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Charlotte Symphony Orchestra names Kwamé Ryan as new music director

Courtesy CSO
Kwamé Ryan

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra today announced Kwamé Ryan as its new music director. Ryan is currently based in Freiburg, Germany, and tours the world as a guest conductor.

He’s served in roles similar to his Charlotte appointment in both Freiburg and Bordeaux, France. Ryan, who was born in Canada and raised in Trinidad, says he brings an eclectic perspective to music.

Ryan will conduct a weekend of concerts in April as Music Director ‘Designate’ before taking on the full appointment for the 2024-25 season. He replaces the outgoing Christopher Warren-Green, who spent 12 years at the podium. Ryan spoke to WFAE's Eric Teel about the new role.

Eric Teel: Congratulations on the appointment.

Kwamé Ryan: Thank you very much.

Teel: You were first in Charlotte, what, back in January of '23?

Ryan: That's right. It was just about 12 months ago that I was there for the first time.

Teel: What was it about Charlotte that made you think it might be a good place for you to land?

Ryan: Well, you know, I didn't know an awful lot about Charlotte before I came, even though I do have family that lives in Charlotte and in Raleigh. It was just an email asking me whether I'd like to come for a subscription week, which then subsequently was postponed by COVID. And then in early 2021, actually, the CSO reached out and asked whether I'd be interested in being a candidate. And then I did some research and found out what a cool city Charlotte is and how well-regarded the orchestra is. And, yeah, let's just say my appetite was well and truly whet.

Teel: Well, despite having family in this area, folks can probably tell that you are not from this area. Born in Canada, raised in Trinidad, how did you come to find classical music as a career path?

Ryan: Well, both of my parents are music lovers. My mother in particular is an avid classical music aficionado and they just had a really large vinyl collection that had a lot of wonderful recordings in it. So those were my first introductions to classical music. At that time, there was no symphony orchestra in Trinidad and Tobago. There is now. I guess my initial live experience with an orchestra was one summer when my parents took my sister and I to see the Toronto Symphony play at Ontario Place. And I just leaned over to my mom and said, ‘Whatever that guy is doing over there, I want to do that!’ And I was, at the time, certainly no more than 8 or 9, so it's really an early interest.

Teel: Well, that thing that that guy was doing over there — conducting or being a music director is not a position that is held by all that many people of color, and fewer still Black men. How does that general lack of representation inform your work?

Ryan: Well, you know, it's something that one is aware of. At the time that I was starting to conduct, there was even less awareness than there is now. So, one sort of enters into the space as a, I guess as an anomaly. I was raised not to see my skin color as anything that should put me at a disadvantage when you go into things. I guess with a certain constructive naivete, you can certainly get through the job that needs to be done without feeling undue pressure in the fullness of time. Obviously, the industry has become very aware of how historically hermetic it's been for people of color. And that has led to, you know, a significant increase in exposure opportunity. And I think sometimes, for change to happen, circumstances have to align. And I think that new demand for classical music institutions to be more inclusive and more diverse has met with a new supply of classical music practitioners, conductors, instrumentalists who are coming out of that increase in exposure and opportunity. And I think those two circumstances have led us into the more auspicious situation that we're in today.

Teel: In making the announcement, CEO David Fisk made reference to the desire to balance artistic innovation and preservation. What does that mean? How do you, how do you accomplish both?

Ryan: Well, for me, that's really a natural by-product of my upbringing and my musical experiences. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, which is a cultural melting pot — almost half the population of African origin, another almost half of Indian origin and then all sorts of other European Asian influences that have come to the country. And so the music that's in my ears is extremely eclectic so that any program I make will be a mixture of the preservation of the sort of tradition of the symphony orchestra, you know, the music that is its sort of daily bread that makes it function well, but also with regular excursions out into every other kind of music that, you know, the chameleonic entity that an orchestra is can represent.

Teel: This is a four-year contract starts 2024-25 in earnest, replacing a long-tenured music director, Christopher Warren-Green. How far out are things planned, and how far into your tenure does the CSO start to shift and reflect your vision as a music director?

Ryan: Well, we've only just started planning so I can't say very much about what will actually be on programs. I can't get that concrete. And, as you know, in the classical music business, the planning is about two years out ahead of the actual performances. But one of the things that I really noticed about the CSO, one of the things that attracted me is that the initiatives that they've been pursuing to date are so in line with things that I would naturally want for the orchestra, I feel like I'm going to be putting my skill set and my persona everything that I have to offer, you know, at the service of the CSO — but also at the service of something that I believe in. And I've always believed in a welcoming, open eclectic repertoire. Or, you know, the possibility, for example, to go out to audiences as much as we want to bring them into our space.

Teel: What was your elevator pitch for trying to land the job?

Ryan: Well, you know, at the outset of our conversation, I talked about ‘natural wavelength’ the entire time that I was a candidate for the music directorship, music directorship of the CSO, I felt that I was right for the job. And that's not a given. Sometimes you go up for a job for all sorts of practical reasons. This was a job that was very personal to me. It felt like an extremely good fit. Not just from the point of view of the orchestra, that's the starting point, but I also felt so comfortable and happy in Charlotte itself just walking the streets, being part of the community for the short time that I was able to do that on the week off that I had before my last concert.

I'm interested in, you know, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and its environment, its communities. And so I didn't actually make a pitch. What I felt was, and I think I may have even said this in an interview, I can't say that I'm the best candidate for this position because you as an organization know all the candidates. What I will say is that I'm extremely confident that a candidate like me would be the right person for this job. And I still believe that, and that's a great place to start a new partnership.

Teel: So we next, see you what, early in the spring? I think you're here in April?

Ryan: Yeah, that's right.

Teel: And then what about in earnest?

Ryan: Well, obviously behind the scenes, there will be very 'in earnest' even before that. As I say, you have to paddle pretty hard under the surface of the classical music business, water to get things moving in the direction that you want them to be moving in two years later. But I would say my first full-on season in terms of presence will be the 25-26 season.

Teel: Fantastic. Kwamé Ryan, congratulations. And thanks for spending some time talking with us.

Ryan: Thank you, Eric. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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Eric Teel comes to WFAE with more than 30 years of public radio programming experience across a wide variety of formats.