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Sound of Charlotte Blog

Visionary: Valerie Coleman



A visionary composer, flutist, and entrepreneur, Valerie Coleman has made significant contributions to modern music. From being named 2020 Classical Woman of the Year (Performance Today) to receiving a nod as one of the Top 35 Woman Composers in Classical Music (Anne Midgette, Washington Post) and a Grammy nomination, Coleman has earned high acclaim, and for good reason.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1970, Coleman had an interest in composing music from an early age. She began formal music education at age 11, and started writing symphonies on a portable organ. Advancing her hobby, by the age of 14 she had written three full-length symphonies and won local and state competitions. She studied music at Boston University and earned a Master's degree in flute from Mannes College of Music. Debuting as a flutist/composer at Carnegie Hall, Coleman has since regularly performed at major music halls across the United States and has collaborated with other performers including Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, Paquito D'Rivera, David Shifrin, Orion String Quartet, Harlem Quartet, Miami String Quartet, Dover Quartet, Wu Han, and many more. With enormous interest in her work as a composer, many orchestras, ensembles, associations, and festivals have commissioned her work; notably, Coleman became the first African-American woman to be commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. 



Coleman's composition style infuses modern orchestration with jazz and Afro-Cuban traditions, ideas, and social commentary. She incorporates poems and speeches from such diverse figures as African American poet Margaret Danner, Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy, and A. Philip Randolph in some of her works. Josephine Baker: A Life of le Jazz Hot celebrates the life of Josephine Baker. She honors "the legacy of Native Americans and former African slaves (adopted into Native American tribal membership through emancipation or marriage)" in a chamber piece and recounts stories of trafficked humans in a flute sonata. Coleman is among the most-played composers living today, and her works are deeply relevant contributions to modern music . Umoja, her signature piece for wind quartet, is named after the Swahili word for unity and is listed by Chamber Music America as one of the "Top 101 Great American Ensemble Works".

Coleman's experiences in music from childhood to college inspired her to establish her own chamber music ensemble, Imani Winds, for which she is the resident composer. Using the name "Imani", the Swahili word for faith, she formed the chamber ensemble with African American woodwind players who might approach the music from a similar cultural background. From its beginning, they focused on repertoire inspired by African, Latin American, and North American cultures, and championed non-European composers that were underrepresented in contemporary music. In an interview with NPR, she recollected, "I used to be in the youth orchestra [as a child], and there were so many African Americans. But somewhere along the line, when I got to college, I was the only one in the orchestra. So I wondered what in the world happened here? It came to my mind that role models are needed."



The ensemble and their music has been met with high honors: winner of the Concert Artists Guild competition, resident-artists of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and winner of multiple ASCAP awards. The music industry recognized not only the musical qualities of Imani Winds' performances and studio albums, but the significance of their work. NPR Music acknowledged, "Imani Winds' members have earned a reputation for expanding the recorded wind-quintet repertoire, but in a way that's culturally significant." In advocacy and mentorship of emerging artists and ensembles, Coleman created the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival in 2011, a summer mentorship program, which invites musicians from over 100 institutions around the world to advance their own careers from the ensemble Coleman created with her vision of raising up underrepresented musicians.

Posted in Community. Tagged as composer.

Of Rage and Remembrance: John Corigliano’s powerful response to the AIDS epidemic



The Charlotte Symphony performs Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 on February 25 and 26, conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli. >> Learn more

According to the composer himself, John Corigliano was reluctant to try his hand at a modern symphony, but he felt it was the appropriate format for this particular work. "My Symphony No. 1 was about world-scale tragedy and, I felt, needed a comparably epic form," he wrote. The AIDS epidemic had affected him deeply, and inspiration came, in part, from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.


"I was extremely moved when I first saw 'The Quilt,' an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I had lost, and reflect on those I was losing."


The first movement of the work, Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance, includes an offstage piano playing Isaac Albeniz' Tango, a favorite work of Corigliano's pianist friend, who is memorialized in this movement. 

The second movement, Tarantella, was written in memory of a music executive and amateur pianist. With shocking percussion and brass interrupting an Italian folk dance, followed by a wistful clarinet, Corigliano has written that this movement represents his friend's descent into AIDS-related dementia. 

Chaconne: Giulio's Song was written to remember Corigliano's college friend and amateur cellist, Giulio. A solo cello represents his friend while a second cello joins in, a remembrance of Giulio's cello teacher. 

