Kwamé Ryan was hired Tuesday as music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina and given a four-year contract to start with the 2024-25 season.
The 53-year-old succeeds Christopher Warren-Green, who stepped down after the 2021-22 season, his 12th as music director. Ryan will serve as music director designate for the remainder of this season and then devote 10-to-12 weeks per season to the orchestra
Born in Toronto to parents from Trinidad and Tobago who were studying there, Ryan moved to Uganda with his parents as a baby and spent most of his youth in Trinidad. He decided to become a musician after seeing “Star Wars” in 1977 and hearing John Williams’ score.
“Just the sound of the orchestra in the cinema kind of blew my mind,” Ryan said.
His parents took him one summer to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and he was mesmerized by the conductor.
“I just leaned over to my mom, still single digits of age and said, `I want to do that. Whatever that guy is doing, that’s what I want to do,’” Ryan recalled. “Astonishingly, she believed me. She took me seriously even at that age. And she said: `OK, let’s get you a piano. Let’s get you singing lessons, violin lessons.’”
He attended boarding school in England and then Cambridge, studied with Britain’s National Youth Orchestra and worked with conductor Mark Elder and composer/conductor Peter Eötvös. Ryan conducted contemporary music exclusively, often with the Ensemble Modern, before he became general music director of the Freiburg Opera and Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany from 1999 to 2003.
“It was a trial by fire,” said Ryan, who still lives in Freiburg. “I entered there with no repertoire to speak of, no opera repertoire to speak of. and so everything I did, I was learning.” It was rough, It was very formative.”
Ryan conducted the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Intelligence” at the Houston Grand Opera in October and is to make his New York Philharmonic debut in May. He was music director of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine from 2007-13 and music director of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes from 2008-11.
Ryan had worked at The Academy for the Performing Arts in Trinidad since 2013, becoming director, when he was called in February 2021 by John Clapp, Charlotte’s vice president of artistic operations, and Carrie Graham, its manager of artistic planning. Ryan, who has a cousin in Charlotte and an aunt and a cousin in Raleigh, made his Charlotte debut last January and returned in November.
“The orchestra liked him so much that we wanted to invite him back to make sure he was a great fit,” Charlotte Symphony president David Fisk said. “Pretty much immediately after that second visit, we made the decision that he was the one that we wanted to offer the position to. He is a just a terrific musician and a very persuasive communicator, both with what he does on the podium, but also in the way that he engages audiences through his words.”