Sound of Charlotte Blog
This week we're celebrating Arts in Education Week, a national celebration recognizing the transformative power of the arts in education. To learn more about the positive effect music education has on students, we caught up with Crystal Briley, a music teacher at University Park Creative Arts School.
|How were you introduced to music as a child?
I grew up in a musical household -- one where many of my memories are tied to singing together at family gatherings. Music was a natural influence in my life. While many others were outside playing games or riding bicycles, I was learning piano or singing various songs my family had taught me. I am extremely grateful I was able to have the experience of private lessons and that my natural gifts leaned towards music.
How do the CSO's Education programs help you to achieve that?
Many of my students have never been exposed to the arts outside of our classroom or their own home. The partnership with the CSO through the Link Up program and other various educational programs has offered our students the opportunity to see real life musicians and given me a way to introduce my students to classical music in an accessible and relevant way. When students step foot into the concert hall and hear the insistent call of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or sing along with the eerily forceful O Fortuna from my education mentor, Carl Orff, it does not go over their heads -- it settles deep within them. They experience the music in the classroom and then bring their 'practice' to the hall and go home forever changed. Our time with the CSO is one of the more requested things we do ... "when do I get to play with the CSO at Link Up?" I must admit, the experience of listening to over 1000 students play recorder together with the CSO is an experience very hard to replicate!
Do you have any specific memories of music inspiring or affecting one of your students?
Many of my students have been inspired by music. But one really strikes my mind. We were sitting in class one day learning the recorder parts to The New World Symphony melody. It is a simple theme and one which I thought would be lost on my students. We had spent time working on the piece through listening, playing, and movement. It was finally at the time where I asked them to reflect on what this music meant to them personally. Her response was one that I will never forget. "This music makes me calm. When everything around me seems crazy, I can listen to this song and find peace." When a child can bring such wisdom to a simple and haunting melody, I find that I too am inspired.
|Why do you think it's important to keep the arts in school?
We can talk about how the arts are important to our student's education or to our economy and industry. But it is Suzuki who said, "teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music ... and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart." At a time where the social emotional well-being of all humans is at stake, we must take care to teach students to have beautiful hearts.
Link Up 2017
What inspires you to teach?
I pursued a career in opera before teaching-- I still love singing and listening to the genre but my heart is with my students. I absolutely love teaching and it is hardly a "job" to me. Through all the difficulties, there is nowhere else I'd rather be. My students give me such joy and they are the reason I get up and go to work every day -- even if it is in a crazy virtual space! Read more
This season, you'll notice a few new faces in the orchestra! We caught up with Judson Baines, Jacob Lipham, Alaina Rea, and Gabriel Slesinger to welcome them to the CSO and learn a little more about who they are.
Judson Baines, Assistant Principal Double Bassist
|Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wilmington, NC and grew up in the Raleigh area. I've spent a considerable amount of time in the mountains of western part of the state, as well as the coast, enjoying the merits of living in North Carolina throughout my life!
What do you look forward to most about living and working in Charlotte?
I think it's really awesome that I can be in my home state and have my family easily visit me and vice versa, so I'm really looking forward to that.
What else should we know about you?
I would love the audience to know that I am genuinely so excited to join the CSO and play music with other people again after a long hiatus due to the virus!
Learn more about Judson.
Jacob Lipham, Principal Timpanist
|How were you introduced to music and the timpani?
I began studying piano at a young age, around five, and really enjoyed it. When I got to middle school I decided to join the band. When it was time to pick my instrument for the band, the array of percussion instruments in the back of the room looked very enticing to play! Many of the kids wanted to play percussion, so my middle school band director prioritized students who had studied piano to join the percussion section. Thankfully I had studied piano, so I was able to begin playing percussion, and the rest is history! My decision to pursue orchestral timpani happened in my collegiate studies. I received my Bachelor's Degree in Percussion Performance at The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.
While at Indiana University, I was introduced to a diverse range of percussion styles and fields of work. The experience I found the most excitement and joy through was playing timpani in the orchestra. The diverse sounds, colors, and roles the timpani can provide within an orchestra, in addition to the thrill of creating music beside colleagues, was more than enough to convince myself to narrow my pursuit to an orchestral career.
