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Charlotte Symphony Set To Debut New Piece On City's History

Nkieru Okoye composed "Charlotte Mecklenburg" for the Charlotte Symphony.
The Charlotte Symphony
Nkieru Okoye composed "Charlotte Mecklenburg" for the Charlotte Symphony.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra launches its season tonight with famed violinist Joshua Bell playing Braham’s Violin Concerto. But before that, there will be a piece that has never been performed for an audience.

It’s called "Charlotte Mecklenburg" and was commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding. You can hear parts of Charlotte’s past and present in the music with a nod to the city’s location in the Bible Belt and its native son Billy Graham. It begins with a reimagined hymn.    

The piece alludes to the region’s textile history by capturing the motion of the mills – and the songs of the mill workers.  

It’s the work of Nkieru Okoye. She composed "Charlotte Mecklenburg" following a visit to the city that included interviews with people from a range of backgrounds. She spoke with WFAE's Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.

Nkieru Okoye at WFAE's studios.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Nkieru Okoye at WFAE's studios.

Nkieru Okoye: A lot of people think that classical music is something that is in the academy and it's in the ivory tower and it just, it sounds inaccessible. So, when I come out and there I am and I'm this 6-foot tall black woman, I'm just not what they think of as a composer. So it's automatically, "Wait a minute, you know, what happened here?"And because of that, they'll talk to me about various type of things. And I actually get disciples.  I'll bring people to concerts and they don't even like classical music. And those are the people that I like to reach out to. So I just thought this is it. This is like the ultimate, ultimate experience.

Terry: I know you're from New York. You live in the Hudson Valley. How did you get to know Charlotte for this piece?

Okoye: The piece had a residency requirement and they wanted me to come down and visit but the entire piece had to be inspired from the visit.

Terry: I read that you actually came up with a list of questions for all of the people that you spoke to. What were those questions?

Okoye: What is your favorite piece of classical music? Do you have a piece of music that has a cultural tie to your heritage or Charlotte? Is there a short story or saying that speaks to your Charlotte experience or cultural heritage or childhood memory? What in Charlotte makes you feel at home? Have you ever been to a symphony concert? If not, what would get you to want to go?

Terry: What picture emerged of Charlotte for you after you gathered all that information?

Okoye: I  think that the perspectives on Charlotte are going to be very different depending on who you spoke to. Now a lot of people were painting Charlotte as kind of this new opportunity in a place where there's just a lot of economic opportunities. And the question I added: Do you think that the African-American community feels the same? The answers for that were very different.

Terry: Can you give me an example of how they were different?

Okoye: When I had spoken to Dae-Lee, who is a hip-hop producer and is just fantastic. He is just the type of person that you just want to get to know, you know? He said something that solved my puzzle of how to get the different perspectives there. His favorite thing was without a vision the people perish. Of course, that's a Biblical quote.

He said, for instance, like the people who said that's not my Charlotte in response to the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the pairing of both of those in the same, just the same context gave  me an idea because all this time I'm thinking you know of course I have to touch on this topic. Of course there is this tension that's there and of course you have these different cultures. People don't necessarily know. How do you interact with so-and-so? I know that when the people were in the streets protesting, some people said, "Oh, this is an uprising." Other people said, "This was totally not an uprising."

This was part of something that had been happening and it just suddenly got people's attention. One thing that I did in the music, and there aren't any words to this piece, but there's a section for modern-day Charlotte and it says: Keith Lamont Scott. It's played by a marimba and it's repeated over and again. The counterpart to that is, "Not my Charlotte." As they are kind of dovetailing each other, sometimes it is very dissonant, and other times it's very melodic. Very harmonious and I think that's what the city is like.

This interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Okoye’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg at the symphony’s opening gala at the Belk Theater in uptown Charlotte tonight at 7:30. 

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.