For pianist Daniel Swayze, music-making means plenty of friends, food, and fun — all washed down with some celebratory libations. As founder and director of the Beerthoven concert series, Swayze blends performances by prominent Austin musicians with a lively social atmosphere that draws a diverse, multi-generational audience.
“It all started with a historic German singing society called the Austin Saengerrunde,” explains Swayze. “They’ve been organized for about 140 years. Every Monday, they grab a mug of beer and sing a bunch of songs in German. Sometimes it’s drinking songs or folk songs, sometimes it’s Beethoven or Brahms.”
The choir rehearses in Saengerrunde Hall, a community space and National Historic Landmark that’s on San Jacinto Boulevard just a stone’s throw away from the Texas State Capitol.
Next door is Scholz Garten, a beer garden established in 1867 by German immigrant August Scholz that became a favorite meeting place for Austin’s German immigrants and their culture. In 1914 the Saengerrunde Club purchased Scholz Garten as well as its adjacent ballroom and bowling alley, and the club — Austin’s oldest ethnic organization — still operates the entire facility in much that same manner as it was originally intended to be used.
In 2013, Swayze was a doctoral student at UT Austin’s Butler School of Music when he accepted a position as piano accompanist for the Austin Saengerrunde. And he was struck by group’s convivial atmosphere. Choir rehearsals included ample time for socializing, fueled by libations from the beer garden next door. Concerts were lively, family-friendly affairs accompanied by food and dancing.
“They’re such down-to-earth people. There’s no ivory tower mentality, or people trying to one-up each other, or any of that,” says Swayze of his Saengerrunde colleagues. “They just want to have a good time, grab a drink, and experience some camaraderie. I thought, this is the kind of atmosphere that I want to bring to classical concerts.”
With support from the choir — including the purchase of a new Bösendorfer piano for Saengerrunde Hall — Swayze hosted his first classical concert in June 2014. Called “Bach, Brahms, and Beerthoven,” the concert featured vocalists from the Butler School singing an all-German program. Two intermissions, along with complimentary food, drinks, and beer, helped encourage a social, celebratory atmosphere.
“Friends In Low Places” with Thalea String Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, Neill-Cochran House Museum; 3 p.m. Nov. 4, Saengerrunde Hall. beerthoven.com
The format proved a hit. And encouraged by his Saengerrunde colleagues, Swayze expanded Beerthoven into a full-fledged concert series, hosting four programs of music throughout the year. Now in its fifth season, Beerthoven remains true to its Saengerrunde roots.
“Besides the fact that we’ve expanded the focus from German composers to other kinds of music, we pretty much keep the same model as that first concert,” says Swayze. “We always have two intermissions, and food and drink is included. We try to make it feel like a house concert as much as we can.”
“There’s no stage or backstage. The performers mingle freely with the audience, and people are free to chat with them and ask them questions. They might even find themselves standing in the beer line with them.”
Over the years, Swayze’s fun, collaborative approach has attracted a who’s-who list of Austin classical musicians to the Beerthoven stage. So when a new string quartet arrived in Austin in mid-2018, it was only natural for Swayze to strike up a partnership.
Hailing from San Francisco, the Thalea Quartet began a residency at the Butler School this fall. As the Carolyn & Marc Seriff Young Professional String Quartet (YPSQ), they fill a position recently vacated by the string quartet invoke — another frequent Beerthoven collaborator — who concluded their UT residency earlier in 2018.
Through their YPSQ residency, Thalea Quartet receives mentorship from the Butler School’s Miró Quartet and opportunities to engage with the Austin community. The group’s partnership with Beerthoven is just one in a series of community collaborations they have planned for their residency.
For their two-concert Beerthoven program, entitled “Friends in Low Places,” Thalea Quartet collaborated with Swayze to select pieces that emphasize themes of collaboration and friendship while demonstrating the versatility of the string quartet.
“We often begin our performances with Joseph Haydn, the ‘Father of the String Quartet’, to show the foundations of the art of the string quartet,” explains Christopher Whitley, the quartet’s first violinist.
Frequently credited with “balancing” the instruments in the quartet, Haydn wrote prominent melodic parts for the lower-voiced viola and cello into his string quartet music, enabling the art form to evolve beyond its previous violin-heavy format. The changes captivated early 19th century audiences, inspiring the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to liken the string quartet to “four rational people conversing.”
From Haydn, the program takes a leap forward in time to William Grant Still, known as the dean of African-American composers. Born in 1895, Still was a prolific composer of symphonies, operations, and chamber music. His 50-year career included a stint in Hollywood, where he arranged music for films, including “Pennies From Heaven.”
Thalea Quartet will perform Still’s “Lyric Quartette”, a work that holds a special place in the chamber music repertoire for Titilayo Ayangade, the ensemble’s cellist.
“It was actually the first piece she ever played in a quartet, back when she was twelve,” explains Whitley. “Though it was written in 1960, it has a timeless, nostalgic quality and audiences really love it.”
The piece lovingly paints musical portraits of Still’s friends, with movements entitled “The Sentimental One”, “The Quiet One”, and “The Jovial One.”
Two contrasting works from the 20th century round out the program, demonstrating how the string quartet form has continued to evolve in the last hundred years. Composed in 1946, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 highlights the turmoil of the Soviet regime during the World War II era.
Decades later, Astor Piazzolla infused the classical string quartet sound with the sensuous tango of his native Argentina. His 1989 work, Four For Tango, reimagines the passion and connection of the dance in string quartet format.
This program marks the introduction of a new venue for Beerthoven, the historic Neill-Cochran House Museum, where the Thalea will perform the first of “Friends in Low Places” concert 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2. (The Nov. 4 concert is performed 3 p.m. at Saengerrunde Hall).
Perched on a quiet block a half-mile west of the UT’s main campus, the Greek Revival mansion was constructed in 1855 and changed hands many times throughout its early decades. In 1876, it was purchased by the prominent Neill family, who eventually sold the home to Judge Thomas Cochran.
Swayze was struck by the home’s complex history, especially its role in the early days of Austin, when many of the city’s prominent homes and public buildings were constructed by slave labor. Based on the practices of the time, it’s likely that the Neill-Cochran House was built primarily by slaves and indentured laborers.
“I thought that it would be special to (perform) music by an African-American composer in this place that had once put them in a position of servitude,” explains Swayze, referring to the program’s nod to William Grant Still.
“I like the idea of having an opportunity to play with the history of the space and reclaim it through the music. That’s something I’ve found inspiring.”