What do you look forward to most about living and working in Charlotte?
I moved to Charlotte recently, and I am very excited to explore and get to know the city more. The culture seems vibrant, diverse, and welcoming. I can't wait to explore the vast restaurant and brewery scene, and check out the local sport teams! I am so thrilled to be a new member of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, to begin making music with my new fantastic colleagues, and seeing you all from the stage hopefully soon!
Learn more about Jacob.
Alaina Rea, Assistant Principal Violist
|How were you first introduced to the viola?
I started playing the violin at the age of 4 in the Suzuki method. During high school, my teacher suggested that I learn the viola. At first I reluctantly agreed but ended up loving it and decided to make the switch.
What are you looking forward to about being part of the Charlotte Symphony?
I am most looking forward to making music with talented colleagues and exploring different parts of the city.
What do you do for fun when you're not practicing or performing?
Outside of music, I enjoy hiking, cooking, and spending time outside.
Learn more about Alaina.
Gabriel Slesinger, Third/Associate Principal Trumpet
|How were you introduced to music and the trumpet?
My parents both value music and it was important to them that my siblings and I all learn instruments. My two older sisters played the piano and my older brother played the violin. My earliest musical memories are of hearing them practice every day, overhearing their lessons and recitals, and listening to the classical station on every car ride. As the youngest, I think I picked the trumpet because I wanted my instrument to be louder than theirs. My parents are fans of Louis Armstrong and Herb Alpert, so I had a little bit of awareness of these great trumpet players before starting.
I really like the people in this orchestra. There is a very high level of playing here, but it's also like a family. The musicians here really stretch themselves and take risks in concerts. I love closing my eyes during a rest in a concert and pretending I'm an audience member, and I can't wait to be onstage again. The first concert back is going to be absolutely electric. I'm happy to live in a city where people value live music. The Charlotte Symphony has a wonderfully supportive audience.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I can name all the US presidents in less than 10 seconds.
Learn more about Gabriel. Read more
You've had a pretty long history with the Charlotte Symphony. What was your path to General Manager?
Yes! My history with the CSO goes back about 20 years. I played bassoon and contrabassoon in the Orchestra - it was my first gig right out of Juilliard. Then I played in Grand Rapids Michigan for many years. It gives me a unique perspective; I've learned so much from being on both sides, and having to represent issues from both points of view. It's really given me an understanding that is unique and it helps me find the common ground.
What made you decide to come back to Charlotte after all those years?
The General Manager position was such a great opportunity for me; and the city itself enticed me to come back - it just felt alive! I remember coming back to see a concert and there were people everywhere - downtown wasn't like this before - the place was jumping, with a lot of young people around. It was a major transformation, and I remember hoping that it was reflecting on the orchestra as well, because this is what you want to see - people excited to be out.
So much of your job is planning for the future, how far ahead are you working now?
Well, we're always planning about 18-24 months ahead. All of the 2020-21 season is finished and 2021-22 is in the draft stage - the calendar is pretty much done, but still in pencil, so I can change it a few more times. And, believe it or not, the 2022-23 calendar is in the initial layout stage.
It sounds like it would be difficult to juggle all of those calendars and priorities at once!
Well, I have a secret weapon - it's a photographic memory. It's really helped me both in my musical career and in my management. I don't have to look at the calendar - if I've seen it, and worked on it, I know where it is.
So, basically you have a superpower. What would you love to see for the future of the CSO?
I think that some of our biggest successes have come when we dare to take something that people are used to seeing and do it differently. Take our Rite of Spring collaboration with the Ballet. Some people loved it and some hated it, but it was impactful. I remember seeing those kids - not too long after Trayvon Martin was killed - and they came out on stage with those hoodies on and people just put their heads down, crying. I'd like to see more collaborations like that. For years I've been trying to bridge the world of hip hop and classical - there are so many similarities that people just don't understand. I have some things in the works, but I'm not ready to divulge just yet!
