Musical visions

People The Arts

March 28, 2024

Kwamé Ryan conducting

Kwamé Ryan, incoming music director at Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, brings experience and talent with a passion for mentoring youth and supporting living composers.

by Vanessa Infanzon

At just 6 years old, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s next music director Kwamé Ryan knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. At a performance of Porgy and Bess in Ontario, Canada, Ryan’s attention was captured by the man standing with his back to the audience. “I remember leaning over to my mom during the performance and saying, ‘Whatever the guy at the front is doing, I think I want to do that,’” says the Canada-born conductor. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but the sound blew me away. It felt like magic.”

Ryan returns to Charlotte this month as the music director designate for two CSO performances featuring Wang Jie’s Symphonic Overture “America, the Beautiful,” Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on April 5 and 6. His four-year contract with CSO officially begins this fall with the 2024-25 season. Ryan, 54, will be CSO’s 12th music director since it was founded in 1932 and the first person of color in the role. He succeeds Christopher Warren-Green, who held the post for 12 years. As music director, Ryan will conduct the orchestra and guide the artistic vision and musical selections.

Ryan brings a variety of experiences with him to Charlotte. He served as the general music director of the Freiburg Opera in Germany and as musical and artistic director of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine in France. He’s held dozens of guest conductor positions across the United States and all over the world, including a regular appearance at BBC Proms, an annual summer music festival in London.

His journey to Charlotte began in January 2023 when Ryan led the orchestra in Copland’s Symphony No. 3, John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and Korngold’s Violin Concerto. He returned in November to conduct Verdi’s Requiem. “I was really taken with the artistry of the musicians, but also how easy the relationship was, how natural the relationship was in rehearsal,” he explains. “We had such a wonderful time, and even after that first week in January, I was pretty sure that if I did have the opportunity to become the director of the orchestra, I would do it.”

Encouragement from a young age

After Ryan’s bold declaration during Porgy and Bess, his parents bought him an upright piano, which he played in Trinidad, the Caribbean Island where he was raised. He added singing and violin to his repertoire. At 15, he started at Oakham School, a boarding school in England, to further his music and academic studies. “My mom really believed in me,” Ryan says. “She never doubted it was something I could do. I asked her recently if she secretly had any doubts, and she said, ‘No, I never did.’”

Incoming music director Kwamé Ryan for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra leads musicians on stage.

Ryan began conducting an orchestra on the weekends within six months of arriving in England. Though he wanted to learn the cello, the head of the strings department told him they had enough cellists and suggested the double bass. What might have been a disappointment for the teen turned out to be an opportunity. Ryan played the double bass with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain for three years, eventually conducting the orchestra in rehearsal. “It was the most incredible exposure, not only to top-notch orchestral playing but to conductors who became mentors to me.” 

In the late 1980s, Ryan studied musicology at Cambridge University, where Péter Eötvös, a Hungarian composer, conductor and teacher, introduced him to contemporary music. “He immerses all his students in the music of this time,” Ryan says, “and impresses the importance of being advocates for composers who deserve to be heard and need, what he calls, ‘test pilots,’ like us to take their works for an inaugural spin and give them advice and guidance.”

Building upon CSO’s history 

Ryan has big plans for CSO. He envisions expanding the nonprofit’s history of attracting diverse audiences through its discovery programs and range of music offerings with an infusion of Trinidad and Tobago’s eclectic music traditions: calypso, Caribbean creole, classic Indian and European. He’s enthusiastic about the CSO Roadshow, a new mobile stage rolling out this spring; Ryan likes the idea of music being played in the audience’s environment. 

Following the teachings of his mentor, Eötvös, Ryan foresees developing relationships with contemporary composers, perhaps introducing a composer-in-residence program. “There are a lot of really great young composers who often find it difficult getting their music played,” he says. 

Supporting youth programs has been a constant throughout Ryan’s career. He anticipates continuing this within CSO’s Youth Orchestras and Project Harmony, a partnership between CSO and Arts+ for a tuition-free after-school music program in four Charlotte neighborhoods. “That is a really fertile terrain for me to bring what I’ve experienced to them,” says Ryan, who will divide his time between Charlotte and his home in Germany.

Looking ahead to 2026 when America turns 250 years old, Ryan hopes to use music to review the country’s past. “There’s an aspect of celebration that comes with an event like that,” he says. “But I’d love to look at where America has been historically, not only artistically, but culturally.”  SP

Photographs courtesy Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

Don’t miss extras from
SouthPark Magazine!


Sign up for our newsletter — full of fresh stories, Happenings and giveaways each week.


By entering your email address you are agreeing to our TERMS OF USE