Charlotte’s Your Neighborhood Orchestra bridges contemporary classical music with multiple genres for unique showcase

 By Charlie Leonard

April 18, 2021 (updated)

Charlotte New Music’s Your Neighborhood Orchestra returns starting in April. Produced in collaboration with local songwriters, composers, and choreographers, the festival strives to support local artists by producing “high-quality and visually engaging virtual performances,” featuring music and dance in a multitude of genres. This year’s event is spread across multiple dates and will be streamed on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitch. The stream is free, but a tip jar will be included to support Roof Above and the fight against homelessness.

Your Neighborhood Orchestra is the brainchild of Elizabeth Kowalski, director of the event and the founder of Charlotte New Music. Despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kowalski says her show is anything but ordinary.

Elizabeth Kowalski, the founder of Charlotte New Music and the director of Your Neighborhood Orchestra. Photo: Brian Twitty

“It’s not just audio, it’s not just amazing performances, it’s not just musicians killing it, it’s also this amazing visual component that also includes dance,” she said. “I really wanted to develop this experience for the audience all around, and I really wanted a powerful presentation of who we are as representatives of Charlotte.” 

Originally starting with the piano and the flute at the age of five, Kowalski went on to get her bachelor’s degree in piano performance at UNC Charlotte and a master’s degree in composition at UNC Greensboro. While building her portfolio of composition after graduation, she noticed that every time she took a trip back to the Charlotte area, her profession would elicit the same response. “Everybody would ask me what I do, and I say, ‘I’m a composer.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, those are still alive,’ or ‘This still exists.’”

In response, Kowalski decided to “start a scene.” She went on to found Charlotte New Music in 2011, an organization focused on the creation, access, education, and opportunity for contemporary classical music in the area. Charlotte New Music started by hosting workshops and opportunities for professional development all while serving a variety of different age groups. During this time, Kowalski continued to perform and compose, playing her flute with a multitude of different artists and building her portfolio in the process.

Violinist Emanuel Wynter. Photo: Brian Twitty

Kowalski would also attend multiple shows a week, constantly exposing herself to different musical genres like jazz, R&B, and rock. She considered her concert attendance to be research and fieldwork, taking in talented local songwriters to discover what she described in her own words as “how music works” and “what’s meaningful or relevant to a community.” But she also noticed a lack of communication between the genres and, at that point, Kowalski knew that she wanted to intervene.

“As a composer, I was like, ‘Damn, this is kind of our job,’” she said. “We’re the architects in a way. Why aren’t we making bridges?”

And thus came Your Neighborhood Orchestra, a project that bridges the contemporary classical music community and various genres that are culturally relevant today. After premiering in 2019, YNO will include visuals by various videographers and editors, audio production and engineering by Terance Ervan and Jorge Espinoza-Cruz, and performance of dance under the direction of Arlynn Zachary with additional curation by Treya Nash and Katelyn M. Miller. YNO builds on a list of professional composers, songwriters, and musicians that are based in Charlotte.

Von Hunter and ballerina Sarah Hayes. Photo: Brian Twitty

Featured in each performance will also be opportunities for audience interaction including a real-time Q&A session with each artist. For the most up to date information, visit Watch the series on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch

April 18, 1 p.m.: Cyanca (R&B/hip hop) and Jaycee Clark from A LightDivided (pop metal), with orchestral scoring by Elizabeth Kowalski, choreography by Satya Jvala (aerial, lyra), and Danielle Houston (professional mermaid and dancing queen).

May 2, 1 p.m.: Todd Johnson (Americana) and Quisol (Latin pop/reggaeton), with orchestral arrangements by composers Fred Dunlap and Terrance Shepherd, and choreography Megan Payne (contemporary) & Dejarius Bright (hip-hop/breaking).

May 16, 1 p.m.: Arghya Bhattacharya & Amrita Biswas (Bollywood), as well as Von Hunter (alt rock), with orchestration by Travis Railsbeck and Treya Nash, choreography by Indian dancer, Kaustavi Sarkar, and a contemporary ballet solo by Sarah Hayes Harkins (Charlotte Ballet).

May 30, 1 p.m.: Pete Lents (rock) and Yung Citizen (hip-hop), featuring composer John Allemeier, and including choreography by Latin ballroom dancers Rodrigo and Wendy Jimenez.

June 8, 1 p.m.: Lisa De Novo (pop) and Mercury Carter (jazz/soul), with orchestration by Alejandro Rutty and Mark Lewis and choreography by Tamara Williams (Afro-Brazilian) and Arlynn Zachary (contemporary/jazz fusion).

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