Chris Stonnell, Director of Education and Community Engagement for your Charlotte Symphony, has a long history with, and passion for, the arts in Charlotte. We sat down with Chris to learn more about why he chose this profession, and to find out what's next for education and community engagement at the CSO.
Chris, you've been working for the Charlotte Symphony longer than anyone else on staff. What was your path to the CSO?
I started working as a chorus and drama teacher in Cabarrus County where I grew up. I spent a little over 4 years teaching in public schools but found myself getting a little burned out from the grind. I loved the teaching part of it - the rewards of seeing the finished product - but didn't enjoy the classroom management, the paperwork, the endless meetings. I knew there had to be something else I could do with my knowledge of the arts and education so I took a chance and quit my job - three months before getting married.
Wow. And how did your significant other react to that?
Well, she still married me!
So, what came next?
Either through luck or divine intervention the School Programs Manager position opened up at the CSO! I started in January of 2006 and haven't looked back.
|What changes have you seen in the Charlotte community through your years here?
It just continues growing; and with it so does the diversity of the community! The CSO has really been responding to all of this growth. We're reaching new populations and our community outreach has really taken off in the last few years.
Healing Hands performance
Is that important?
Yes! It shows that we value our community. Music should not be a luxury; it should be accessible for everyone.
That's a beautiful idea. Do you think the CSO's community programs are having that effect?
We're really starting to see the long-term successes of programs that we've been doing for a while. I was around for the very beginning, when Project Harmony started at Winterfield Elementary. We've had some success creating a pipeline for students from there to Northwest School of the Arts through to our Youth Orchestras.
Project Harmony students
|And it's all about providing that pipeline, because down the road, we'd love to see our community reflected onstage. It's difficult because it all comes down to access. If you don't start playing an instrument until middle school you're already at a disadvantage to those that could afford private lessons at an earlier age. The idea is trying to help bridge that gap.|
What's next for education and community engagement at the CSO?
I'd like to see us take the successful programs that we have and expand upon them - deepen their impact. I also want to look at other areas of the community that we haven't reached yet. We're starting to look into sensory friendly concerts. Again, it's about accessibility. Coming uptown at night to sit in an assigned seat for 2 plus hours in a darkened theater can be challenging for patrons with disabilities, but there's no reason why they shouldn't have access to be able to experience the CSO.
|So, what do you do when you're not sharing classical music with the world?
I really like singing and acting in community theatre shows, but when you work in the arts, Friday and Saturday nights are when the magic happens, so it's hard to find time for my own performances! I also enjoy sports; I go to a lot of Panthers games. I'm also a proud Appalachian State University grad, so I've been really happy with their success in football. I also really like movies - especially scary ones!
Then I have to ask, which horror movie score would you like to hear the CSO perform?
Oh, that's tough. I'd have to say Psycho. The score is great - I'd love to hear that played by the CSO!
Well, we'll have to try to make that happen! Thanks so much for allowing us to get to know you a little better.
Any time. Read more
Emmy-winning composer Gary Fry returns this season for Magic of Christmas & The Singing Christmas Tree, Dec. 13-22 at Knight Theater. We sat down with Gary to find out if his beloved carol written for the Queen City, "Christmastime in Charlotte," will sport a new verse, when he begins listening to Christmas music every year, and more.
Do you have any holiday traditions?
I think our family traditions are pretty normal. We gather for family dinner on Christmas Eve, and my wife gives all our children (and now, grandchildren) Christmas pajamas before bedtime, and we read the Clement Moore poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Christmas Day is a time for spending time with family and opening gifts!
Last year, you wrote a new Christmas carol for us, "Christmastime in Charlotte." Will there be any changes or additions to the carol this year?
From the beginning, the idea was to have one verse of lyrics that changed each year to reflect things that were happening currently in Charlotte, or something special related to the Magic of Christmas program that particular year. You'll just have to come to the concert to find out what the "topical lyrics" are this year!
Which part of the concert are you most excited for?
It's all exciting to me especially the fact that this year joining our wonderful Charlotte Symphony are Carolina Voices' The Singing Christmas Tree, the Charlotte Children's Choir, and Grey Seal Puppets. It will all make for a very fresh and exciting new sound and look - filled with Christmas spirit!
