CINCINNATI -- “I’m so lucky,” said Louis Langrée, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s music director. “Here in Cincinnati, I’ve been given the opportunity to continue a tradition of speaking to people with the music of our time.”
This is not just a grandiose statement of philosophy. Langrée is speaking of MusicNOW, the contemporary music festival taking place March 18-20. The CSO is now a full collaborator in the festival, which was founded in 2006 by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner, co-founder of the band The National. And MusicNOW has grown into a festival that is as influential as it is adventurous.
This year’s lineup includes music by composers Anna Clyne, Julia Wolfe, Terry Riley and, of course, Dessner, whose compositional adventures are as far-ranging as the programming he has cobbled together. There also will be performances by the Punch Brothers, Sam Amidon, Luluc and new-music superstars the Kronos Quartet.
“This is our second time as part of the festival,” said David Harrington, the founder of Kronos and the lone original member in the 44-year-old ensemble. “After the first time we played, we were eager to come back.”
At first, you think he’s just being polite. A gig is a gig, after all. But as he expounds on his affection for MusicNOW and Cincinnati, you understand how enthusiastic he really is.
“What’s remarkable about MusicNOW is the community that surrounds the music,” said Harrington. “The last time we were there, it seemed like we were embraced not only by the music community and the audience. It felt like it was the entire community of the city that was welcoming us. I can’t pinpoint what it was, but the festival seemed to be more than just a collection of cool concerts. It really was a festival in the sense of celebrating a wonderful moment in music. Does that make sense?”
Actually, it does. Some arts leaders have a way of building goodwill into the framework of their events. It’s not a line item in a budget. But it’s a sense of openness, a willingness to let artists take risks. You engage the best people and let them do what they do best. From the outset, that has been a hallmark of MusicNOW, and audiences have responded accordingly.
When Dessner launched MusicNOW, he said it was because he wanted to give something back to his hometown. It’s a commitment he still feels. As the festival has moved from venue to venue and presented an increasingly broad range of musical genres, he has been struck by the willingness of audiences to go along, both physically and philosophically.
“I’ve been very surprised by the generosity of the audience in Cincinnati to follow us wherever we wanted to go,” Dessner emailed from Paris. “I think Midwesterners and the people of Cincinnati, in particular, are very open-minded and up for a challenge. When the festival started, it was much smaller, and I often recognized faces in the audience.”
He still knows a few people. But mostly, the capacity crowds are made up of people who are there for the music and the shared experiences, not just to support Dessner.
It is that commitment to crossing over from one musical genre to another that first attracted Langrée to MusicNOW.
“For the audience who came to listen to Prokofiev and Scriabin, they will also discover indie rock. And for the people who came for the indie rock, they will discover Terry Riley and Magnus Lindberg,” Langrée said. “It doesn’t mean that people will suddenly be subscribers to the symphony. It’s not about that. This is about sharing different musical experiences.”
This year, for the first time, Dessner won’t be in Cincinnati to participate in his own festival.
“It’s always been difficult balancing all the schedules involved,” Dessner wrote. “This year my luck ran out, unfortunately.”
By the time MusicNOW kicks off, Dessner will be in Auckland, New Zealand, with The National, preparing to perform as one of the headliners in Auckland City Limits, a massive one-day musical event in the outskirts of New Zealand’s largest city.
His spirit will still be felt, though, said Langrée.
“We will be playing his music, so it’s impossible not to have him here,” Langrée said. “But it is more than that, you know. I remember the first time I met Bryce several years ago. I was instantly seduced by the musician and by the person. He’s a deep and enthusiastic person who loves challenges and is passionate about breaking the walls between classical and rock.
“As a musician, he doesn’t want to be prisoner of a genre. His inspiration is really wonderful. He won’t be here. But we will feel his presence.”
8 p.m. March 18-19
Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over the Rhine
Tickets: $25-$101; 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org
March 18 performance includes works by Dessner, Clyne, Wolfe, with performance by Kronos Quartet, Jennifer Koh, Chris Thile and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
March 19 performance features works by Dessner, Lutoslawski, Riley and Lindberg, with performances by Kronos Quartet and CSO
7 p.m. March 20
Cincinnati Masonic Center Auditorium, 317 E. Fifth St., Downtown.
Featuring Punch Brothers, Sam Amidon, Luluc
Tickets: $30; musicnowfestival.org