Music as International Language: Seattle Music Exchange Project Strengthens Sister City Ties

Photo courtesy of Angelo Rondello © 2016

When the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association received an email from pianist Angelo Rondello making inquiries about the possibility of arranging a sister city tour, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew of Rondello as one of the rising stars on the local musical scene but hadn’t yet had the chance to hear him perform live, let alone meet him. With our association going through a period of rebirth and rebuilding, I hadn’t either given much thought to setting up concert venues in Norway. My own response wasn’t immediate, but once an initial meeting was set up, I soon realized it would be the beginning of something new and exciting.

Angelo and I got together over a cup of coffee one afternoon and I learned that he had only been living in Seattle for a couple of years. A native of Bellingham, Washington, he started playing piano as a child and even studied in Seattle. His later training was in New York City, where he lived for over a dozen years. Moving back to Seattle, he found a very different place than he had known: a dynamic, cosmopolitan city with a vibrant musical scene, impulses coming and going in all directions around the globe. Rondello had already done a fair share of traveling himself, performing throughout the United States and internationally, and he realized that something significant was happening right here in Seattle. It was when some hometown friends mentioned that they had participated in a marathon with one of their sister cities, that the seed for the Seattle Music Exchange Project (SMEP) was planted. Rondello was curious: What was a sister city and what do sister cities do? He did his research and discovered that his own goals were perfectly aligned with the sister city mission. He wanted to share the best of his own culture while learning about what other countries might have to offer, and for him, music, the international language, would be the medium.

Using the Internet as his primary research tool, Rondello began to deepen his knowledge of sister cities, starting conceptualizing the project and then scouting for musicians around the globe. The idea was to bring Seattle composers to sister cities and then bring the sister city music back to Seattle. Angelo decided to focus the first year of SMEP programming on the contemporary art music of living composers. He got in contact with Seattle Sister Cities and the individual associations. Bergen stood out for one as a cultural center, the city of Grieg with a long roster of excellent musicians and composers. With Angelo’s own Italian heritage, Perugia was also a natural choice. The Seattle-Pécs association reached out to him, as well as Seattle-Kobe, and gradually an itinerary took shape. At times, there were the challenges of language barriers and cultural differences to overcome, but the sister city associations were there to provide support. Musical scores were ordered, pieces were tired out, and finally a representative composer from each of the four cities was selected: Knut Vaage (Bergen), Fernando Sulpizi (Perugia), Szilard Kovacs (Pécs) and Satoru Nakanishi (Kobe).

Choosing local composers from the Seattle side proved to be much easier, although the plethora of talent in Seattle could also make the choice difficult. Samuel Jones, arguably Seattle’s most famous composer and the teacher of many local composers, was another natural choice. Adam Haws had been a friend of Angelo since he was a teenager, Peter Vukmirovic Stevens was one of the first musicians he met upon his arrival in Seattle, and Angelique came to Rondello through a recommendation. Angelo explained to me that he not only admires the composers as musicians, but also values them as individuals who are committed to the betterment of their community.

Once I heard Angelo play the piano, I was 100% sold on the concept, and we immediately got to work together. Raising money for such an ambitious project is no small feat, and the participating Seattle Sister Cites worked to do their part by setting up a series of fundraiser concerts. The Bergen concert was particularly charming, held in a private home with one of the finest Steinway concert grands in the city. All of the sister cities associations have worked together with Angelo to set up connections in our sister cities on the municipal level, helping with venue arrangements, housing, and promotional efforts. The project will kick off at Benaroya Hall in Seattle on February 4 with a performance of the Seattle composers, and after the concerts abroad, Rondello will return to Benaroya to bring the sister city compositions to life onstage here on May 11. I’ve decided to travel to Bergen to hear Angelo perform there, and composer Knut Vaage will come to Seattle for the U.S. premiere of two of piano pieces, with a good deal of excitement in the air.

With all the excitement has come more challenges, as Rondello prepares for a program that is technically demanding. The bulk of Rondello’s career has focused on the standard classical repertory: Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and other greats. SMEP is his first project devoted to contemporary music exclusively, and some instances, it will be his first time performing these individual composers. For a musician, this can be like learning a new language with new patterns and idioms that take time to master and memorize. There is also the challenge of presenting something new to the public, and thoughtful curation has gone into the project. With his selection of music, Rondello strives to strike the right balance to present something the audience will also fine meaningful. Hungarian composer Kovacs’ music is more rooted in the Romantic tradition, while the Norwegian Vaage’s music is very adventurous, modern and innovative. The result is a unique, playful and enjoyable program.

The scope of the Seattle Music Exchange project is ambitious and takes both talent and tenacity, but fortunately, Angelo Rondello has proven himself up to the task. Not only extraordinarily talented behind the keyboard, he is poised and articulate, and has proven himself to be a true supporter of the sister city mission. When I asked Angelo what he find most rewarding about his project, he said it was “meeting people who are making a difference in our community, who are promoting international exchange and cross-cultural understanding. Personally, I’ve taken inspiration from Angelo, too — he is making a difference — and together with the Seattle Sister Cities, I enthusiastically look forward to his concerts in 2017 and beyond.

To learn more about Angelo Rondello and the SMEP musicians, visit www.seattlemusicexchange.com. Online tickets are available for the February 4 concert at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall are available at www.seattlesymphony.org.