What's your favorite Christmas carol?
Well, I must say I especially like "O Holy Night" as a traditional carol, and the music from the movie The Polar Express is wonderful as far as newer Christmas songs go. And, hearing "Christmastime in Charlotte" is always a wonderful thrill for me as a composer.
If you were a sugar cookie, what shape would you be?
Ha! A Christmas cookie shaped like a harp or a bell-- something musical!-- would be appropriate for me.
A potentially controversial question: At what time of the year do you start listening to Christmas music?
Since I work on so much Christmas music, I listen to it literally year-round. I'm already listening to Christmas music for 2020!
Joyful. Heartwarming. Pure family fun. Make new family memories to cherish for years to come at Magic of Christmas & The Singing Christmas Tree, Dec. 13-22 at Knight Theater. Read more
Violinist Jenny Topilow has a special connection to our upcoming Stars, Stripes and Sousa concert on Nov. 15 & 16: her father is the guest conductor! Find out in our interview below what it's like for Jenny to see her dad on the podium, and how Carl Topilow creates his patriotic clarinet for this concert.
|Jenny, what's it like to have your father on the podium as your conductor? Have you worked together like this before?
JT: My Dad was my primary conductor when I was 18-22 years old. During that time, I wouldn't say we "worked" together as much as I was a student learning from him as a teacher, which he's great at. He did give me a B in conducting class [at the Cleveland Institute of Music], though (he was probably being generous!).
Since becoming a member of the Charlotte Symphony, I have worked with my Dad many times. Often it's just us playing duets (with him on the clarinet), but also in [an orchestral setting] a few times, too.
I'm very proud of my dad and his amazing career, and it is special when he is on the podium, but he's very cognizant about not treating me any differently when we are in a professional setting. Maybe he'll point out that I'm his kid and he's excited to have me in the band, but then it's down to business. As he says "I've worked with hundreds of violinists, and you're definitely one of them."
Carl and Jenny, what inspired you to choose a career in music?
CT: My love of music and my desire to pass this passion on to other people as teacher and performer was my inspiration to make this a full-time profession.
JT: I started violin at age three after seeing Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street (a surprisingly common story!). It's been simply amazing to share the stage with him recently.
My dad being a conductor and my mom being a ballet dancer, they basically had the 16th sized violin waiting for me in the closet. I was pretty talented and practiced pretty diligently, but as a professional musician and a teacher at a conservatory, my dad knows just how hard it is to have a successful career in music, and never pushed me to go into it. He didn't exactly stand in my way, but he made sure I knew how competitive it is.
When I won my job with the CSO, he was the first person I called and he was the one person who cried happy tears with me, because he really understands how rare it is to win a job and how hard musicians work to prepare for auditions.
Is anyone else in your family musical?
CT: My brother, Arthur, is an excellent jazz pianist. He's also a much-respected hematologist/oncologist. My younger daughter Emily enjoyed performing as violinist with her college orchestra for 4 years and is now playing with a community orchestra in Cleveland. I recently appeared as guest conductor with that orchestra, and it was very rewarding to perform together!
|JT: Like my dad said, my Uncle is a fantastic jazz pianist and my little sister plays the violin. My mom was a ballet dancer with Joffrey and the Metropolitan Opera in NYC before I was born and is a great lover of classical music (especially opera), and my stepmom, Shirley, is a professional tap dancer and also started the Cleveland Pops.
Carl, this kind of patriotic concert is one of your specialties. How did that come to be?
CT: These concerts do so much to instill a sense of pride and privilege to be living in the U.S.
We hear you have a very patriotic clarinet... What's the story behind that?
CT: I have red, white, blue, and green clarinets, and can assemble parts of each to come up with multicolored clarinets. I always play the piccolo obbligato to the Stars and Stripes along with the orchestra piccolo players on a red, white, and blue clarinet. Read more
We're trying something a little different this season. On October 15, a quartet of CSO musicians are going "Off the Rails" with a performance of contemporary music at Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood. We caught up with two members of the quartet, Assistant Concertmaster Kari Giles and Acting Assistant Principal violist Kirsten Swanson, to get a sneak peek of the program.
|Have you ever played a concert like CSO Off the Rails before?
