5 Questions to Kwamé Ryan (conductor)

Kwamé Ryan is an internationally awarded conductor and the recently named Music Director Designate of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, beginning his tenure in the 2024-2025 season. Born in Canada and raised in Trinidad, Ryan began boarding school in England at age 14 and studied musicology at Cambridge University before continuing his education in Germany at the University of Tübingen. He studied conducting in Hungary with Peter Eötvös, who would become his mentor; his conducting career was kickstarted when Eötvös invited him to co-conduct the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra in a celebration of composer György Kurtág’s 60th birthday.

In 1999, he took on his first permanent conducting appointment as music director of the Freiburg Opera and Orchestra, a position he held for four years before a string of guest and festival appearances that eventually led to appointments in France with the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine and the French National Youth Orchestra. His prolific conducting career has included performances with many leading orchestras and opera houses in North America and Europe, as well as the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in Korea.

Ryan’s formative study with Eötvös has led to a special relationship with new music. He has recorded the work of many leading 20th- and 21st-century composers, including Luigi Nono, Gerard Grisey, Olga Neuwirth, Iannis Xenakis, and Morton Feldman.

In 2021, he conducted the premiere of Kris Defoort’s The Time of our Singing in Brussels, which won the International Opera Award for World Premiere of the Year, and in 2023, he led the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Intelligence at the Houston Grand Opera. Following the announcement of Ryan’s appointment with the Charlotte Symphony, we asked him five questions about his international career and commitment to new music.

Kwamé Ryan in action -- Courtesy of artist

Kwamé Ryan in action — Courtesy of artist

Given your highly international background, I am curious about your perspective on place. What does “home” mean to you?

I’ve spent my entire life travelling. Just thirty days after I was born, my parents emigrated from Canada to Africa, then four years later to Trinidad where I lived until I was fourteen, before heading to England for boarding school and University. I’ve been based in Germany since then, but in the last fifteen years or so, I’ve worked in France, Trinidad and now the U.S.

As a result, my partner and I, both travelling musicians, have learned to feel at home wherever we are and for however long we’re there. So “Home” is essentially wherever we’re together, even though we do both enjoy a certain ‘grounding’ when we’re at our place on the edge of the Black Forrest, in southwest Germany. After all, that’s where our work studios, our friends, and our e-bikes are!

How do you view the relationship between orchestral and operatic conducting? What are the similarities and differences?

A theatrical premiere is a much longer, more complex and diversely collaborative process then a symphony concert. The common denominator is the involvement of instrumentalists, but whereas an orchestral concert is mounted in a few days, in the world of opera, the orchestra only turns up towards the end of a rehearsal process which, by that time, has already been running for about four weeks with the singers, the set, costume and lighting designers and the director.

Once all the elements come together, a concert might be performed 1 – 3 times, whereas an opera will generally be given anywhere from 5 – 10 times before the production is over, even more if the show goes into repertory. I enjoy both processes, but having grown up in the theatre, and being a trained singer, opera occupies a special place in my heart, and I make sure that I get to do at least one operatic production per season.

What role does new music play in your overall professional practice, as a conductor and educator?

I was fortunate to have been taught conducting by Peter Eötvös, one of the finest European composer-conductors of his generation, so new music was at the core of my training and became a passion early on in my career. I met Peter during a summer course at the International Bartok Festival in Hungary which I attended to study Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle with him. We got along well, and he invited me to be one of the first students in his new institute for young conductors. This meant riding along with him wherever in the world he was conducting, learning about the business and studying his repertoire, which was mostly contemporary.

What we didn’t learn from Peter about conducting the standard repertoire, was compensated by intensive study of the mechanics of the orchestra and its full colour palette. This, combined with early exposure to the complex rhythms, harmonies and textures of contemporary music equipped us with a skillset we could apply to any repertoire we were interested in, and for me that meant everything from Bach to Beethoven and Brahms to Boulez.

I’ve been fortunate to have always had that kind of range in my repertoire, and I continue to cultivate it actively, whether on the professional circuit or with one of the many youth orchestras with which I’ve been associated over the years. I enjoy the experience of bringing new works into the repertoire or performing the music of a living composer and sharing my interest in it with young musicians. I try to pass on what I learned from Peter, which is that the same sense of creative freshness and discovery a world premiere affords us and the joy of being able to help a composer realise their musical vision can be applied to everything we perform, regardless of when it was composed.

How did your relationship with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra develop?

I conducted the CSO for the first time in January of 2023, an engagement that would have happened much earlier had the pandemic not happened. When we were looking at repertoire options for that first concert, I provided a list of ideas on which, just for fun, I included Copland’s Symphony No. 3, a work that had been on my bucket list for years but isn’t very frequently performed. Even though it’s the origin of the famous, and often played Fanfare for the Common Man, composed for brass and percussion, the full symphony is very challenging for the entire orchestra, and I didn’t think for a minute that of all the works I’d offered, the orchestra would gravitate towards it. But gravitate it did, and that was the first signal for me that the CSO and I might share a wavelength.

Once we started to rehearse however, it became clear that the wavelength we shared extended far beyond repertoire to the actual music-making, which was fluid and fulfilling. The atmosphere during rehearsals was that combination of relaxed trust and intense concentration that orchestras and conductors seek out, and happily return to, so even back then, I was intrigued by the possibility of building a longer-term relationship.

I didn’t conduct the CSO again until November of the same year, this time in Verdi’s Requiem which, with its four vocal soloists and large chorus, could hardly have been more different from the repertoire I’d done the first time. I was fresh off the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera Intelligence at Houston Grand Opera, so I’d been working with singers for several weeks prior to arriving in Charlotte and was ready to tackle Verdi’s theatrical Requiem, albeit for the first time.

Everything I’d felt about the orchestra was confirmed. I really liked the musicians, the team and their energy and could imagine bringing them into my life, especially in the context of a city that I was interested in and enjoyed spending time in. It really was a case of aligned stars.

Kwamé Ryan -- Courtesy of artist

Kwamé Ryan — Courtesy of artist

What are you most looking forward to as you begin your tenure as the next Music Director for the Charlotte Symphony?

It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to put my creative stamp on an entire symphonic season, and it’s such a pleasure and privilege to combine my own wish fulfillment with an orchestra’s strengths and interests. It’s an opportunity to reveal the identity of a brand-new creative entity, taking its first steps towards what we’re certain will be an exciting future. But that’s only part of the the journey.

What I look forward to most, is sharing all of that with our existing and future audiences, and discovering what moves them and why.  It’s long been known that conductors and orchestras can have synchronised physiological responses to music during performance, but I recently read of a study in Bern, Switzerland which found that the same can be true for audiences.

In the study, classical concertgoers, hooked up to sensors, were found to synchronise their breathing first, followed by their heart rates and excitement levels as measured by moisture on their fingertips. I imagine the same could be observed in a cinema, but how cool is it that an audience, sitting still during a live orchestral performance can share such synchrony within itself, and by extension with the performers?  I’ve felt incredibly welcome in Charlotte and can’t wait to share those kinds of special moments with the CSO and the community as a part of its creative pulse.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or