Have you ever gotten swept up in an episode of your favorite podcast or radio show? Maybe you missed your bus stop, or sat in your parked car in the driveway just to catch those final few minutes of the broadcast. Evocative storytelling is the driving force behind the best radio shows, weaving together narrative, music, and sound effects to transport the listener on an auditory journey. This is the type of storytelling that lies at the heart of Revel Radio Project.
Created in 2008 by pianist Carla McElhaney and cellist Joel Becktell, Revel began as a classical music series designed to breathe energy and engagement into the concert-going experience. The pair encourages their audience to “forget the rules, come as you are, clap when you feel like it, and listen with abandon.” With a loyal following that returns year after year, McElhaney and Becktell have hosted events in a variety of unconventional venues, from cafes and breweries to museums and private homes.
Fostering connection between musicians and listeners is a key element of Revel’s success.
“Revel favors small, intimate audiences where you get to know the people you’re sitting with, and the performers and audience members get to know one another,” says McElhaney. “People have told me that there seems to be a direct line of communication between the performers and each individual.”
With that principle in mind, McElhaney and Becktell have added radio to the mix for Revel’s tenth season. A partnership with KMFA Classical 89.5, Revel Radio Project aims to bring the Revel experience to a new level through the magic of radio. Each performance in the three-part Revel Radio Project is designed as a full-fledged radio show, complete with live studio audience, Q&A session with the performers, and even a house band. KMFA will record the events for later broadcast, expanding the audience that Revel can reach with each performance.
To McElhaney, the shift to a radio show format feels like a natural evolution.
“Revel has always been interested in telling a story, creating an arc, just like a good radio show,” she explains. “It’s never been enough for us to just lay down some good music and call it a day.”
When she was offered a position as a KMFA radio host in 2017, McElhaney saw an opportunity to explore her growing interest in the medium of radio. Her experiences as the host of KMFA’s late night program, Night Music, inspired her to design a concert season that would combine the magic of radio with Revel’s intimate concert-going experience.
“Listening to the radio is like reading a book. It requires an active imagination,” says McElhaney. “You can’t really listen to a radio program and not be participating on some level. This sort of engagement is something Revel hopes to cultivate with every program. I want people to come away having thought and felt deeply about what they experienced on a very personal level.”
This goal was evident at “Heart of Origin”, the inaugural Revel Radio Project concert in early September. An engaging presenter, McElhaney possesses a natural knack for storytelling that belies her one year of radio experience. She’s equally captivating as a pianist. In the featured performance of the evening, McElhaney teamed up with local mezzo-soprano Liz Cass for Heart of Origin: Six Poems of Rita Dove, a recent work for mezzo-soprano and piano by Ohio-based composer Luke Mayernik, who was in attendance.
Whether fierce, vulnerable, bitingly funny, or devastating, Dove’s poetry is full of crystalline detail. Mayernik’s score follows the arc of each poem, shifting styles and moods to draw the listener into six distinct emotional worlds. At times, chime-like chords in the piano evoked Impressionist works by Debussy or Ravel. Elsewhere, McElhaney emphasized the piano’s percussive qualities, building tension through a string of tapping, repeated notes.
Cass, an expressive, powerful singer, guided the audience through the work’s emotional shifts with ease. A jazzy ode to chocolate was sizzling and dramatic with just the perfect touch of vamp. “Exit” expresses the heartbreak and complicated emotions of a woman leaving her homeland. It begins with a simple sentence full of complexity: “Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.” Cass’ delivery of that line, understated yet brimming with feeling, landed with a visceral intensity.
Austin-based string quartet Invoke, the official Revel Radio Project “house band”, opened the evening. Their medley of short contemporary pieces drew inspiration from classical, bluegrass, and folk traditions. With this quartet of talented multi-instrumentalists, you’re likely to hear the twang of a banjo or soft pluck of a mandolin alongside a soaring cello solo. During their arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, the members of Invoke broke into song, a rousing four-part barbershop harmony. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one in the audience tempted to sing along.
After the performance, McElhaney and Cass, joined by Mayernik, returned to the stage for a lively Q&A session with the audience. As a farewell, Invoke and Cass wrapped up the evening with a rendition of Elvis Costello’s “The Birds Will Still Be Singing.”
Expect even more variety in the next installment of the Revel Radio Project series, with concert and live taping on December 1. “Existential Solstice” honors the winter season with a blend of chamber music and poetry. The Chorus Austin Chamber Ensemble and director Ryan Heller will debut Crystal Veil Suite, a work for chamber choir, piano, and viola by Stephanie Andrews. Specifically commissioned by Revel Radio Project, the piece draws inspiration from poems by Walter de la Mare and Emily Dickinson. Other wintery treats include readings by poet Nathan Brown and an opening set by Invoke.
More creative collaborations like this are on the way. As she thinks ahead to 2019 and beyond, McElhaney is eager to explore the potential of radio and the ways it can help Revel craft meaningful artistic experiences.
“We’re just trying to be better at what we do, and become more of who we are. For me, the benefit of a planned radio series is that it offers us an interesting pathway toward improving our craft. It gives us a structure, a solid fence around our playground.”