Kari Giles: I've never been fortunate to play a concert quite like Off the Rails! I have always been passionate about new music and putting together creative programs. It is so fun to search and discover new composers, bring their works to life, and then share them with an audience for the first time. [So] having the freedom to create a program and literally being told to "get wild" and "out there" was thrilling. I knew immediately that I wanted to partner with Jenny Topilow and Kirsten Swanson. On top of being amazing musicians, they are dear friends, and we have a long history of playing chamber music together. Jeremy Lamb has also been involved in many local new music collaborations and is a composer himself, so I knew he would be perfect addition.
Assistant Concertmaster Kari Giles
Kirsten Swanson: I have been very fortunate to have spent a lot of my career playing contemporary music, and I absolutely love the creativity of 20th and 21st Century string quartet writing. I did a similarly programmed concert last year, but what I especially love about these pieces is that the composers play around with the Western musical tradition of a steady, toe-tappable, rhythm and sends the listener's inward pulse "off the rails."
What kind of music is on the program? How was it selected?
KG: The concert will open with John Adams' "John's Book of Alleged Dances." When it was suggested by my husband Mark Lewis, who is also a composer, I instantly loved it and knew we had to program it. Next on the program is "Carrot Revolution" by young and upcoming composer Gabriella Smith. The words "Rock Out" are literally marked into all of our parts in the opening, and the piece is filled with fiddle, blues, and rock riffs. Listen closely to hear her homage to The Who! A friend recommended I check out our third featured composer, Pamela Z. As an artist and composer, Pamela Z creates eclectic works using voice, live electronic processing and sampled sound. I don't want to give too much away, so I will just say that this work is dreamy and super cool. We have a few more surprises as well, so I hope everyone will come out ready to hear some new music they've never heard before!
Acting Assistant Principal violist Kirsten Swanson
KS: The works on the program toy with our sense of pulse and rhythm, one of the most essential elements of music. In the Adams work, he has the quartet playing with a pre-recorded track played on a player piano. The track is sort of our metronome, except it's not quite steady (or is it?), which is a trip for us as players and for the audience! Adams is making such fun of the idea of what makes a dance a dance and how we each frame our sense of pulse. I'll be so curious to hear what the audience feels throughout these.
Which do you think is the coolest or most fun piece on the program?
KG: The part of the program that is most personal to me is a movement of the Adams work called "Judah to Ocean."
KS: Carrot Revolution is totally the most fun! Anything that says "Rock Out" is going to be my favorite piece!
What kind of music do you listen to for fun?
KG: Currently my go-to musical companions are Prince, Rhianna, Tori Amos, and The Cure. I am also really going through a traditional Irish phase, and Dervish is just magical. My all-time favorite band, though, is Jump Little Children, who I went to school with when I was at NCSA.
KS: Oh man. My playlist is embarrassing. Last week I listened to Lizzo (butchered the lyrics); Raffi because he has a beautiful voice and the lyrics still get me as an adult (I mean! Robin in the rain/what a saucy fellow); Anderson .Paak because he's just amazing; and the oldies...because my parents did, and it's the music I listened to growing up.
What do you think people need to know about the concert before they show up?
KG: Just put on your coolest (or uncoolest) outfit, grab a drink at the bar, and have fun!
We caught up with upcoming guest conductor Gemma New on what it's like to be considered a "rising star," what inspires her, and what she's most looking forward to about our upcoming program featuring Paul Huang on the Dvořák Violin Concerto, March 29 & 30.
How do you build trust and rapport quickly with each orchestra you lead?
I try to listen carefully and sense the strengths and dynamics within the orchestra. The more I learn about the orchestra as we play together in these first rehearsals, the more I can communicate effectively. Perhaps the most important thing is that I arrive well prepared and with an open mind, and that I encourage a rehearsal environment that is supportive and based on mutual respect.
You have been called a "rising star" in the industry. As a comparatively younger conductor, do you think there is truth to assumptions that some works are interpreted best by more "mature" conductors?
