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Warren-Green Talks Symphony on Tap, New Season

by Corbie Hill

September 20, 2016

When a symphony says its upcoming season brings something new, that can be hard to quantify—"new" is subjective, right? When Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Music Director Christopher Warren-Green says that, however, he comes prepared with numbers.

"We're doing seven premieres of pieces that have never been played in Charlotte before," Warren-Green says. "One I'm particularly proud of is the percussion concerto." Concerto for Percussion, Evolution, written by local composer and Winthrop University music professor Leonard Mark Lewis for CSO principal timpanist Leonardo Soto, has its world premiere in January here in Charlotte.

Lewis' concerto, as Warren-Green describes it, is a rhythmic piece that embraces rock influences without leaning too heavily in that direction. The threads that run through rock and jazz, he says, can be traced back through Stravinsky and Bach—Lewis' work is contemporary, but deeply rooted. And one movement from it will be premiered Thursday evening at Symphony on Tap (sponsored by Wells Fargo), an hour-long season preview and sampler starting with a 7 p.m. fanfare on the Belk Theater plaza, then moving into the theater itself at 7:30 p.m.

Charlotte Viewpoint spoke with Warren-Green about the 2016-2017 season—CSO's 85th—and the premieres, new partnerships and evolutions it entails. In June, CSO welcomed new president and CEO Mary Deissler, while KnightSounds, a series programmed with younger audiences in mind, has been renamed altsounds. The new series includes a mash-up of Radiohead and Brahms, Mark O'Connor bluegrass paired with Aaron Copland, and scores from John Carpenter films.

With Symphony on Tap coming up, what is the best case scenario for bringing in new people?

What is really great is the larger public get to hear about it. The other thing that is fun is, last time we played the Fanfare for the Common Man by Copland with the brass section, and we played it out on the street. It stopped a lot of people on Tryon Street. People came in off the street who hadn't been to the symphony before and we got tremendous feedback. People wrote in and emailed the symphony and said, "That was great. I'm coming."

Fanfare for the Common Man is so bold. Was it an obvious choice to do that one?

CW-G: It's a great American fanfare. It's probably the greatest and one of the greatest in the world and we have a fantastic brass section. So to actually hear them close up and live and in the street is thrilling.

What is your relationship with new CEO Mary Deissler like? What do each of you bring to the table?CSO President and CEO Mary A Deissler

Wespeak the same language, Mary and I. As soon as we met we clicked. From her resume alone, it's obvious she's highly experienced in the arts and incredible as a fundraiser. (She's) someone who didn't pull any punches, which I liked. I can't take people who are not plain-speaking.

It's like chemistry because the music director has to work hand-in-glove with the chief executive. If the music director does programming things that bankrupt the orchestra, that's not really helpful to the chief executive.

It's one thing to put programs together, which is the music director's job. It's another thing to conceptualize an entire season and where you want to go and the story you want to tell. That is where the partnership is crucial, and Mary and I met several times over the summer in foreign countries because I can't be trusted to stay in one place for two minutes. Our relationship is just phenomenal—everyone is very excited to have her on board. To sum it up, it would be like saying it's the other half of my brain. That's the way I work with a chief executive.

If you had an infinite budget, what would be the first thing you would do?

(Laughs) Oh, my goodness, what could you say about that? We'd be programming a lot more Mahler, for a start, because it requires a much bigger orchestra. Not just us, but orchestras all over, can be artistically compromised if you don't have a budget to put onstage these wonderfully huge works like we're doing at the end of this coming season. Mahler's second symphony, The Resurrection, has a huge orchestra and choir and soloist on stage. It's a spectacle for the eye; whatever it is for the ear, it's that. I think I would probably be programming much more of that kind of repertoire, but I would still try to be doing something for everybody across the board.

KnightSounds has been renamed and, it seems, rebranded. Can you tell me about altsounds—is that a different creature or just a new name?

The concept of a one-hour program with people being able to wander in with drinks and a more relaxed atmosphere on stage is still there. Altsounds is closer to what I wanted to do. If I can explain it this way: there's much more to what a symphony orchestra does than play music from the last four or five centuries. It's heard on every computer game that children play; it's heard behind every Hollywood movie that comes out; it's heard on most big rock band tracks ever since George Martin started using classical musicians with the Beatles. What we're playing at the altsounds is aimed really now to be getting a younger demographic of audience, if you like.

It's an alternative. Within the concept of the evening we might play some bluegrass, me might play something from a film—a sampler, if you like, from a symphony—but we might also play new music, which frightens a lot of audiences. Because of the concept of a one-hour show, and I call it a "show" deliberately, it is a way of getting stuff that is more interesting.

Often when you play to 18- or 19 year-olds in Europe—I have done this in Scandinavia as well. You play them some Beethoven and then you play some Alfred Schnittke—they weren't that keen on the Beethoven, but they were really happy with the Schnittke. A lot of conventional audiences go further back in time, so some Twentieth century music isn't palatable to them. To younger audiences, the more modern music is extremely palatable. The problem we have faced as musicians is packaging it in a way that doesn't dumb it down, doesn't demean anything, but says to people, "hey, look—this stuff, you're going to like. Even though you thought you weren't going to like a symphony, come and experience this and find out that actually you do."


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Tags: Symphony on Tap, classical music, Mahler, Brahms, Radiohead, Beethoven, Leonard Mark Lewis, percussion, Alfred Schnittke

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