sessions are with 5 String Swing, who will perform in the concert series on Thursday, July 6,  and New Orleans’ drum master Shannon Powell, who performs in the series on Thursday, July 20 and will host a class-jam on Friday, July 21. The Sinta Quartet will host the final master class and jazz session on Friday, Aug. 4.

The Shannon Powell Trio, featuring New Orleans percussionist Shannon Powell, performs July 20. (Photo courtesy of Community Arts Program)

For Graser, Stern, Girard and Hawthorn-Foss, who are all either university or private instructors, and whose quartet is proudly named after one of their influential music professors, Donald Sinta, the opportunity to teach the next generation of musicians is invaluable.

“If you ask a lot of musicians what made them take up an instrument or what made them decide to study an instrument as a major, it’s usually that they had a direct encounter with it from a guest performer in their school, or they had a guest performer come to their community,” says Graser, “These days, of course, they may stumble upon it online and such and become interested that way, but really a lot of our direct experiences are the inspiration to take up instruments.”

For Cameroonian-American jazz vocalist Ekep Nkwelle, her earliest inspiration might fall under Graser’s “these days” category. She recalls being in high school and watching an episode of a Looney Tunes cartoon show with her younger brother. She heard the red-haired monster Gossamer (Kwesi Boakye) perform jazz vocalist Sara Vaughn’s version of “September in the Rain” in the episode “Monster Talent.” After dozens of television rewinds, the two took to the internet and found Vaughn’s live rendition of the song.

“From then on, not only was that song and rendition, and that album my thing, but from then on Sara Vaughn became my person,” says Nkwelle, “I felt like she was my fairy godmother inducting me into the world of jazz. I’ve always strived to sing with that same spirit and that same soulfulness that she has.”

Years after she discovered Vaughn’s song, Nkwelle placed second in the Sara Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2022 against contestants from over 25 countries. Now, after recently graduating with a master’s degree in jazz voice from New York’s Juilliard School, Nkwelle is transitioning to a full-time career as a recording and performing artist. She admits it was an increasingly intimidating idea as she neared the end of her studies.

Ekep Nkwelle performs for CAP’s summer concert series as the final of the 2023 season on Thursday, Aug. 17. (Photo courtesy of Community Arts Program)

“Honestly, coming out of school, it was very scary. I think around January I began to think about what was next, but I had a little more time to sit in school, and be sheltered and not actively have to experience that anxiety,” says Nkwelle, “But by the time I got to May, I began to realize that my June, July, and August looked really good in terms of like opportunities in New York and in (Washington) D.C. That’s when I was like ‘Oh not only do I think that I can do this, but I’m also already doing it,’ I just didn’t realize.”

The wealth of opportunity also helped quell her family’s fears. Nkwelle’s parents, who immigrated to the United States from Cameroon, worried that a life of hardship could be ahead of her with a career in music.

“It’s not because they didn’t believe in me, it’s not because they didn’t love me, it was a fear that came from a lack of understanding… my mother once had a heart-to-heart with me and she let me know that in Cameroon when you see musicians or you see artists, you see struggle,” says Nkwelle.

Eventually, as Nkwelle’s career began to take shape, her mother came around. Between performing at NPR’s famed Tiny Desk with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble and preparing to record her first album, due early next year, Nkwelle is rising, and she wants students that may be in the audience at her CAP performance in August to take away a message that they can find success as performers. too.

“I feel like there’s no better way I can say it… If you work hard, if you are determined to make this thing happen for you, and you are consistent, it could happen to you.”

Nkwelle closes out the summer series on Thursday, Aug. 17, joined by pianist Luther Allison, Jason Clotter on bass, and Hank Allen-Barfield on drums.

WHAT: “Community Arts Program 2023 Summer Concert Series ”

WHERE: 3010 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables

WHEN: Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, through Aug. 17. Master classes and jam sessions 10 a.m. Fridays, through Aug. 4.

TICKETS:  $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Master classes and jam sessions are free and audiences are invited to watch. Musicians who want to perform or jam need to register.

 INFORMATION: 305-448-7421 or communityartsprogram.org

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