When I first arrived in the US in 2009 to study a Masters in Conducting with Gustav Meier, I was quite scared of Brahms symphonies. How could I possibly understand them as a young person? Fortunately, Mr. Meier tackled those fears head-on, and he had us studying and conducting all of these symphonies, thoroughly and often, throughout the two years I was there. It's also been really helpful being a cover conductor for many excellent conductors and orchestras over the last decade. I do a lot of note-taking, and I will keep these previous experiences in mind when we come to forming interpretive choices in the rehearsal period.
For audiences who may never have heard Brahms Symphony No. 3, what would entice them to attend?
When Gustav Meier shared his love of Brahms with all of us young students he said, sure Brahms's symphonies are mature, but you have to start somewhere! And what I learned over time is that Brahms's music is not unreachable. It is some of the most humanly relatable music: intimate and loving, passionate and awe-inspiring, naturally flowing and inspiringly orchestrated. It touches and moves all of us.
Have you worked with Paul Huang before? What excites you about this upcoming collaboration?
Yes, Paul and I performed Barber's Violin Concerto with the North Carolina Symphony almost 2 years ago, it was fantastic to work with him! I'm excited to hear his rich sound in this Dvorak Violin Concerto.
Any poignant personal stories that connect you with these pieces?
I suggested Mendelssohn's Hebrides, as I thought it would complement the other pieces on the program well. I spent quite a bit of time on a Mendelssohn scholarship in Germany, studying Mendelssohn's music and learning about his incredible life with Mo. Kurt Masur and the staff of the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig. This overture evokes the magnificence of this wild cave, and the swirling power of the ocean and it is a piece that I really love.
What most inspires you?
I think that when we come together and create a beautiful and enriching performance, that is really inspiring to me, and it is a memory that I cherish for a long time.
What do you think about to "center" before a performance like this?
I don't have any rituals, I just try to keep calm, have a concept of the sound and character I'm about to be a part of, and be aware of my breathing before a performance.
Have you ever been to Charlotte?
Yes, I spent a week in Charlotte 8 years ago, serving as cover conductor for Mo. Christopher Warren Green. I'm looking forward to returning to the orchestra, and working on this beautiful program with them!
Gemma New is currently Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. See her conduct Dvořák Violin Concerto on March 29 & 30 with violinist Paul Huang. Read more
We sat down with longtime Charlotte Symphony Concertmaster Calin Lupanu and Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra Concertmaster Victor Chu, a senior at Providence Day School. Here, they dish about this important role, from onstage pressures to having the best seat in the house!
Calin, you've had this job for over 15 years. What's the best part about being Concertmaster?
CL: The responsibility that comes with the job. Personally, I love it. I embrace pressure. I also love interacting with my colleagues, getting to play solos, and working with great conductors and soloists.
And the best part for you, Victor? You're much newer to this.
VC: To be honest, I'm a pretty quiet guy. But this process -- becoming a more confident leader -- has been the best part. I still remember the first time I had to tune with Conductor Christopher James Lees. In addition to walking me through his process, he was fixing my posture and teaching me how to address the different people in the orchestra. The icing on the cake? The concertmaster seat has a great view!
Can you recall a moment of terror on stage? Any memorable faux pas?
CL: One happened when our Music Director, Christopher Warren-Green, auditioned for the CSO job. During the dress rehearsal, with an audience in the hall, my bridge (the little wooden thing that holds the strings) collapsed! I managed to give the violin to my stand partner, and took a colleague's violin and kept playing. But...it's virtually impossible to have success, without experiencing failure.
VC: There was one time that the first violin section kept messing up and I had just nailed it on the last run-through. Mr. Lees asked me to play it as an example. Everyone went silent. I started playing and it was suddenly SO OUT OF TUNE. To this day, I still don't know how that could have happened.
What do you do right before a concert? Any rituals?
CL: I try to focus and relax. I try to get ready mentally and enjoy it at the same time.
VC: Mostly I think, "You're not walking weird. It just feels weird because people will be watching." Even basic things like walking just don't feel the same when so many strangers are staring at you!
