Classical composer Kip Winger totally rocks. Really.
The Nashville Symphony is set to debut the world premiere of a full symphonic work by a Nashville-based composer March 17-19 as part of its “Evening of Firsts.”
You might know his name, but odds are it’s not from his classical body of work but from one of his 12 rock albums dating to the 1980s.
Kip Winger, founder of the rock band Winger, still tours with his original band doing what he refers to as “weekend warrior stuff,” but has also spent years honing his classical chops. He has written upward of six full classical compositions. One of which, “Conversations With Nijinsky,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2016 for best contemporary classical composition and was performed by the Nashville Symphony in 2017.
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In fact, it was at the urging of NSO Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero that Winger wrote his first symphony a few years back.
“Giancarlo is a rare breed of conductor because he goes outside the wheelhouse of the normal classical composers,” Winger said during an interview from his home in Nashville. “He has worked with the most legitimate composers of our time and will also reach out to a guy like me, which is very rare. He’s a special breed of conductor.”
Guererro said after their first collaboration several years ago, the two shared a strong musical bond.
“After several discussions over meals and coffee, I could see he was eager to tackle writing his first symphony, and I knew that the Nashville Symphony should make this idea a reality,” Guererro said.
“Kip is a fantastic musician and it is always rewarding to work with him. It is precisely his non-traditional classical music background that attracted me. He is the perfect example of the rich musical resources available in Music City.”
While Winger is best known for his rock band, he says he always fantasized about writing classical music. He took piano lessons at age 6 and started learning classical guitar at 16. Then at age 24, he was tapped to play in Alice Cooper’s band before assembling Winger.
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After several hits and multiple albums, Winger’s style of music fell prey to the grunge movement. “The '80s thing was gone and my name in particular became toxic,” he remembers. “It was a dark period when the grunge thing wiped us out. Metallica threw darts at my poster and they made fun of our band on ‘Beavis & Butt-head.’”
Shortly after, his first wife was killed in a car accident.
But like any true musician, Winger dealt with the sorrow by digging into music and honing his composition skills. He studied with composition instructors and stayed focused on learning to compose music for the orchestra.
In 2002, Winger moved to Nashville and saw a performance at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt by composer Michael Kurek, who is now professor emeritus. Winger said he remembers thinking, “I want to study with the person who wrote that.”
Winger realized Kurek was in the audience, introduced himself and later enrolled in Vanderbilt’s adjunct program to study with Kurek. Out of that, one of the movements from Winger’s composition “Ghosts” was written. That piece was later finished and became a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet and was later performed by Nashville Ballet and others.
Winger said he developed a fondness for the ballet after studying it at age 18 with his girlfriend.
“I heard all this great music during that time,” he said.
In 2010, he began flying to New York once a month to study with Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, and out of that collaboration came “Conversations With Nijinsky.”
Danielpour once told Winger he was a “classical composer disguised as a metal guy.”
“Classical music is really what’s in me,” he said. “Rock musicians can’t just write classical music. It has to be in you. I love my band and my band members, but if I had to choose, I’d stop performing and only write classical music. But economically, that’s difficult.”
Winger worked on “Symphony No. 1,” which is four movements and 105 pages of music, for 18 months. This “Atonement Symphony,” as he calls it, was finished in 2020, but like many things, any performance was delayed by the pandemic. He says the piece is largely autobiographical with sonic highs, lows, crescendos and rhythmic moments of enlightenment.
“What I heard in my head was so complicated, I spent a lot of time trying to decode it,” he said.
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So as Winger rehearses with the Nashville Symphony in preparation for the upcoming debut, which will be recorded for an album to be released on the Naxos label, he feels nervous but honored.
“We will do two days of rehearsal, then I just sit anxiously in the audience and watch, feeling like it’s awesome,” Winger said. “The Nashville Symphony performed ‘Nijinski’ and it sounded by far the best of anyone who has performed it. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have doing this one.”
The “Evening of Firsts” will also feature Brad Warnaar’s Coronet Concerto and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1.
If you go
What: “An Evening of Firsts” All-American Program featuring Winger and Warnaar
When: March 17-19
Where: Schermerhorn Symphony Center
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville Symphony to debut latest work by rock's Kip Winger