Chamber music as an art form dates back to the late 1700s which presents a problem for a young, dynamic ensemble: how to make chamber music feel less, well, fusty?

The Apollo Chamber Players, in Houston, Texas, believe that classical music must engage with today's issues, ideas and problems. It organized its current season, called "Silenced Voices," around censorship. Each musical piece is a response to Texas's status as one of the states with the most banned books in the country.

"Through our programming, we've tackled other difficult subjects like the refugee crisis," said ensemble co-founder and violinist Matthew J. Detrick. "I really do think that going at controversial subjects, if you will, with an angle of musical compassion, can hopefully open the doorways to people listening to each other."

Because of the ensemble's small size, he added, the group can be nimble. When war broke out in Gaza in October, the Apollo Chamber Players adjusted an already-planned annual winter holiday concert program, presenting and commissioning new classical music by Israeli American and Palestinian American composers. Unfortunately, Detrick noted, it fit right into the season's existing theme of silencing voices.

"Conflict and war and genocide is the ultimate form of censorship, and this is testing the limits of free speech in many different ways," he said.

One recent concert addressing censorship included two string quartets by Aaron Copeland. The revered American composer was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. The Apollo Chamber Players paired his work with a new commission by composer and performer Allison Loggins-Hull. Inspired by contemporary Texas controversies over book banning, her score includes the sounds of books banging shut, as well as the musicians whispering "Shhh!"

Loggins-Hull told NPR she hadn't been familiar with the Apollo Chamber Players before the commission, but she was thrilled to work with the group, especially once she learned about its mission. "Especially to see an ensemble that is rooted in classical music and also based in the South, quite honestly," she said. She appreciated "working with artists who want to respond to the times, who want to bring attention and awareness to the world that's around them."

When the Apollo Chamber Players first started, in 2008, only a few dozen people attended its concerts. Thanks in large part to a nonprofit incubator program run by the Houston Arts Alliance, the ensemble now averages 30,000 attendees a year for its live performances. Most of them are free. Over the past 15 years, it's released half a dozen albums and commissioned nearly 50 new works, including pieces this season by DJ Spooky and by interdisciplinary artist Muyassar Kurdi. Her work, A Lullaby for the Children of the Sun calls attention to Israel's attacks on Palestinian civilians, which have left thousands of children dead, traumatized and injured.

"What was interesting abut this work was that it came to us in a graphic score," Detrick said. "We had never tackled anything like it, so it was a learning experience for us as well. We decided each of us in the quartet would start with a different part of the drawing and tackle it in our own way."

The Apollo Chamber Players musicians, who also include violinist Anabel Ramírez, violist Aria Cheregosha and cellist Matthew Dudzik, interpreted the drawing with hums evoking drones and audio effects that sound like planes flying overhead. "Sometimes we came together, sometimes we were apart, but it was a journey for sure, " Detrick said.

He remains convinced, he said, that bridging music with politics will help bridge people as well.

Edited for radio and the web by Rose Friedman, produced for the web by Beth Novey.

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