With two ballets and a Grammy nomination, Kip Winger makes a bid for the classical big time
WORDS John Pitcher
Charles Frederick “Kip” Winger seemed lost in thought. Seated in the darkened concert hall of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, his face and neatly trimmed beard illuminated by only the faint glow of a music-stand light, Winger stared intently at the complex orchestral score in front of him. At first, he didn’t seem to notice Giancarlo Guerrero, the orchestra’s music director, walking onstage to begin rehearsal.
Wasting little time, Guerrero gave the orchestra its downbeat, and his musicians dug into a jaunty rendition of Winger’s Conversations with Nijinsky. Winger composed this piece as a tribute to Vaslav Nijinsky, the famed— and deeply troubled—20th-century Russian choreographer who had collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on many of his landmark ballets. The first movement, titled “Chaconne de feu” (“Chaconne of Fire”), seemed to conjure the legendary choreographer’s spirit, with the music’s vibrant opening theme rushing forward with the energy of a great dancer taking the stage. This sudden, sparkling tintinnabulation of sound prompted Winger to look up from his score.
Soon, he was out of his seat and walking to different locations in the hall, searching for the ideal vantage point to listen to his music. Wearing a black blazer and jeans, he looked like a college professor strolling through his classroom. And he spoke with professorial authority when answering questions from Guerrero about tempo and dynamics. Surely, no one would have guessed that this composer had once been lead singer of a 1980s heavy-metal band. At that moment, he looked like a paragon of classical seriousness.
As the rehearsal neared its conclusion, several musicians raised their hands, alerting Winger and Guerrero to a few minor flaws in the score. The French horn rhythms were out of whack in one measure, one of the horn players noted. The cello parts didn’t have measure numbers at all. “You should let your copyist know about that,” remarked Guerrero. Winger took it all in stride. “I really live in two different worlds,” the rocker-turned- classical-composer said later. “Somehow, I’ve got to get used to people telling me I’ve got a single wrong note in measure one billion.”
In almost any other city in the world, a composer like Winger might be viewed as a poseur, as a dabbler producing yet another crossover gimmick. Not in Nashville. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Nashville has emerged as one of America’s foremost fine and performing arts cities. Indeed, a 2017 study from Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research ranked Nashville alongside cities like New York and Los Angeles as one of the top five hotbeds of American arts and culture. Few cities are home to as many fine and performing artists, and fewer still are producing as much original work. In Nashville, Winger is just one of many commercial musicians, including Ben Folds, Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Victor Wooten, who cross genres with seeming impunity.
“In most American cities, commercial arts and nonprofit arts have diverged,” notes Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Nashville Metro Nashville had yet to become the “It City” when Winger moved to town in 2002. The arrival of Whole Foods was still several years away. And the sort of adventurous restaurant scene that would one day draw Anthony Bourdain had yet to take off. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” concedes Winger. “Everywhere you’d look there would be a meat-and-three.”
Still, there were some distinct advantages to living in Nashville. Unlike New Mexico, where Winger had lived prior to his move east, there were no juniper trees to inflame his allergies. Housing was still affordable, something that appealed to the thousands of musicians and artists who migrated from the coasts to Nashville during the late 1990s and early aughts. And Music Row provided plenty of opportunities for songwriting, publishing, and recording.
For Winger, there was also a less obvious appeal. As the Athens of the South, Nashville was home to some of the finest colleges and universities in the region. There was no better place for Winger to indulge his decades- long obsession with studying classical music.
He came to classical music somewhat late. Born in Denver, Colorado, in 1961, he grew up the son of jazz musicians. He took up the bass at an early age and played in rock bands. His first real exposure to classical music came at age 16, when he attended ballet class with his then-girlfriend. He soon found himself enthralled with the music of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Stravinsky.
His single-minded determination to become a rock star, however, had not diminished. So in his 20s, he moved to New York and eventually landed a plum gig playing bass for Alice Cooper. He played on a couple of the shock rocker’s albums and accompanied the star on one of his most successful tours. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Winger quit to form his own glam metal band. “I’d been trying to get a record deal since I was 15 years old,” says Winger. “It was time to move on.”
Winger’s eponymous debut album featured a string of hits, including one boasting the sadly prophetic title “Headed for a Heartbreak.” By the early 90s, metal was out and grunge was in. Winger became a target of derision, his name ridiculed in an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head. “We couldn’t even get a gig after that,” Winger recalls.
When the market for operas in London tanked in the early 1740s, George Frideric Handel began writing oratorios—his famed Messiah was a product of this changed emphasis. Winger found himself in a similar situation. A rock ‘n’ roll has-been at 35, he made the unorthodox choice of switching genres and pursuing classical. He moved to New Mexico and began plowing through the orchestration textbooks of Walter Piston and Samuel Adler. At the University of New Mexico, he began studying privately with Richard Hermann, a theorist and composer with a penchant for abstruse modern harmonies. Winger learned a lot, but this wasn’t his style.
He had more luck when he moved to Nashville. A big turning point came in 2004 when he attended one of Nashville Ballet’s early Emergence series concerts at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. One of the dances on the program was “Ploughing the Dark,” set to a piano trio by Blair composer Michael Kurek. Winger was transfixed and approached Kurek after the concert.
“I have to admit I didn’t know who he was when he came up to me,” says Kurek. “He had been seeking out classical teachers, but they hadn’t been resonating with him because they were too academic. He ended up enrolling in the adult division at Blair and began studying with me. I was impressed. He had a fantastic ear and fabulous ideas.”
For the first time, Winger felt he had been given permission to write in a style that was meaningful to him. He began working on a longer piece that eventually became his breakthrough work. It was a movement for string quartet that he later expanded for orchestra. Through a mutual friend, Winger sent the piece to the young British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who was impressed and wanted more. Winger obliged, expanding the piece into a multi-movement ballet titled Ghosts. Wheeldon choreographed it, staging it in 2010 with San Francisco Ballet.
The success of Ghosts led to the creation of Winger’s latest ballet, Conversations with Nijinsky. San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s recording of those works last year resulted in a Grammy nomination for best contemporary classical composition. That recognition finally caught the attention of Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony, which played Nijinsky with fire and emotion in September.
“Among new ballet scores, Kip’s Conversations with Nijinsky is one of the best,” Guerrero said after the concert. “I have no doubt we’ll be playing a lot more of his music in the future.”
For more information, please visit www.kipwinger.com.