The final movement, Epilogue, is played against a repeated pattern consisting of waves of brass chords. Against this, each of Corigliano's friends and their music are recalled. The work ends as a solo cello holds the same perpetual A, finally fading away.

In the composer's own words:


The Charlotte Symphony performs Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 on February 25 and 26, conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli. >> Learn more

Posted in Classics. Tagged as composer.

Cultural Ambassador: Dr. Frederick C. Tillis



A trailblazer in the American classical music tradition, Dr. Frederick C. Tillis bridged jazz and European classical music as a renowned composer, jazz saxophonist, and educator. Born in Galveston, TX in 1930, Dr. Tillis began composing when he was 20 years old. From 1950, he composed over 125 works, including symphonies, quartets, solo songs, and choral pieces, that reflected his ethnic and cultural background as well as many cultures and traditions experienced in his travels around the world.

Establishing his passion early in life, the young musician picked up the trumpet to perform in his elementary school's drum and bugle corps. At the age of 12, "Baby Tillis" was performing with jazz bands, traveling extensively with the Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo and the Tradewinds Jazz Ensemble to Mexico, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. He earned a college scholarship to Wiley College, whereupon graduation, the new alumnus accepted the role of the college's band director. While pursuing a Ph.D in music studies, he volunteered for the Air Force and became director of the 356th Air Force Band, but returned to earn his doctorate degree from the University of Iowa. Dr. Tillis taught at several universities, eventually at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he became Director of the University Fine Arts Center and was the chief innovator
of the Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies Program.



Dr. Tillis is known for experimenting with the beauty of classical and the beat of jazz. Influenced by Schoenberg, Bach, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, African-American composers, and world music, Dr. Tillis blended African-American music with European classical music and incorporated both Asian and Western traditions. Known for his intricate melodies and rich harmonic textures, some of his works include A Symphony of Songs, a choral/orchestral work based on poems by Wallace Stevens and commissioned by The Hartford Chorale, Inc.; A Festival Journey and Ring Shout Concerto for percussion, written for Max Roach; and Concerto for Piano and symphony orchestra written for Billy Taylor.

His work continued as an educator and cultural ambassador throughout his life, traveling to advise the establishment of a jazz studies program at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, spending a three-week residency to help establish a jazz major at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand on behalf of the United States Information Agency, and sharing his talent as a Master Artist in Residence at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village in Yamaguchi, Japan. Having spent a long life making musical connections around the world, Dr. Tillis passed away at the age of 90 in May 2020.



At a UMass Amherst conference in 2010, Dr. Tillis reflected, "...Every place I've gone I've heard African - but not African only - American classical music....[We] had a thing for calling it America's classical music, and I think that's very valuable. Because if you look at music all over the world - and there's a European tradition, a very fine tradition; I write in it and so forth -- but then there's another tradition that has a rhythm; it has a melody; it has something altogether different that's all over the world, everywhere you go; you would hear African American music: China, India, it doesn't matter. So I think we're very much on target in calling it American classical music, European classical music....I think that those are the kinds of important things that should make us proud and also enlighten us; one of the things about African American music, jazz, is that it is a very spiritual kind of music." 

Posted in Classics. Tagged as composer.

In Person with Jessica Cottis



This month, Australian-born conductor Jessica Cottis makes her debut with the Charlotte Symphony to conduct a fascinating program including the Charlotte Symphony premiere of Kurt Weill's witty and theatrical The Seven Deadly Sins. We sat down with Ms. Cottis to discuss her path to the podium and what the audience can expect from her debut performance. 

What led you to pursue conducting as your career?
For me, growing up in a very musical family, music was very much a means of expression and communication, even more so than speaking. I did my undergraduate as an organist and musicologist and had a really excellent career, but I got carpal tunnel syndrome in my twenties and I never knew when my hands would be reliable. I needed to rethink how I was as a musician and it was incredibly hard, particularly so because I had started music at such a young age. Conducting was very intoxicating - to think there was this opportunity to get so much depth and nuance from a symphony orchestra. I was like a match struck in the dark - it was sheer exhilaration that we as humans can express thoughts, emotions, and stories through this incredible art form and this incredible instrument, which is the orchestra itself. 

