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The N.C. Symphony opens an adventurous season in September

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When I asked the new general manager and the artistic administrator of the North Carolina Symphony what they might do to reach a younger generation of music fans, they replied, at first, with an awkward pause. Flyers at rock clubs like Kings, maybe? Publicizing $10 student tickets more? Commercials on college radio stations? Anything?

In truth, Amy Russell and Martin Sher have already done the hard work to attract new music fans to the symphony, as the newly announced lineup of the next season greatly expands the mission and repertoire of the local outfit. Now they just need to sell it. They're still working on that part.

The symphony's own press release buries the real news, so you have to dig past the announcement of chestnuts like Handel's Messiah and a Rachmaninoff piano concerto to get to the excitement that the next season, which begins in September, brings: They'll play two new commissions by Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider, the co-directors of indie classical powerhouse New Amsterdam Records. They created the label in 2008 to give young composers and musicians grounded in other genres a place to release their first records. Time Out NY called the label "the focal point of the post-classical scene."

The symphony will also offer work by genre-bending young composers like Timo Andres, whose influences include Sigur Ros and Brian Eno, and Mason Bates, who describes himself as a composer and DJ. Modern pieces by Derek Bermel—who routinely showcases influences from funk, R&B, jazz and West Africa—and the German clarinetist Jörg Widmann mark additional highlights. All of those composers are currently breathing (gasp!) and under 45 years old.

"There's never been a year like this," says symphony violinist and assistant concertmaster Karen Galvin. She's also the co-founder of the experimental chamber group New Music Raleigh, which emphasizes works by living composers and recently premiered a work for soprano, chamber group and electronics in Washington, D.C. Her work with that organization is one of several regional corollaries to the symphony's upcoming explorations, alongside the audacious programming of Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts. "It's a gamble," Galvin admits.

Compare that excitement and risk to the current classical season, which included just three works written by living composers. Before the run ends in May, you can hear only one more work from a living composer—the 17-minutePerú Negro, by Jimmy Lopez. This season is among the most conservative the N.C. Symphony has programmed since Grant Llewellyn took over the conducting job in 2004.

But according to Linda Charlton, the symphony's vice president for marketing, it also set sales records: "We can always fill seats by programming Beethoven Nine," she says.

You see the issue, right?

"Classical music patrons are easily put off by unfamiliar works. To some of them, even Mahler is too modern," explains Jimmy Gilmore, the symphony's principal clarinetist for 41 years before he retired in 2010. "For years, the formula was to sneak the new stuff in between two well-known pieces, like a dose of castor oil that you knew was good for you but didn't want to take: Overture, castor oil, Beethoven."

That challenge became particularly acute early in conductor Llewellyn's N.C. Symphony tenure. Consecutive 2006 concerts filled with unfamiliar 20th-century works proved particularly alienating to some longtime symphony supporters.

"Unfortunately, those concerts met with very limited success," says Gilmore. "The audience voted with their feet."

Sher says the castor oil won't be a problem with next season's new works, which are "nothing like the Viennese stuff that struck fear into audiences" during the late 20th century. The Second Viennese School and its 12-tone serialist offshoots are often blamed for the link between "modern" and harsh, atonal and distant. There are no all-modern programs, and the symphony remains careful to not give "longtime subscribers a sense of mission drift," Sher says.

Instead, the symphony will help those older listeners along: Their new scholar-in-residence, occasional INDY critic and saxophonist William Robin, will smooth the way for more contemporary music by explaining its historical context.

"I think this music can be heard and appreciated on a single hearing," Robin said earlier this month. "But it's good to have someone who can show where it comes from and the broader context it belongs to."

In January 2015, for instance, one concert will feature works by Andres, Bates and Bermel scattered between George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.

"All of those pieces share DNA," explains Sher. "We're not just saying because there's a Beethoven symphony in the second half you can put any modern piece in there."

Placing three of the season's works by living composers in one evening does feel like a bit of a conservative move, as though they're trying to hide the cutting edge, then cover it with the likable lure of Gershwin. But the point remains that, in its 2014-2015 season, the N.C. Symphony makes a strong and slightly risky step in the direction of supporting new music while working overtime to help the audience follow.

"What I see is the North Carolina Symphony actually setting up an identity," Galvin adds. "We're in a unique position to create an orchestra that doesn't yet exist in the United States, one that can present a variety of experiences and solidify the audience behind them."

Will audiences respond? Hell, will younger audiences even know that the local symphony is planning a season with music composed by relative unknowns who use electronics, incorporate funk and call themselves DJs?

It probably doesn't help that, so far, none of the modern works appear on the symphony's most prominent online schedule. Even the Gershwin program description fails to mention the evening's three modern works. That's not really the kind of marketing that works.

The symphony does have a few programs that could lure young listeners to contemporary work, but their scope is admittedly limited. The Soundbites series of chamber concerts at area restaurants has featured work by composers including Snider, but their expensive tickets rapidly sell out to existing older fans more able to afford high-dollar meals. Much the same goes for the free-but-ticketed Manning Chamber Music series featuring NCS musicians in a smaller setting at William Peace University.

Galvin and Gilmore have a few ideas for how to reach new demographics—rush tickets, an under-35 discount and a 20th-century series that's target-marketed as such. But that's not their job. Back in their offices on Glenwood Avenue, Sher and Russell acknowledge that the task of convincing kids to care about the relatively adventurous season they've put together is largely theirs. They've got seven months to figure out the answer.

"We don't want to be apologizing for the new pieces," Sher offers. "But this is work that draws on popular genres. And now we're coming to a place where people just eat it up when we play them samples of what we're doing next year. They're shedding the psychological shackles associated with modern music, and that's boosted our confidence to try something new."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Absolute pitch."

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