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How a San Antonio chamber ensemble continued its mission of accessibility to the arts during the pandemic

With the help of some community donations and a can-do spirit, the music quartet and nonprofit continued bringing its melodies to the Alamo City.

SAN ANTONIO — Note: The above video is from a February, 2020 report. 

Routines were upended for the various sectors of San Antonio’s arts community when the pandemic hit in early 2020. But as the local four-piece chamber ensemble Agarita proved, there’s adjusting and there’s adjusting, and the group’s mission was perhaps most exemplified when it evolved its definition of traditional concert spaces to keep the music coming.

Loading their instruments into a 26-foot trailer donated by a local business and now boasting the group’s name, Agarita spent the first few months of 2021 traveling around San Antonio, bringing its melodies and musical education to residents in social-distancing-friendly outdoor spaces. Dubbed Humble Hall, the concert-on-wheels effectively literalizes Agarita’s priority of accessibility to the arts at a time when that access was mitigated by COVID-19. 

“We feel very fortunate that we had people in the community that were willing to step up and believe in us, and that we were able to execute it, which is the craziest part,” said Marisa Bushman, Agarita’s violist. “Ignacio (Gallego), our cellist, has learned how to drive this 26-foot-long trailer. It’s just a real community affair.”

And community is of great importance to Agarita, which since 2018 has provided free concerts in various community spaces while also collaborating with Alamo City artists across various mediums. 

Concerts are more than communicating music for this quartet; they’re a chance to communicate about it. Bushman says Agarita likes to consider the audience its fifth member, and takes to interacting with attendants during shows to contextualize what they're playing and turn a shared experience into an educational one.

“We’re trying to break down the notion of the ivory tower, so talking about what Charles Ives’s music is actually about, about these different American tunes as well as many other different art forms,” Bushman said. “We always talk to our audience during everything.”

The group’s coming-together was fairly organic. Two of the ensemble’s four members, Bushman and violinist Sarah Silver Manzke, had been playing with the San Antonio Symphony when they decided they wanted more agency in their programs, and what would soon become Agarita formed from long-running partnerships (Bushman and Gallego are married) and reunions (Daniel Anastasio, who plays piano for the group, had just happened to return to town to teach). 

The collective experience of Agarita’s founding members is apparent in their versatility. The ensemble’s repertoire spans everything from John Williams’s Hollywood anthems to compositions by East Coast musicians, with some original work thrown in for good measure. It makes for flexible performances, particularly in the casual atmosphere of its Humble Hall outings. 

“Sometimes we add in some Spanish songs that we performed for a Spanish governor’s palace concert, so we’re always rotating and always keeping things in our fingers,” Bushman said. “When you’re outdoors you get to have fun; there’s not as much pressure as being under the lights and having the recording and this and that.”

Bushman says the experience has been a rewarding one so far, citing a spring concert that was the first for some young attendees as one memory for Agarita’s members amid creating new memories for families. 

“I would say that people are really, really craving the arts, and craving being together and sharing an experience,” she said. “Art is something we take for granted…whether it’s walking by a musician on the street playing or attending a live concert, so we’re really excited to be bringing the music to the people, tearing down the boundaries.”

To that end, the group has a goal of bringing Humble Hall to each of the city’s 10 districts, and the effort will resume once the mercury dips a bit. 

“The next one is going to be when the weather allows us to bring our instruments outside again, so that’s going to be probably October, November. Our instruments are made of wood, and we need to be really carefully about heat and humidity.”

In the meantime, Agarita returned from a brief hiatus for its indoor concerts with a performance at the San Antonio Museum of Art this week. Upcoming shows will see them partnering up with a south Texas photographer, glass blower and electronic-music composer. 

There’s no cost to attend the ensemble’s shows. 

“A shared experience is priceless,” Bushman says, “and it doesn’t need to cost anything to be a shared experience.