What is it like stepping in front of a new orchestra for the first time?
I love meeting new orchestras because they all have such a personality, and I never know what it's going to be until we start making music, really! I took a look at many of the recent programs that the Charlotte Symphony has put on and they seem forward-thinking, friendly, and really passionate about music. For me, one of the greatest things about being a human is being able to create and participate in art, and I really feel that passion from everything I've seen. So I'm very much looking forward to being in Charlotte and meeting the orchestra.



You've created such an interesting program, from Stravinsky to Kurt Weill and Jessie Montgomery. What goes into programming a concert like this?
One of my greatest interests in music is programming, and in the way that we can find connections between music that might be so disparate - 300 years between pieces or completely different focuses from the composers, but that one piece might lead somehow, imaginatively, into another and maybe even open our ears in new ways so that we can hear old music afresh.

In this program, as with any program, I tend to start with a seed of an idea, and then from that seed I look to see how it grows, and I never know from the beginning how it will grow! The initial idea of this program was that I really wanted to do The Seven Deadly Sins with the Charlotte Symphony. Somehow that felt like a perfect matching of minds and musical intellect. It's such a fantastic piece, so incredibly theatrical, and it has such a brilliant way of depicting humor, ideas, and nuances through Kurt Weill's musical style. He had only just fled Berlin for Paris in 1933 and this is his imaginary fantastical version of the United States; of this young woman sent out into the world to make money by her greedy exploitative family. It's almost 100 years old but it's still so fresh. The work includes so many different musical styles: foxtrots, a church choral, barbershop quartet, tangoes, and lots of wit. And that wit is really what led me to the Stravinsky.

That would be the Stravinsky Circus Polka?
Yes, the piece was written for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for elephants to dance to - which is incredibly preposterous! There's a certain theatricality to the circus that works really well with the Kurt Weill piece. 



Which leaves us with Ravel's Piano Concerto and Jessie Montgomery's Strum.
The Ravel has a strong jazz influence, which linked so well to both the Weill and the Stravinsky. And I'm very much looking forward to working with Stewart Goodyear, I think this will be a really great meeting of musical minds. I've known Jessie Montgomery's pieces for a while and I've conducted Strum in numerous places - I just love it! It's just what it sounds like, the string players spend quite a lot of time strumming their instruments rather like a banjo. I thought it linked in well to the dichotomy of the classical being influenced by more popular styles of a particular time. 

I've heard that in your limited spare time, you're learning to fly helicopters! 
Yes! I've had to stop due to the pandemic, but I look forward to getting back into that whenever it happens. There's something really special about flying. It's exhilarating and humbling, and sort of life-affirming being able to lift oneself above where we normally are and look down and have a birds-eye view. As musicians, we spend so much time on forensic detail - and we must, it's so important - but keeping an eye on the bigger visual architecture is so freeing, really. 

 

Posted in Classics. Tagged as Classical, interview.

John Williams on His Harry Potter Children’s Suite for Orchestra



Whether it's the soaring heights of Harry on his broomstick, the grandeur of his snowy owl, or the fear of facing one's enemy in battle, John Williams perfectly captures - through sound - the majesty and wonder of Harry Potter's magical world. 

His Children's Suite for Orchestra brilliantly introduces each section of the orchestra through the musical themes we all know and love. Below, Williams describes how this piece came to be and what you can expect to hear when the Charlotte Symphony performs this piece on January 22.

When I wrote the full orchestral score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I hadn't planned to write the eight miniatures presented here. The film's score did not require them, and our production schedule, usually very difficult in the film world, made no provision for their arrival.

However, if I can be permitted to put it a bit colorfully, each piece seemed to insist on being "hatched" out of the larger body of the full score.

Hedwig's Flight

I began writing Hedwig's little piece, and each of the others followed quickly as they seemed to arrive all clamoring for their individual identities. I selected a combination of instruments that suited each theme, and this suite of pieces is the result.

Hedwig, the beautiful owl who magically and mysteriously delivers mail to Harry Potter at Hogwarts School, is musically portrayed in the first miniature by the celesta, a luminous little instrument which is capable of producing pearly, crystalline tones at dazzling speeds. The celesta begins its flight alone, but quickly is joined by the violins, possibly the only other instrument capable of attaining the dizzying pace needed to defy gravity and achieve flight.

Hogwarts Forever

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that august institution that has trained and taught young wizards for centuries, is probably best described by the French horn section of the orchestra. No other instrument seems so perfectly suited to capturing the scholarly atmosphere of Hogwarts than the noble and stately French horn.

