The newly formed Seattle Music Exchange Project seeks to expand our city’s contemporary classical reach. Founded by pianist and Bellingham native Angelo Rondello, SMEP's debut performance (which features Rondello on the keys) takes place this Saturday, February 4 at Benaroya Hall and features works by local composers Samuel Jones, Peter Vukmirovic Stevens, Angelique Poteat, Benjamin Salman, and Adam Haws. The program will then spread Seattle’s sound globally by traveling to sister cities in Italy, Hungary, Norway, and Japan. On May 11, SMEP will return home for another concert featuring pieces by composers from those sister cities.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Rondello about the origin of SMEP, finding foreign composers when you don't speak the language, and the state of Seattle classical music.
What was the initial spark that led you to establish the Seattle Music Exchange Project?
Moving to Seattle a few years ago, I was immediately impressed with these two things. One was the increasingly cosmopolitan identity that Seattle’s been taking on over the last decade, it just appears to be growing exponentially every year. And the other is the wealth of talent that we have in the musical community here. And because of those two things, because of the talent, I felt like we had something worthy of sharing with one another and with the world. Because of that cosmopolitan identity, it seems fitting to involve an international element into this concept.
What are some of the goals you hope achieve through SMEP?
First of all, this is about music speaking for our cultural identity as a city. And as a cultural voice, these musicians should be heard by the public in Seattle. The other goal is to expand our sense of community in Seattle to transcend the borders of our country.
What do you think are the challenges for modern composers working in the field of classical music?
The challenge that I hope to address with what we’re doing here is to encourage audiences that aren’t already aficionados of new music to feel comfortable coming and listening. We hear a lot of pop and rock music that’s still written in a tonal language that the classical idiom moved past over 100 years ago. So a lot of people, when they come to hear new music, at first they might think that they’re hearing a foreign language. So I’ve been very selective as I’ve curated these programs to choose music that balances what I feel a general audience can appreciate on their first sitting and music that will also stretch people’s imagination—or their comfort level—as they [listen].
What was your process for picking the SMEP composers?
The composers in Seattle were a mix of musicians who I’ve known for a long time, people I’ve met since moving to Seattle, and people who came recommended from colleagues of mine. I did quite a bit of research listening to a variety of composers in Seattle and I chose the ones who had music that spoke to me. I was very fortunate to have two composers—Peter Vukmirovic Stevens and Adam Haws—wrote new pieces that will be given to world premieres on February 4th.
The international composers took quite a bit of research, because when I was choosing the international destinations that we would bring these programs to, a part of my consideration was who was making music in those cities already. So started with finding music, and then learning more about the cities. When I started looking at Bergen, Norway, for example, I was instantly struck with the number of excellent active composers that they have there right now and how easy it was to find their music from the United States. Whereas in some countries, like in Japan, while there are so many excellent musicians, it’s not so commonplace that every freelance musician will have their own personal website. And, of course, in Japan, they’re using different characters so even doing a web search for a non-Japanese-speaking American is challenging. So I had to hire translators to help me do a lot of the research and correspondence, and it took many, many months to find the music that I wanted from Japan.
Is the goal to do the Seattle Music Exchange Project on a yearly basis?
Absolutely. In fact, there are already plans being made to do exchanges with Poland and Taiwan, and repeat visits with repeat exchanges with Japan and Norway.
What would you say is the state of Seattle classical music these days?
The art music scene in Seattle is thriving. There are new concert series and new musical organizations forming all the time. We have many freelance orchestras, and you can even see that the Seattle Symphony is becoming more and more of a well-respected world class orchestra. There are many fine composers in this city doing excellent work. It’s a boom time musically in Seattle. That’s why I thought that the time was right to start Seattle Music Exchange Project.
Seattle Music Exchange Project
February 4, Benaroya Hall, $42