Performing the Museum: Agarita’s Return to the San Antonio Museum of Art

by Christine Gwillim August 30, 2023

After a year and a half away, San Antonio’s chamber ensemble Agarita, with Daniel Anastasio (piano), Marisa Bushman (viola), Ignacio Gallego (cello) and Sarah Silver Manzke (violin) returned to the San Antonio Museum of Art for an afternoon of music in late June to close out their 2022-2023 season. The event celebrated SAMA’s 40th anniversary and was inspired by works in the museum’s exhibition 40 Years, 40 Stories. The program was a dizzying schedule of overlapping performances scattered throughout the museum for a full three hours and spanning five different galleries. Classical and contemporary compositions, performed in solos, duets, and quartets, alternated throughout the program. The sets were designed to overlap, making it impossible to see everything, which encouraged folks to wander and stumble upon music as they moved through the galleries.

We often moved en masse from one room to the next, taking the musician’s suggestion to stop by the nearest gallery for the next piece, though on occasion I broke from the crowd and jogged up the stairs to catch a piece I missed earlier, as most compositions were played twice throughout the evening. Some pieces accented works of art, while others subdued or obscured them. Large crowds gathered for several pieces — over a hundred at some sites. When this happened, in the crowd was a wide array of visitors, from children wiggling and flopping down on the floor to elderly folks gingerly sitting on museum stools, and all ages between.

Photo of visitors watching a performance in the hall of a museum

SAMA’s Contemporary Gallery, viewed from mezzanine. Photo: Christine Gwillim

Visitors watching a cello performance at SAMA

SAMA’s Modern and Contemporary Latin American Gallery. Photo: Christine Gwillim

The musicians of Agarita are virtuosic. They are clearly attuned to the works of art surrounding them, and have mastered a variety of styles, from Bach to contemporary composers John Adams and Jessica Meyer, and alternating between solos, duets and quartets. The program was curated by Agarita’s Daniel Anastasio and SAMA’s Director of Education, Lindsay O’ Connor, and planned not only to resonate with works of art, but also to accommodate crowds commiserate with the space. 

The most boisterous compositions were hosted in galleries that could accommodate large groups, with relative ease for coming and going. Smaller spaces hosted more intimate compositions which brought fewer visitors and a more direct interaction between the art, musicians, and audience. One of the most surprising and successful pairings was the Viceregal Latin American Gallery, filled with “Keyboard Sonatas” by Carlos Seixas and Domenico Scarlatti. The piece evoked the decadence of the Colonial Spanish artifacts hung on the walls and encased in vitrines, but was quiet enough that the textiles, wood, and walls swallowed the sweet sounds before they could spill out into the main museum corridor.

Photo of an antique, open piano at SAMA

SAMA’s Viceregal Latin American Gallery. Photo: Christine Gwillim

On the other end of the scale, Sarah Silver Manzke performed a haunting contemporary composition for violin in front of Flying in Outer Space (1974) by Dorothy Hood and Ramp Painting #2 (2018) by Marcelyn McNeil, two saturated abstract paintings that seemed melancholic and frantic when observed in tandem with the music.

Photo of a violin performer in the SAMA contemporary gallery

SAMA’s Contemporary Gallery. Photo: Christine Gwillim

Photo of a violin performance in the SAMA contemporary gallery

Sarah Silver Manzke performing in front of Dorothy Hood’s “Flying in Outer Space.” Photo: Christine Gwillim

After a couple of hours my feet were getting tired so I took a short break and sat on the carpeted mezzanine in the Modern and Contemporary galleries, next to a pair of affectionate lovers nuzzling in the corner, and families with strollers tiredly waiting for the elevator. As I waited, I noticed a diverse crowd — not only in visible identity markers but also in audience style: members mingled and waved across the room to friends; others stopped to ask a gallery attendant for directions; socialites breezed through the space waving and smiling at familiar faces; patient older couples moved through at their own pace, eyeing the VIP seats and often taking them. Inter-generational families with toddlers slung in their arms stood next to parents whispering and waving alongside older kids as they came upon an unexpected performance. The 100+ degree weather was well at bay inside the crisply air-conditioned museum, but the sleepiness of the humidity followed us inside. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise since it gave us all a collective slowness which helped us navigate one another with grace, letting our hopes of a program agenda slip away as we stopped to see a work or composition between destinations. 

The program came to crescendo with a final piece, String Quartet No. 1 Melancolia and Saltando como um Saci featuring all four members in the Great Hall of the museum, bringing together a disparate crowd that filled the space and much of the mezzanine above. We were all tired, glossed over with a combination of the relaxation that only hours of live classical music brings, and the buzz of a different perspective than we arrived with several hours before. Agarita’s virtuosity, the museum’s impressive collection, and an eager audience showed that classical music — when programmed with site-responsive care — can be heard anew when paired with striking visuals that vary greatly from a traditional concert hall. 

SAMA’s upcoming programming is more subdued than the three-hour performance in June and includes artist talks, public tours of the collection and special programing for very young people and their caregivers. The rich sounds of live music may not grace the galleries at SAMA anytime soon, but Agarita will continue to perform in unexpected venues well into 2024. Agarita’s forthcoming season offers a broad set of locations and collaborations through which to experience live music. Their 2023-24 season opens September 2nd at Luella Bennack Music Center at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, with violinist Daniel Chong and violist Jessica Bodner of the Grammy-winning Parker String Quartet. Another upcoming collaboration is a new one for the group — they will be playing alongside actors performing theatrical scenes at the San Antonio Public Theater. To round out the season, Agarita will return to pair music, art, and performance at the Witte Museum in June 2024. 

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