Calin, other than practicing and mastering the violin technique, what advice do you have for Victor?
CL: Moving forward always and most importantly, learning from your experiences.
Victor, what are your plans? Pursuing the stage as a career?
VC: My current plan is to explore Computer Science this fall in college. But don't worry, I'll still spend my fair share of time in the practice room!
At this year's Magic of Christmas, new Charlottean and Emmy-winning composer Gary Fry has written a Christmas carol fit for the Queen City! Get to know Gary below.
Tell us briefly about how you came to be a composer.
I grew up in Iowa, and my parents were farmers. I loved music from an early age and had public school music training with wonderful teachers who encouraged me to write for high school chorus and jazz band. Following my time at the University of Miami (Florida)--where I met more great mentors in choral music and composition--I graduated with a double major in music composition and music education. I taught middle school general music in New Jersey briefly, began to write arrangements for music publishers, and in a couple of years got a staff position at a commercial music agency in Chicago. I've now written thousands of commercials and began to write arrangements for the Chicago Symphony Christmas program, which I did for 19 years. I still write a lot of music, especially for Christmas!
What's your favorite thing about writing music? Do you prefer composing Christmas music?
Three things. First, the "aha" moment when you think about a concept that really makes a piece work. Second, the moment when you hear musicians bring that concept to life for the first time; and third, when you see an audience respond to that concept the way you had hoped.
And yes, I love writing Christmas music! It's such a joyful season, filled with family and tradition and generosity and good will.
How do you gather inspiration when beginning to look at a piece like "Christmastime in Charlotte?"
Well, it's easy to be inspired when you consider all the things I just mentioned--and then, of course, there's the city of Charlotte itself and the things that make it special and the Christmas activities and traditions that make it unique.
You're from Chicago. What have you learned about Charlotte along this process?
It's been terrific for me as a new resident of the area to become acquainted with the city: learning the landmarks like Independence Square, and street names like Tryon and Trade, and nicknames like "The Queen City," and discovering the things that folks here commonly do at Christmastime (especially without the sometimes frigid weather I knew in Chicago). It's all been great fun, and though I definitely still feel like a newcomer, but that does give me a fresh view of just how dynamic and full of energy the city of Charlotte is.
How does this type of collaboration work?/How much input does the conductor have?
This is very much a collaboration! My first contact was with Mary Deissler, who has a wonderful vision of what the all-new Magic of Christmas concerts could be for the orchestra and for the city. And then there's Christopher James Lees--what a marvelous conductor and person, whose personality on the podium will really infuse the program with enthusiasm and joy and fun. And in seeking input from both of them, I actually wrote two songs with completely different melodies and musical frameworks, so that they could consider them both and choose the one they thought would work best for the orchestra and the program. And we're still fleshing out all the lyrics, with plenty of back-and-forth about that. They are both invaluable resources to a composer!
How many songs have you written total?
That depends on just what you consider a song! If mini-songs like commercial jingles count, that number would be well into the thousands. But if you're talking full-length, original songs with verses and refrains and so forth, it's in the hundreds. And as an arranger, I've written hundreds more arrangements of existing songs. So ... a lot!
What makes a holiday tune "catchy," so you can't get it out of your head?
With a background in commercial jingles that are supposed to do exactly that, it boils down to simplicity, sing-ability, and repetition. The trick is to do that without being boring! I think it's also the way the words marry to the melody, and hopefully a little different sort of twist that sets the tune apart and gives it real identity.
For "Christmastime in Charlotte," my hope is that by the end of the very first performance, the audience is singing along!Read more
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- SLIDESHOW: Spoon River Anthology
- In Her Own Words: Jirah Montgomery
- Welcoming Back Our Youth Orchestra Musicians
- Meet the Charlotte Symphony’s Newest Musicians, Part I
- Christmas in July? Yes, please!
- SLIDESHOW: Celebrating America
- Celebrate America with Your Charlotte Symphony
- Youth Orchestras Get Back to In-Person Rehearsals
- How Atrium Health Helped Keep the Music Playing
- Welcome Back to the Symphony!