Shawn and Karen Galvin bring new music to new places | Indies Arts Awards | Indy Week
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Shawn and Karen Galvin bring new music to new places 

The Galvins in their Raleigh practice space

Photo by Mark Schueler

The Galvins in their Raleigh practice space

There's no shortage of chamber music in the Triangle, but you might conclude that hardly any new material had been written in 50 years. The demand for the classical masters is insatiable, and orchestras play what their patrons want to hear. But since 2009, one married couple has been working to give Raleigh's classical scene the contemporary vibrancy they think it deserves.

Karen Strittmatter Galvin and Shawn Galvin are the founders and curators of New Music Raleigh, which presents adventurous concerts with a revolving cast of musicians. Popping up in a variety of venues, the agile organization has staged works by modern masters Steve Reich (bringing "Different Trains" to Raleigh for the first time) and John Luther Adams; timely up-and-comers Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly; and indie-classical shape-shifter Sarah Kirkland Snider. Most recently, they put together The Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins with members of The Beast and classical musicians for a jazzy romp through Beck's sheet music album, Song Reader.

Karen and Shawn met as children in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony and recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. "We're kind of symbiotic at this point," Karen says with a laugh.

Karen became a working violinist at age 8, playing in a wedding trio with her sisters. Shawn's father was a music teacher who began his percussion instruction early, and he went on to spend 10 years working with the Tempus Fugit Percussion Ensemble. After they received bachelor's degrees in music—Karen at Carnegie Mellon, Shawn at Duquesne—they moved to Washington, D.C., where Karen freelanced while Shawn played timpani in the United States Navy Band.

At Carnegie Mellon, Karen became interested in new music because many of her friends were young composers who desperately needed to hear their music performed. Shawn was drawn to it because of the scarcity of percussion repertoire.

They moved to Raleigh in 2007 when Karen took her current position of assistant concertmaster at the North Carolina Symphony. The environment seemed ripe for modern music. "There's a lot of people creating things," Shawn says. "Software engineers, architects, visual artists, designers. They do the kind of work where they have to find some kind of inspiration. The indie music scene is wonderful also. So you have an environment where you don't have to work as hard to train people to experience brand new things."

Still, there seemed to be a dearth of new music performances around the state capital, at least outside of the universities. "New Music Raleigh is not something we could have done in the places we lived before," Karen says, "which had multiple outstanding new music groups."

New Music Raleigh began in 2009 when the Galvins were offered a chance to perform in Burning Coal Theatre's music series. They scrambled together a group made of colleagues from the North Carolina Symphony, who donated their time. "That was very generous," Karen says, "because contemporary music doesn't just roll off the instrument."

That first gig made a fan of Jerome Davis, Burning Coal's artistic director. At New Music Raleigh shows, "I walk into that room without a clue what I'm going to hear, which is the most remarkable achievement for any artist," Davis says. "It means I come in prepared to listen."

Reaching beyond the familiarity of the concert hall is New Music Raleigh's mission beyond promoting living composers. "We craft each concert to be its own experience," Karen says, "and most of the time, the concert hall is not the appropriate place for the work we do. We love the informality of presenting in Kings or CAM or Burning Coal Theatre, where we can have the audience close to us."

Another aim is using modern or indie-friendly music as a conduit back to the repertory. "We like to consider ourselves a gateway drug for people to find love of classical music through something contemporary," Karen says. "I've dedicated my life to becoming expert in performing Bach and Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven. We're just performing the people who might become those next masters. We don't know who they are, and we won't unless their music is given life."

As New Music Raleigh's crowning achievement, Karen names the Beck concert that united musicians from different niches and showed off the flexibility of the organization's concept. For similar reasons, Shawn cites Snider's Penelope, a song cycle sung by Shara Worden, which hooked into a critically acclaimed album and performances in New York. "It was a far bigger production than we had done before," Shawn says, "which gave us the opportunity to prove we could. "

As a fiscally sponsored nonprofit, New Music Raleigh operates with extremely low overhead. The Galvins are the only staff and take no salary, occasionally dipping into their own pockets to get a piece licensed and musicians paid. Shawn often trawls the Internet for programming while Karen finds personnel, but there's no strict division of duties.

"I like to work," says Karen, who, in addition to her full-time job at the North Carolina Symphony, gives private violin lessons, freelances with the North Carolina Master Chorale and does session or live work with indie musicians such as The Beast and Chris Stamey. "I'm pretty sure I have a violin on my shoulder at least 40 or 50 hours a week."

"We'd love it if Raleigh could become a breeding ground for new works in general," Shawn says, "because we have so many great musicians and a track record of great performances here. There have been a couple indicators that make us think that's a real possibility."

If that exciting possibility becomes a reality, we'll largely have the Galvins to thank for it.

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