Learning a piece of new, contemporary orchestral music is like going into uncharted waters. You've never heard it played because it's probably never been performed. There are no recordings. There may not even be a body of work in which you can place the piece to help you decode its subtleties or nuances. It's harder for an orchestra to learn something like that than it is to brush up on a Mozart sonata that's already a part of most every musician's repertoire.
That's why contemporary orchestral music doesn't make it onto symphony programs often, says Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, a College of Charleston professor and composer who founded the Magnetic South program with fellow professor and composer Edward Hart, in partnership with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. "It's harder to learn because there's no context," Vassilandonakis says. "There are more rehearsals, more work. Playing a new piece that nobody's heard is not a safe choice either. It takes a little more oomph. Mozart or Beethoven, that sells itself."
Hart and Vassilandonakis created Magnetic South two years ago to spotlight contemporary music, giving composers a chance to have their music performed and local audiences the opportunity to hear new music year-round. "Before [Magnetic South], Spoleto was really the only chance we got to hear contemporary music," says Vassilandonakis. "It's really been a labor of love — we want to create context for audiences to learn about the music of our times."
And it seems audiences are ready to listen. The series is only in its second season, but the concerts have all either sold out or come close to selling out, and many of those tickets are being sold to younger listeners, who are the holy grail for symphony orchestra marketing departments. One reason for that, Vassilandonakis says, is that contemporary music can feel more approachable for someone who's not familiar with classical music. "We've been getting some young students who don't really know how classical music is supposed to be — you know, dressing up, sitting very quietly. It [new music] feels very natural to them. If you don't really know how classical music is supposed to sound, then this is just music, something new, like you would buy on iTunes."
Though you won't find them on iTunes, the pieces in Magnetic South's upcoming concert are varied and lively, and will appeal to a wide range of musical tastes. There are three pieces for string orchestra by the Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk, a composer and leader of Ukraine's opera and symphony orchestra who's become a kind of national hero in his home country. Students from the College of Charleston's string program will join the CSO to perform Skoryk's pieces.
The second set of pieces is Four Songs on Poems by Seamus Heaney, a Magnetic South commission that will be making its world premiere. The songs are by New York University professor Louis Karchin, and will be performed by a small ensemble and the soprano Deanna McBroom. "I'm very excited about these pieces," Vassilandonakis says. "You don't get a lot of new vocal music, of new songs. These art songs are continuing the tradition of Schubert [who was known for his lieder, or songs that set German poetry to music]."
The third piece of the evening is Columbia composer Dick Goodwin's Dessau Dances, a set of ballroom dances based on rhythms that Goodwin remembers playing as a student at a German dance hall in Texas. He first wrote the piece for a piano and cello duo at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches. When Edward Hart, who used to be one of Goodwin's students, approached him about writing something for the Magnetic South program, Goodwin decided to take Dessau Dances and rework it for a large ensemble. "That was something I'd never done before, but I thought this was a good opportunity to give it a try," he says. "The main thing was to hear it completely differently — I liked the musical ideas, so the cello would still have lots of parts, but I also tried to make sure that everyone had a fun part."
Goodwin is a big supporter of Magnetic South, which he says is helping not only composers, but orchestras too. "The program is a good way for the orchestra to stay relevant to the community," he says. "Of course it's good for those in the new music community ... The composing process is very slow, very lonely. Then all of a sudden people are playing your piece. And in my opinion, it's not a piece until someone is playing it."
Without dedicated programs like the College of Charleston's, compositions like Dessau Dances could be stuck in limbo for who knows how long. As Vassilandonakis said, new pieces are risky — but then, that's also what makes them thrilling. "When you're playing a new piece that nobody's ever heard, you're creating a first performance, and that's very exciting. It's like hearing a Beethoven symphony for the first time." After all, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was once contemporary music. What if no one had taken a chance on that?