Don't call it a crossover: Cincinnati Symphony and Bryce Dessner's MusicNow are a modern marriage

Festival devoted to the new and experimental

Bryce Dessner isn’t mystified why symphony orchestras rarely commission new music from ambitious rock, pop and hip-hop songwriters.

“There is a language barrier, like going to France if you don’t speak French,” Dessner said. “If you really don’t understand written music, it becomes really difficult to work with people who read and write from a score.”

That does much to explain how Dessner, who graduated Cincinnati Country Day School 20 years ago, crosses over without a stumble between his lives in rock and classical music. Long before he and his twin brother, Aaron, co-founded the rock band The National, Dessner studied classical guitar at the College Conservatory of Music and at Yale, where he also earned a master’s degree in composition.

In 2006, Dessner inaugurated the MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, curated to showcase artists blurring and experimenting beyond the bounds of musical genre.

Language barrier notwithstanding, Dessner concedes a cultural disconnect also discourages orchestras from reaching outside the channels of formal compositional training for new music. That cultural chasm might, in part, explain why it took eight years for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to formally partner with Dessner and MusicNow.

On March 21, the Dessner brothers are performing with the orchestra on a program featuring Bryce Dessner’s “St. Carolyn By the Sea.” The ensemble Eighth Blackbird performs another Dessner work, “Murder Ballades,” and the orchestra premieres new music from one of classical music’s celebrated young composers, Nico Muhly. The following evening, MusicNow continues with a different program, highlighted by the premiere of music from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and a performance of work by Radiohead guitarist and songwriter Jonny Greenwood.

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