The North Carolina Symphony is better known for the skill of its musicians and its robust public outreach than for adventurous programming. But that stands to change with the 2014/15 season, which mixes a notable amount of new work from young composers with the time-tested repertory.
For its program “Russian Spectacular,” which includes classic works by Prokofiev and Borodin, the NC Symphony also commissioned a new piece, “Change,” from Judd Greenstein, the Ecstatic Music Festival curator and New Amsterdam Records co-director. Greenstein epitomizes the new generation of minimalist-rooted, pop-influenced, indie rocker-collaborating New York composers. (See a video preview below.) Another program, “Appalachian Spring,” follows suit, augmenting Copland’s titular masterpiece and Barber’s famously dolorous Adagio for Strings with a world premiere from Greenstein’s New Amsterdam colleague, the acclaimed composer Sarah Kirkland Snider.
That burgeoning commitment to living composers is also reflected in the symphony’s recent appointment of William Robin as its first Scholar-in-Residence. Robin will start his tenure when the 2014/15 season begins this fall.
A saxophonist, classical music critic and INDY contributor, Robin is a doctoral student in musicology at UNC-Chapel Hill; his scholarly focus explores contemporary composers and new music. “The NC Symphony is launching more initiatives to focus on new music through commissions from great young composers from New York,” Robin explains, “and I’m going to help provide context for that music as someone who’s been engaging with it as a researcher and teacher.”[jump]
Robin is originally from the suburbs of New York, and he did his undergraduate work at Northwestern University. Blogging about the classical music scene in Chicago led him to write for The New York Times and The New Yorker, where he works with the illustrious classical music critic Alex Ross. “I’ve been working with Alex as a research assistant since about 2008,” Robin says. “He edits my work a ton, and I take a look at some of his stuff to exchange ideas about it. It’s been a great relationship.”
The NC Symphony’s new Scholar-in-Residence position was designed, Robin says, with him in mind. He had been in touch with Martin Sher, the VP and general manager who came from Indianapolis to work with the NC Symphony last year.
“I wrote the liner notes for the new album of Britten pieces that Zuill Bailey recorded with the NC Symphony,” Robin says, “which led to them being more interested in my writing. We discussed the opportunity for me to provide scholarly context for the new music they’ll be performing over the next year.”
Robin’s duties include giving pre-concert lectures, moderating conversations with composers, and writing program notes and blog posts to provide context for new music to a symphony audience that will not be thoroughly familiar with it.
“I don’t think the issue is that people don’t know anything about new music, and I think this music can be heard and appreciated on a single hearing,” he clarifies. “But it’s good to have someone who can show where it comes from and the broader context it belongs to. Hopefully, I can make connections with the traditional repertoire they’ll be hearing in the rest of the concert, and—for younger audiences who might not go to the symphony regularly—connections with pop or rock music they listen to outside the concert hall.”
The Scholar-in-Residence position, while paid, is not full-time. Robin remains a full-time doctoral student, and his dissertation, which he hopes to defend in fall of 2016, deals with many of the same young composers that the NC Symphony will feature next season.
“I’m interested in the rise of newly collaborative classical music in the last 20 years,” he says, “starting in the late 1980s with the composer collective Bang on a Can and going through ensembles like yMusic, which is actually in residence at Duke this year, as well as independent record labels like Bedroom Community. I’m examining the ways in which performers, composers, producers and designers work together to create contemporary music, concerts and albums—looking at connections between the wider world of classical music out of which these composers grew, the bubble of contemporary music culture they’re part of, and the indie rock and pop music a lot of them are interested in.”
As a wave of young composers carry classical music into the borderless 21st century, it’s great to see the NC Symphony making moves to follow it there.
PLAN OF THE CITY feat. Judd Greenstein’s “Change”