MusicNOW to Become a Bigger Festival in 2018

Bryce Dessner's annual new music festival is planning an "exciting expansion."

click to enlarge Bryce Dessner
Bryce Dessner


Last Friday afternoon, when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra announced the 2017-18 schedule marking its return to Music Hall after a 16-month renovation, the MusicNOW festival was notably missing.

This is the “new music” festival — encompassing Contemporary Classical, artistic and experimental Rock and Pop, Jazz and other eclectic musical forms — that The National’s Bryce Dessner started here in 2006. It became part of CSO’s annual subscription season 2014. The 2017 edition was just held this month and received strong praise from The New York Times for its performance of Andrew Norman’s 40-minute 2013 composition Play.

In an email response to CityBeat’s question about its fate, CSO spokesperson Meghan Berneking said, “MusicNOW is planning an exciting expansion of its overall concept with plans to present a wide array of programming in multiple venues over a three- to four-day period. The CSO is proud of its ongoing association with MusicNOW and is looking forward to sharing plans for its participation in 2018.”

In a follow-up phone call, Berneking confirmed that MusicNow would not be part of CSO’s 2017-18 subscription season.

That leaves open the question of what exactly MusicNow will become. Arts presenters have been abuzz that Ashley Capps — whose Knoxville, Tenn.-based AC Entertainment produces a larger, multi-venue cutting-edge urban festival called Big Ears that has MusicNOW-like aspects — wants to enlarge MusicNow into something similar. Several have reported that his representatives have been touring venues here.

Capps played a role in presenting Bob Weir at Aronoff Center for the Arts during this year’s MusicNOW. He and Dessner have collaborated in the past at Big Ears. (Capps also produces the Bonnaroo and Forecastle outdoor Rock festivals.)

Over the weekend, Capps responded to my questions by email: “For the past few months, I’ve been working primarily in a consulting role, working with Bryce — and with others — to imagine what it (MusicNOW) might become and how that could become a reality.”

When asked about Big Ears’ impact on MusicNOW, Capps wrote that “Big Ears has been inspired by MusicNOW, but it’s a very different event with its own character. The goal is for MusicNOW to be its own experience and to stand apart from other festivals.”

In my profile of Dessner in the Jan. 11 issue of CityBeat, he said, “Ashley Capps and I have collaborated on many things together, but (MusicNOW is) not going to be under the auspices of his company. He’s been working with me to think about where I could go.”

In that interview, Dessner emphatically stated the CSO will continue to be involved. Via email, Capps agreed: “The CSO has become a great partner for MusicNOW, and their role is key to its unique character. It’s a very strong and important relationship for Bryce and we want to build on that.”

For the CSO’s announced 2017-18 season, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet and the May Festival Chorus will all have special program weekends with the CSO. The schedule includes five world premieres — two by women, including a composition for the May Festival.

The guest artist lineup is impressive, with exciting new artists along with veteran performers. The only disappointment is that no women will be taking the podium as guest conductors. For more information about the CSO, visit cincinnatisymphony.org.

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