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Bringing Bach home

ASO's Katherine Williamson is spreading appreciation for classical music.

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BATON AND BOW: ASO violinist Katherine Williamson is putting classical repertoire into unconventional spaces, and inviting a new audience to hear it. - KELLY HICKS
  • Kelly Hicks
  • BATON AND BOW: ASO violinist Katherine Williamson is putting classical repertoire into unconventional spaces, and inviting a new audience to hear it.
The do-it-yourself music scene rarely incorporates classical music, but violinist Katherine Williamson, a member of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, is changing the way people experience recitals: She's bringing symphonic sounds into the living room, both hers and her friends'. She's begun a series of "pop-up recitals" with the Rockefeller String Quartet as a way to educate audiences about classical music in a comfortable setting. The performances also benefit charities.

It started with a rehearsal at her house. "We had a dress rehearsal for our recital at the Clinton [Presidential Center] and the violinist in my group said, 'Hey, maybe we should invite some people to prepare ourselves for the concert.' " Ten people were invited, but the quartet ended up with an audience of nearly 40. "They were crawling on my spiral stairs and sitting on my bed listening. It was great!" Williamson said. In the informal setting, the quartet could casually and informatively introduce their pieces. After getting such a positive response, Williamson and her friends decided to give more living room recitals.

Williamson, who was born and raised in St. Paul, Minn., in a family of musicians, began learning violin when she was a little more than 3 years old. After graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington with a bachelor's of arts degree in violin performance, she auditioned for the ASO, and relocated to Arkansas five years ago. Her position at the ASO allowed her to perform across the state, be a part of educational events and teach private lessons.

Cleverly titled "Bach in the House," Williamson's living room concerts make a point of giving back to the community, the first of which benefited Arkansas Women's Outreach. Williamson said she hoped more people would find the music accessible and familiar by offering casual lectures before the pieces. Members of the quartet encourage the audience to listen for the parts they themselves found most interesting, and both listener and the musician are able to form a connection with each other as the composition is played.

Comfortable settings, shared historical information and a focus on fundraising works toward Williamson's broader goal: to promote inclusivity in classical music. The classical music community is full of women, but as a student, Williamson saw there weren't as many women in such roles as music director, concertmistress and composer. Growing up, Williamson never felt her gender would limit her from being an active member of a symphony, though her older professors relayed tales of gender-specific struggles. Inspired by family members and a concertmistress from Indiana University, Williamson pursued ensemble positions in the field, spurred by seeing images of women in public positions of leadership. "If young generations of girls and underrepresented groups of women see women in leadership, it's a signal to what's possible," she said. That can be difficult when looking for compositions written by women for the concert repertoire; nearly all music written by women is contemporary.

Williamson added that the classical world has much work to do to include women of color, something she was conscious of when developing the "Bach in the House" series.

In addition to informal recitals, Williamson promotes Sharp, a group for young professionals open to anyone 21 and up. For $6 a month, recipients may attend all Arkansas Symphony events. More information on Sharp can be found at arkansassymphony.org/sharp/join-sharp.

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