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Don’t Be Afraid, the Music Won’t Bite

Barry Kolman makes music that people—young and old—want to hear. With symphony attendance waning in recent years here in the United States and across the globe, Kolman’s efforts have bucked those trends. The Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, where he is currently Music Director and Conductor, sells out regularly and attracts top notch musicians from as far as 100 miles away.

What’s Barry Kolman’s secret? What makes the Shenandoah Symphony such a bright spot? Foremost, Kolman excels at what he does. He brings energy and enthusiasm to the podium, getting the most out of his musical artists by treating performers with respect and by challenging them to do their best at all times. Further, Kolman expands the traditional role of conductor by focusing attention on the audience—the main reason, he says, the symphony is there playing in the first place.

“We want musical perfection, of course, but that does not mean the music needs to be stuffy and boring, or hard to relate to,” he explains. “Audiences want to feel part of the experience. They want music that’s accessible, and that’s why my programs and concerts here and in the many guest venues I’ve conducted at around the world are designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests.”

In-concert, Kolman often introduces pieces—not to the point of distraction, he emphasizes— but to provide creative or historical context that engages audiences. He’s also not beyond cracking a joke or using a bit of humor.

“To survive, the symphony needs to appeal to the whole community tapestry, not just to music aficionados,” Kolman says. “Engaging the whole audience through superb music and interaction makes everyone feel welcome and makes the music more approachable to those who don’t attend symphonies very often.”

Off-stage, Kolman is busy bringing his message and his musical approach to a wider audience as well. He is the author of The Language of Music Revealed (Universal Publishers), which teaches readers how to read and write music, and as a result to understand and appreciate music more. Kolman calls the 300-page work an “un-text” book since it diverges from typical musical instruction in that it’s fun to read, conversational, and non-intimidating. Geared toward younger audiences, The Language of Music Revealed is designed to appeal to a range of readers—from self-taught musicians who play only by ear, to students taking private lessons, to adults with interest, and even to non-musical types who simply want to know more about music so it’s not all gibberish.

A conductor for 35 years, including stops at Madison Symphony Orchestra of Virginia, Bemidji Symphony Orchestra of Minnesota, the aforementioned Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, and frequent guest appearances all over the world, Kolman has seen orchestral trends come and go—from the mystique of overseas talent and the pomp of industry stalwarts, to the untested potential of younger conductors.

Through it all, Kolman has maintained an unflinching desire to perform excellent music for as many people as possible, wherever possible. His aspirations have led him to record four CDs, all critically well-received, and have brought him to some interesting places around the globe. Notably, he was the first western conductor invited to conduct in Baku, Azerbaijan; and he spent two years exploring the life, times, and music of Anton Rubinstein, which culminated in a special performance with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic of Rubinstein’s music, including Rubinstein’s lost Third Symphony, which Kolman rediscovered and wrote out for the orchestra.

More recently, Kolman has applied his musical talents to multimedia works, including film scores, notably The Planets, which features images taken by NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

Overall, Barry Kolman believes symphonies are alive and well and will always have an important place in the musical and cultural landscape. But to flourish and grow, Kolman believes symphony’s need to be mindful of cultivating new, younger audience members, whether it’s with their local, community players or the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. To that end, through his conducting here and abroad, his work as a recording artist, and through his writing, Kolman remains committed to making orchestral music more approachable and more appreciated by audiences around the globe.

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