Local Arts

You’ve definitely never heard this (music) before, as a unique Charlotte festival hits its stride

Elizabeth Kowalski
Elizabeth Kowalski Courtesy of Elizabeth Kowalski

What happens when a pianist who practices six hours a day and aims at a pro career can't use one hand the same way?

In Elizabeth Kowalski's case: a turn toward composing – and a unique event for Charlotte.

After being hit by a truck in 2008, the Harrisburg native finished two music degrees and started the Charlotte New Music Festival. This year, its seventh, it offers concerts and workshops June 18-30.

She and her staff now get 100 applications from composers submitting pieces and pick about 25. Performers such as Beo String Quartet and guitar-sax-piano-percussion quartet Hypercube drop in from Pittsburgh and New York. Kowalski hopes to find an Antarctic composer, so she can say they’ve come from all seven continents. The CNMF gives prizes for one new piece for string quartet and one for another ensemble – this year, a saxophone quartet – and performs the winners.

Its founder has overseen this process with a limited wallet and limitless patience and persistence. “Every year I’ve had to wrestle with whether to do it again,” she says. “Last year was the first year I didn’t say that. Now I see more and more potential.”

She saw nothing but potential in 2012, when she launched the idea. By then, she had graduated from UNC Charlotte with a B.A. in piano and vocal music, spent a year studying music therapy at Queens University and earned a master’s degree in music at UNC Greensboro.

Her post-accident epiphany began in a UNCC senior project chaired by John Allemeier, where she reworked Debussy piano preludes for wind ensembles.

“My first impression was that she was very musical and creative but hadn’t found how to focus her passion,” says Allemeier, a frequent guest composer at the festival. “When she did a series of arrangements for that senior project, something seemed to click.”

She took his composition class next semester and began to write more. She found places outside Charlotte for her music: “Moon Garden” (guitar and clarinet) took third prize in the Music Teachers National Association Composition Competition, and “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” (cello, electronics and dancers) got a Dance Magazine award and an outing at the Kennedy Center.

But who in Charlotte would play them? Nobody she knew. She could’ve bolted for New York or Los Angeles. Instead, she bolted her chair to the floor and planned.

A small beginning

At first, only parents Ray and Elizabeth Kowalski offered unwavering support. (Allemeier remembers them making home-cooked meals for performances.) Their daughter put up $2,000 of her money to get things going, because “the granting community can’t even see you, unless you’ve been successful for two years.”

Eventually, the nonprofit group SouthArts became a steady supporter. The Knight Foundation, Wells Fargo and the Arts & Science Council made grants lasting a year or two. UNCC has backed her, and WDAV-FM came aboard this year by sponsoring a Beo performance as one of its Small Batch Concerts.

She and her staff still struggle to raise backing, and she still worries venues might cancel if something more profitable comes along. She may schedule performances at 6:30 p.m., such as Beo’s June 23 gig at Snug Harbor, so musicians finish before Saturday-night drinkers flood the joint. (She’s planning an event for potential donors before that show, probably at 5:30.)

Yet at 31, none of this daunts this creature of impulse. Says Allemeier, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that Elizabeth is fearless.” This is a woman who, after trash-talking about how unsafe motorcycles are, took a three-month 2015 trip around South America on a KTM Duke 390 she bought in Bogotá, Colombia. (“The strange thing,” she says, “is that the trip helped my injured hand improve significantly.” She now rides a Kawasaki Versys 650 and “can play anything less complicated than Bach.”)

Yet even when she latches onto donors and locales, she has to convince potential patrons the adjectives “new” or “challenging” aren’t kindly ways to describe music that’s baffling or painful to endure. Kowalski calls her concerts “fresh” and believes the pieces are accessible to anyone, perhaps especially if they like electronic music or – a favorite of hers – jazz, a genre she hopes the festival may someday encompass.

Among most respected in U.S.

How does she win believers?

First, by getting the word out. Allemeier says it’s already “one of the most respected new music festivals in the United States. Composers want to come, because they get music performed by professional musicians. Similar festivals (or) composition seminars pair student composers with student musicians, and the results are often mixed. Participants come to the CNMF and leave with two recordings of their pieces made by professionals.”

Second, by creating a local ensemble to play run-out concerts: Kowalski envisions a blend of five to seven musicians that will change piece to piece, year to year.

Third, by connecting to non-music worlds. The CNMF has put its dance component on hiatus because the organizer of that section recently left Charlotte; it’ll go back to linking composers with dancers next year. Kowalski’s excited about the Max Computer Music Workshop this year: “This technology gives us a chance to involve non-musical people, engineers and programmers. They can write a classical piece with it or be off-the-wall bonkers.”

And fourth, by keeping tickets cheap: $5 to $12, with a glass of beer thrown in at the Small Batch Concert.

Kowalski has had to put composing on hold for a while but plans to go back to both writing and performing this year. She gives private flute and piano lessons and teaches music appreciation and jazz history at CPCC, reaching potential converts there. And the festival – now “in year seven of my vague 20-year plan” – demands a lot of attention. “Composers and dancers and musicians and audiences want it,” she says. “Now I’m waiting for the people who could make it bigger and greater to want it, too.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

If you’re going

The Charlotte New Music Festival has scheduled nine concerts June 18-30. Tickets cost $5-12. Details: charlottenewmusic.org. Here’s the lineup:

June 19: New Music Open Mic Night, 7 p.m., Steinway Piano Gallery, 7030 Smith Corners Blvd.

June 21: Red Clay Saxophone Quartet, 7:30 p.m., Evening Muse, 3227 N. Davidson St.

June 23: Beo String Quartet, 6:30 p.m., Snug Harbor, 228 Gordon St.

June 25: Duo Zonda (flutes), 7:30 p.m., Google Fiber Space, 301 E. 7th St.

June 26: Small Batch Concert Series, Beo String Quartet, 7:30 p.m., Free Range Brewing, 2320 N. Davidson St.

June 27: Free Improv quintet, 7:30 p.m. at Petra’s, 1919 Commonwealth Ave.

June 29: Hypercube, 7:30 p.m., Rowe Recital Hall, UNCC, 9201 University City Blvd.

June 30: Max Computer Music workshop concert, 4:30 p.m., Goodyear Arts, 1720 Statesville Ave, Suite 200.

June 30: Concert of the Miniatures, with the audience awarding a winner from short pieces played, 7:30 p.m., Goodyear Arts, 1720 Statesville Ave, Suite 200.

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