The City Magazine Since 1975

Music for Our Ears

Music for Our Ears
May 2016
Listened to a Spoleto Festival USA concert in the last two decades? It’s likely that John Kennedy had a hand in its inception

John Kennedy doesn’t reside in Charleston. But for the past 26 years, the California-based composer and conductor has been teaching us a lot about classical music—and on our own turf. As Spoleto Festival USA’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, Kennedy is responsible for planning each season’s musical offerings and exposing audiences to both traditional and contemporary classical repertory. He also selects the musicians for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, holding auditions in the Holy City (and in nine other locations) every year. We sat down with him to learn more about his gig and this Spoleto season, including two works he composed for the festival’s 40th anniversary season, Blessing the Boats and Spoletudes.

First notes: I heard Stravinsky’s The Firebird when I was three or four years old. That was the moment I fell susceptible to the power of music—wordless music—and the attraction hasn’t stopped.

Training ears: I want to guide people to hearing classical repertoire in new ways. Part of the agenda for Spoleto is to present new international works, and I know I’m doing my job when I hear from longtime festivalgoers who say things like, “Wow, that was really different—and I loved it!” There are so many styles of “new” music; it’s not all dissonant or minimalist.

For the festival: Spoletudes is a sequence of solos that I’ve made for musicians with whom I’ve had long relationships. For the work’s present incarnation, I’ve devised a theme in which four solos are played simultaneously.

Ode to Joe: Blessing the Boats began as a “thank-you” to then-Mayor Joe Riley and as a commemoration of the festival’s 40th anniversary. But after the shootings last June, I didn’t want it to be completely celebrative. I wanted it to reflect my own deep relationship with this city and feelings surrounding the events. So I searched for inspiration that felt right for the moment, and my mother, a poet, showed me Lucille Clifton’s poem, “Blessing the Boats.” It speaks to emotional healing as well as wishing someone well. A full orchestra and a chorus will perform the piece, which uses the poem as lyrics.

Composition process: I’ll start with short musical motifs—small bits of material—that you could look at as microcosms of what develops. There’s a lot of trial and error and starting over. I don’t want to impose old habits on new works, and I find I often have to reject my first attempts in order for something to be authentic.

Complete immersion: I wish I could bring audience members inside the orchestra. It’s so different to sit in a concert hall and hear a finished work than to sit next to a wind player, or behind a few string players, and see what goes into it. Experiencing as many as a hundred people playing and breathing precisely together is humbling; it’s certainly humbling as a conductor.

Charleston musts: I can’t leave without taking an evening stroll on Sullivan’s Island, as well as along the Battery and Waterfront Park. And when my two teenage daughters arrive, they always have to go to Basil.

On the future of music: I don’t have any concerns, even in popular forms. What is regrettable is the squashed format by which people—including my own kids—are listening to it, with phones and ear buds. Put it on a stereo and put it in space. To not hear the complete timbre and spectrum of sound is like taking the flavors out of food.