Native American stories mesh with space travel in Apollo Chamber Players’ MoonStrike

Apollo Chamber Players will feature the music of Erberk Eryilmaz at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Photo: Apollo Chamber Players

Matthew Detrick hopes a big, bright moon shines over Miller Outdoor Theater on Friday night. It only makes sense for a program based in large part around moon legends from a handful of Native American peoples.

Titled “MoonStrike,” the evening is “big on folk music, storytelling, poetry and these universal, primal means of imparting the voices of our ancestors,” says Apollo Chamber Players’ founder, violinist and artistic/executive director. “The composers that are represented on this program express many generations of their respective heritages, modern-day keepers of the flame.”

Even the phrase “keepers of the flame” has Native American origins, Detrick notes.

“I think it very well represents what composition does, what art does,” he says. “Creating new art is a reflection of the past, as well as innovating to the future.”

The program’s first half consists of the title composition, inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing; it premiered in 2019 as part of Apollo’s 20×2020 commissioning project. Written by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a member of the Chickasaw nation, the piece incorporates the Kalispel “Origin of the Moon;” Isleta Pueblo “The Man Who Married the Moon;” and Haida “Raven Steals the Moon,” bookended by interpretations of a Calusa corn dance.

‘MoonStrike’

When: 8:30 pm June 24

Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park

Details: Free; 832-487-7102; apollochamberplayers.org

“Honestly, there were a lot of things at once going on, a lot of gears moving at the same time,” says Tate. “I love the opportunity of expressing Native culture to people who have not seen it before, so it’s an opportunity for education on that front. And then also I wanted to make sure that these stories were fun for everybody, were interesting and had dimension that I thought was really, really cool for storytelling.”

Acting as narrator will be former astronaut John Herrington, who became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to go to space as a mission specialist on STS-113, a 2002 flight of the space shuttle Endeavor. Besides being fellow Chickasaw members, Tate and Herrington have been good friends for 30 years.

“I love how John presents to the public about space travel and being Chickasaw,” Tate says. “I just feel like he is so artistic in how he represents everything. He’s a real unifying force.”

When Detrick commissioned Tate to write “MoonStrike,” the two bonded over their shared love of space. The violinist once did a fifth-grade project on the solar system, promising to become the first person to play the violin in space; while the composer came to Houston as a child to visit his uncle who worked at Mission Control.

However, Tate is careful to point out that he does not view “MoonStrike” as a bridge between cultures. He’s not doing anything different from what artists of all cultures have been doing since time immemorial, he explains.

“None of us are bridging anything,” Tate says. “We’re creating new expressions of who we are and where we come from. I think that’s the best way to put it. Of course, in the process, what happens is we relate to each other. I’m connecting, so I’m not bridging — I’m connecting with people on an emotional and spiritual level. And so we’re communing, literally.”

In the program’s second half, Apollo Chamber Players will revive a handful of pieces that invoke rich traditions in their own right. Honoring the Irish heritage of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, University of Houston grad Christopher Theofanidis and Mark Wingate’s “What Is the Word?” sets Samuel Beckett’s final poem — a reckoning with the speech-robbing neurological condition of aphasia — to music that has been augmented by electronic effects.

“This particular commission is tailor-made for the Miller Outdoor Theater,” Detrick says. “We’re going to have some cool video projections and lighting and that kind of thing, because we’re all amplified. The electronics will be perfect on huge screens and the big stage.”

The final two pieces, Turkish-American composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s “Folk Art” and “Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan,” are as steeped in Turkish and Anatolian culture, respectively, as MoonStrike is in Native American. There’s a space connection here too: the final movement of “Folk Art” — “Folk Poetry: Was Her Face the Moon or Sunlight?” — will soon be included on the private company Astrobotic’s MoonArk lander, a collection of earthly artifacts soon bound for the lunar surface.

“I think there’s something very profound and ancient about this collective experience of live music, particularly with music that has millennia of roots,” says Detrick. “We’re just really excited to perform this at Miller.”

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.




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