Voldemort

In the third miniature we meet Harry Potter's arch-enemy, the evil Lord Voldemort, who is portrayed here by a trio of bassoons sounding their mysteriously deep and sonorous tones.

Nimbus 2000

The Nimbus 2000 is Harry Potter's own personal broomstick. To musically depict this ingenious mode of transportation we have the woodwind section, with its flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, all capable of extraordinary leaps and astonishing agility, forming a perfect match for the nimble Nimbus 2000.

Fluffy and his Harp

On the third floor of Hogwarts School, we find Fluffy, the huge three-headed guard dog. Fluffy is a music lover who can only be made to fall asleep to the sound of music. Here the contrabassoon represents the snoozing Fluffy, while his music is provided by the beautiful...and in this case...soporific harp.

Quidditch

In the Harry Potter books, Quidditch is a form of intramural competition that's played on flying broomsticks. The games are conducted every year at the Hogwarts School with great pageantry, featuring colorful flags and cheering crowds. In the sixth miniature, the pomp and ceremony of these Quidditch games is best represented by the blazing brass section of the orchestra, with its tuba, French horns, trombones, and heraldic trumpets.

Family Portrait

In the seventh miniature, "Family Portrait," the clarinet introduces the themes that relate to the disparate parts of Harry Potter's emotional life, and here it is accompanied by the cello section of the orchestra, which produces a wonderfully warm and beautiful sound.

Diagon Alley

Diagon Alley is a sort of shopping mall of the wizard world. Along with the wondrous things to be seen in the Alley, we're also transported by the sounds of antique recorders, hand drums, and percussion instruments of all kinds. There is even an elaborate solo part for the violin, cast in the role of the witch's fiddle.

With all of the miniatures presented, the suite concludes with the entire orchestra as it explores many of the themes heard throughout "Harry's Wondrous World."

My fondest hope is that instrumentalists and listeners alike might share in some of the joy that I have felt in writing music for this delightful story.

~ John Williams
 

Posted in Family. Tagged as Family Series.

The Mahler Journey



This month, Music Director Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony complete their journey through Mahler's Symphonies with his final completed work, the powerful and introspective Symphony No. 9. 

Gustav Mahler is, undoubtedly, one of the most important and influential composers throughout history. His towering symphonies contain multitudes the very essence of the human condition love, hatred, life, and death. It's easy for people to hear echoes of their own fears, joys, doubts, and sorrows in his music. It's universal. 

"A Symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything" ~ Mahler

Despite this, decades after his death, Mahler's music was overshadowed by the modernist sounds of the second Viennese school - Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern - and his longer-living contemporary Richard Strauss. It wasn't until the 1960s that conductors, most notably Leonard Bernstein, began to rediscover and champion his works; demystifying the genius to be found within these complex and massive symphonies. 



And this is precisely what Christopher Warren-Green set out to do when, early in his tenure as Music Director, he invited Charlotte to join him and the Orchestra on a journey through Mahler's most epic Symphonies.  

"By now, everyone knows that Mahler is one of my absolute favorite composers," said Music Director Christopher Warren-Green, "not only because of the pure majesty and grandeur of his compositions but because of their complexities." 

Now, in the final leg of the Mahler Journey, Maestro Warren-Green hopes all of Charlotte will join him in experiencing Mahler's greatness through the Ninth Symphony. "If you've ever heard Mahler's music, you'll know what I mean, especially if you've heard it live, there is simply nothing like hearing it in person in the concert hall." 



Mahler was consumed with thoughts of his own and others' mortality as he composed his Ninth Symphony, following the death of his four-year-old daughter and the diagnosis of a heart condition that would take his life just four years later. But if despair and anguish are undoubtedly present in the music, they stand side-by-side with a passionate love of life and nature, and a heroic defiance of death. 

"You've trusted me along this Mahler Journey thus far," said Maestro Warren-Green, "and I truly do hope you'll join us for the final part. You'll be in for a real treat."   

The Curse of the Ninth

Mahler went out of his way to avoid a Ninth Symphony as neither Beethoven nor Bruckner had managed to reach a Tenth. At first he titled Das Lied von der Erde as the Ninth, but crossed the number out. As he wrote his next symphony, which he called the Ninth, he said to his wife, "Of course, it's actually the Tenth, because Das Lied von der Erde was really the Ninth...the danger is past." Despite his efforts, Mahler died before he could see the Ninth Symphony performed.  

Posted in Classics. Tagged as Classical, Mahler.

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