Labels need not apply

Shawn and Karen Gavin, the founders of New Music Raleigh.

by Samantha Thompson Hatem

photographs by Nick Pironio

It’s fitting that even Karen Strittmatter Galvin can’t quite characterize New Music Raleigh’s most recent performance, All Souls. A one-woman opera? A cinematic drama? It was, after all, partly her brainchild.

But not knowing what to call it is just another quirky trait of NMR, the nonprofit she and her husband Shawn Galvin, 37, created in 2009 to fill a gap they saw in Raleigh’s music scene: Nobody was performing the works of living composers.

After five seasons and nearly 15 shows, the two continue to surprise audiences with their eclectic mix of ambitious performances, whether they’re putting a classical music spin on sheet music by alt-rocker Beck, or commissioning an opera like All Souls.

“If you go to the North Carolina Symphony, you know what you are going to get…the greatest interest of New Music Raleigh is that it is a different experience each time they perform,” says Timothy Myers, North Carolina Opera’s conductor and artistic director, who collaborated with the Galvins on All Souls. “Simply the diversity of interesting things that they’re presenting is a reason to be involved.”

“We try to craft each show like it’s a gallery opening,” says Shawn Galvin, a freelance percussionist who frequently plays with the North Carolina and Pittsburgh symphonies. “We’re really trying to create a unique experience.”

Their shows have a “pop-up” quality. They’re almost always held in different venues – the Contemporary Art Museum, Kings Barcade or Burning Coal Theatre. There’s always a revolving cast of musicians; depending on the show, it could be the frontman for the band Old Ceremony or a viola player for the North Carolina Symphony. And NMR fans never know what they’re going to get, even after they sit down and read the program. It is an opera or a drama? Alt-pop or classical? Even the audiences help keep performances fresh. One show might attract hipsters; the next, open-minded opera fans.

All of it combined make New Music Raleigh concerts impossible to replicate, and even trickier to promote.

“It definitely keeps people guessing,” says Shawn Galvin. “If you loved the show, we hope you’ll like the next one, because it’s going to be completely different. We’re trying to bring back the surprise element of music.”

And they do it all on a shoestring budget, supported through donations and grants, but often the Galvins dig into their own pockets to fund a project. It’s a testament to how much they believe in and love what they’re doing.

The two had the idea as far back as college in Pittsburgh, where both were studying music. (Karen at Carnegie Mellon University and Shawn at Duquesne University)

They both grew up in Pittsburgh and met as teenagers involved in youth orchestra. He went on to become a percussionist in the U.S. Navy band. She became a freelance musician, playing in anything from the Clay Aiken Christmas tour to the Washington National Opera. In 2007, they moved to Raleigh and switched roles. She landed a job as assistant concert master playing violin in the North Carolina Symphony, while he took on freelance jobs. Once they got settled, they began exploring Raleigh’s music scene and nurturing this modern classical music idea, which was happening in other cities.

Karen Galvin, 32, says their unique performance art works in Raleigh, which supports a wide variety of music. “People here are excited to experience something new and be a part of the future of art and creativity and music,” she says.


With each show, NMR’s fanbase grows; among them, people like the opera’s Myers. Two years ago, they teamed up with Canadian soprano Ashleigh Semkiw and Duke University composer John Supko on what would become All Souls, a one-woman opera backed by a chamber orchestra, including Karen Galvin on violin and Shawn Galvin on percussion. “We wanted it to be edgy and progressive and blended and styled between indie music and classical,” Myers says.

The result was an emotionally charged drama, written by Supko as a nine-movement performance based on the Dutch novel All Souls’ Day, and delivered to a standing-room-only crowd at CAM in late November. “All Souls had the biggest budget, the biggest production, the most planning,” said Karen Galvin. “Five minutes into it, I realized, oh my gosh, this is amazingly beautiful modern art. It was just one of those rare experiences.”

Myers says All Souls has boosted NMR’s credibility beyond Raleigh, since it premiered in Washington, D.C. Its Song Reader production in May was also a hit. Beck released the Song Reader album in 2012 as sheet music, with the hope that fans would interpret it as they wished. Some took a pop-music approach. Another group performed it all with cellos. The Galvins, of course, wanted to hear it as classical music. So they recruited composer Brett William Dietz to arrange the 20 songs. They asked Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins to provide vocals, and they backed him with a five-member band, including both Galvins. “Fans of Beck were clamoring to hear this,” Shawn Galvin said.

If you missed All Souls, there’s talk of more performances in other cities; maybe even a recording. “We’re excited about the potential of what we can do with it,” Karen Galvin says. Otherwise, NMR is back in brainstorming season, she said. A club show at Kings or a quartet performance? “It’s one of the hallmarks of New Music Raleigh,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”   

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