When Shara Worden, the leader of the exquisite band My Brightest Diamond and a longtime collaborator with Sufjan Stevens, steps to the front of the stage Monday at Kings, she will be performing only the second full rendition of the album-length song cycle Penelope.
Composed by New York's Sarah Kirkland Snider, Penelope offers a brazen musical setting for a modernized take on Homer's Odyssey, where our traveler goes off to war. During "Home," Odysseus pines for home, a place he can't quite remember. Worden lifts the hero's words with perfect empathy, her classically trained, rock-tempered voice adding necessary grit to the traveler's endless quest. Slight electronics, an ambitious stack of strings and tickles of percussion guide the story along, pushing it through twists that seem infinite.
"It has a really special quality of being very topical and very beautiful. It's an interesting combination of minimalists like Philip Glass and rock bands like Radiohead," says Karen Strittmatter Galvin, one of the violinists who will join the 14-person ensemble playing Penelope at Kings. A member of the North Carolina Symphony, Galvin is also one of the leaders of New Music Raleigh, a component of a larger nonprofit arts organization. New Music Raleigh recruited Worden and Penelope to Raleigh in large part because the piece, like the group itself, blurs the lines between classical and rock music.
"Nobody does, in Raleigh, what the symphony does. And on the other side of the spectrum, with rock music, I can't believe what happens here. There are extraordinary musicians here who are just creating new, great sounds all the time," says Galvin. "For us to reside somewhere in the middle—I think it's necessary. I think it's a missing component to an already vibrant music scene."
New Music Raleigh's presentation of Penelope might not seem so remarkable in a region graced with considerable university arts programming. This year alone, Duke Performances presented world premieres by the jazz trio The Bad Plus and by modern composition deity Steve Reich, for arguably the world's leading crossover string ensemble, the Kronos Quartet; meanwhile, UNC has offered Chick Corea and Tony Allen, and N.C. State's pieced together performances by a half dozen bona fide virtuosos.
But New Music Raleigh elected to keep this performance out of traditional chamber music spaces, putting it instead in a functional rock club. It's an egalitarian and welcoming gesture that not only speaks to the music's broad stylistic reach and Worden's most notable gigs but also to the mission and position of New Music Raleigh—at a nexus of the region's abundant classical and rock folks, with the implicit ideal of making each group a bit more comfortable with the other. This move seems to argue that the usual stratification you might see at a genre-crossing show—indie rock kids at a Duke Performances presentation of The Dirty Projectors, with a decidedly older demographic at a show featuring Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche—is as false as it is unnecessary.
"New Music Raleigh is very much driven by the idea that our music should be without pretense," says Galvin. "We want to eliminate any kind of barriers that people have in their minds when they think about classical music. It's one of the things that drives me, because I'd like to see that barrier eliminated altogether. Good music is good music, no matter how it reaches you or where it reaches you."
And that, after all, is a sentiment Odysseus—at sea, as with Homer, or at war, as with Snider's Penelope—could understand.