“The initial idea was that we would play music with our close friends and give back to the community,” says Zeneba Bowers ’94E, ’96E (MM), artistic director of Nashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble.
Eleven concert seasons later, that’s still the idea. But the ensemble’s impact has been more substantial than that modest goal might suggest.
The 12-member ensemble includes four alumni from the Eastman School—violinist Bowers, harpist Licia Jaskunas ’91E (MM), and the husband-and-wife team of percussionist Chris Norton ’83E, ’86E (MA) and horn player Leslie Boggs Norton ’84E.
Their first recording, Hilos (Naxos, 2010), was nominated for a Grammy Award, and, coinciding with the release of their second CD, Boiling Point (Delos Records), Nashville Mayor Karl Dean declared last September 25 as “Alias Chamber Ensemble Day.”
In a press release, Mayor Dean lauded the ensemble as “one of the nation’s only all-volunteer ensembles of accomplished professional musicians which donates 100 percent of its concert proceeds to community nonprofits with ‘no strings attached.’”
Indeed, “No Strings Attached” is how Alias has described its benefit concerts, in which the ensemble performs and the intermission features the nonprofit director on the stage addressing the gathering. All ensemble members play a role in selecting nonprofits to sponsor, and the group performs three concerts a season.
“It’s challenging for musicians, with our unpredictable schedules, to volunteer the way most nonprofits want,” says Bowers. “The ensemble allows us to do something we love artistically, but also to contribute to the community.”
Bowers, Jaskunas, and Leslie Norton all have “day jobs” in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Bowers says, while Chris Norton serves on the music faculty of nearby Belmont University.
She notes that the group has retained all but one member since it began in 2002. “That’s pretty awesome for a group of musicians who are performing three concerts a year for free,” says Bowers. She adds that one reason for the members’ loyalty to the group is their shared sense of ownership. The musicians not only choose the non- profits, but also the group’s repertoire—something orchestral musicians don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to do.
The process—in which all members’ preferences are taken into account—can result in some eclectic shows. But Bowers says that’s not a problem.
“I guess the general theme for our concerts is, ‘Our musicians love this music!’” she says. And that works well with American audiences. “We’re used to having Italian for lunch and, say, Peruvian for dinner. We’re used to that kind of diversity.”