The Nashville Symphony is set to kick off the world premiere of a complete symphonic work by a Nashville-based composer March 17-19 as part of its “Night of Premieres.”
You might know his name, but chances are it’s not from his classic work but from one of his 12 rock albums from the 1980s.
Kip Winger, founder of rock band Winger, still tours with his original band doing what he calls “weekend warrior stuff,” but has also spent years perfecting his classic chops. He wrote more than six complete classical compositions. One, “Conversations With Nijinsky,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and was performed by the Nashville Symphony in 2017.
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In fact, it was at the request of ONS music director Giancarlo Guerrero that Winger wrote his first symphony a few years ago.
“Giancarlo is a rare breed of conductor because he comes out of the wheelhouse of normal classical composers,” Winger said during an interview from his home in Nashville. “He’s worked with the most legitimate composers of our time and will also reach out to a guy like me, which is very rare. He’s a special breed of conductor.
Guererro said that after their first collaboration several years ago, the two shared a strong musical bond.
“After several discussions over food and coffee, I could see that he was eager to tackle the writing of his first symphony, and I knew that the Nashville Symphony Orchestra would have to bring it to fruition. this idea,” Guererro said.
“Kip is a fantastic musician and it’s always rewarding to work with him. It was precisely his training in non-traditional classical music that attracted me. He is the perfect example of the rich musical resources available in Music City.
While Winger is best known for his rock band, he says he’s always dreamed of writing classical music. He took piano lessons at age 6 and began learning classical guitar at age 16. Then at 24, he was asked to play in Alice Cooper’s band before assembling Winger.
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After several hits and several albums, Winger’s style of music fell prey to the grunge movement. “The 80s thing was gone and my name in particular became toxic,” he recalled. “It was a dark time where the grunge thing shattered us. Metallica threw darts at my poster and they made fun of our band on ‘Beavis & Butt-head’.
Shortly after, his first wife was killed in a car accident.
But like any true musician, Winger dealt with heartbreak by digging into the music and honing his songwriting skills. He studied with composition instructors and remained focused on learning how to compose music for the orchestra.
In 2002, Winger moved to Nashville and attended a performance at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music by composer Michael Kurek, who is now professor emeritus. Winger said he remembers thinking, “I want to study with the person who wrote this.”
Winger realized Kurek was in the audience, introduced himself, and then enrolled in Vanderbilt’s supplemental program to study with Kurek. From there, one of the movements of Winger’s composition “Ghosts” was written. This piece was later completed and became a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet and was subsequently performed by the Nashville Ballet and others.
Winger said he developed a fondness for ballet after studying it at age 18 with his girlfriend.
“I heard all this great music at that time,” he said.
In 2010, he began flying to New York once a month to study with Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, and from this collaboration was born “Conversations With Nijinsky.”
Danielpour once told Winger that he was a “classical composer disguised as a metal guy”.
“Classical music is really what’s inside me,” he said. “Rock musicians can’t just write classical music. It must be in you. I love my band and my band members, but if I had to choose, I would stop playing and only write classical music. But economically, it is difficult.
Winger worked on “Symphony No. 1,” which includes four movements and 105 pages of music, for 18 months. This “Atonement Symphony”, as he calls it, ended in 2020, but like many things, any performance was delayed by the pandemic. He says the piece is largely autobiographical with highs, lows, crescendos and rhythmic moments of sonic illumination.
“What I heard in my head was so complicated that I spent a lot of time trying to decode it,” he said.
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So, as Winger rehearses with the Nashville Symphony in preparation for his upcoming debut, which will be recorded for an album to be released on the Naxos label, he feels nervous but honored.
“We’re going to do two days of rehearsal, and then I anxiously sit in the audience and watch, I feel like it’s awesome,” Winger said. “The Nashville Symphony performed ‘Nijinsky’ and he sounded by far the best of anyone who performed it. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have to do this one.
The “Evening of Premieres” will also feature Brad Warnaar’s Coronet Concerto and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1.
If you are going to
What: All-American program “An Evening of Firsts” featuring Winger and Warnaar
When: March 17-19
Or: Schermerhorn Symphony Center