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Rockstar Kip Winger to Record Ballet at Oberlin Conservatory

Jan. 19, 2012

Andrew Willens '11

1980s glam-rocker Kip Winger hires Oberlin Orchestra to record his new composition.

Oberlin, OH – Students at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music will have the opportunity to gain professional recording experience with hair-metal icon Kip Winger this January, when the 1980s glam-rocker breaks ground on the Conversations with Nijinsky recording project in Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall.

Nijinsky, a new-music ballet Winger was asked to write by choreographer Chris Wheeldon, will be recorded entirely by Oberlin students and is being considered an invaluable professional opportunity by the conservatory.

Though many in the all-student, 62-piece orchestra are excited to work with Winger on what they expect to be a genre-defying piece, some are cautious of Nijinsky’s pop-gone-classical background.

Dean of the Conservatory David H. Stull, however, says that students have much to learn from the experience, and Winger is confident they’ll deliver an outstanding performance.


“Renaissance Dude”

Winger found Oberlin through his unique artistic influences, a blend of rock and roll, classical composition, and contemporary ballet music.

He’s best known as the vocalist and bassplayer with his band “Winger” and heavy metal pioneer Alice Cooper. After playing with Cooper from 1984 to 1986, Winger released two platinum-selling albums with his own group, 1989’s Winger and 1990’s In the Heart of the Young.

Winger’s music, however, is also influenced by his pursuit of ballet. He studied dance for more than twenty years and performed professionally for “a few seasons” with the Colorado State Ballet Company as a teenager.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a great dancer,” Winger said. “But dance is the purest of the performing arts. It’s just the human body, you’re out there on stage with no instrument. It’s bare-naked art. A singer is on the same level, and (instrumental) music is the next rung up from that.”

Though age has prevented the 50-year-old Winger from continuing his study of ballet, it has not diminished his love for ballet music.

“It was always one of my main goals to write for dance,” Winger said, “When I was studying dance, emotionally I was struck by Stravinsky to the core.”

Classical composition has an equally powerful influence on Winger’s music. Early in his rock career he convinced notable composers, such as Michael Kurek of Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, to take him on as a student despite his lack of formal training, an accomplishment he attributes to his work ethic and good musical instincts.

“They saw that I was serious,” Winger said. “And I won’t show my music to anyone if I know it’s crap.”

As a strictly classical composer Winger’s biggest success came with Ghosts, a contemporary ballet premiered by the San Francisco Ballet and choreographed by Chris Wheeldon, a dance mogul who joined the New York City Ballet at the age of 19 and began choreographing for the group at 24.

After recording the first movement of Ghosts as a chamber septet, Winger sent a copy to Wheeldon. He didn’t reply for eight months, according to Winger, but his response was more than he’d hoped for.

“Chris loved it,” he said.

So much, in fact, that Wheeldon asked him to write more. Of the two additional movements Winger composed, Wheeldon most liked the second, and an extended version was produced as a full ballet with San Francisco in February of 2010.

Conversations with Nijinsky was inspired by a similar request from Wheeldon, who lined up a dance company to produce it upon completion.

That company decided that they didn’t want a new piece, but Nijinsky was three-quarters finished by that point, and so Winger started looking for an orchestra. He considered going to New York until he caught up with Paul Blakemore, a friend from his rock ‘n’ roll stomping grounds and sound-engineering contemporary of Paul Eachus, Oberlin Conservatory’s audio services director.

“With my rock background I’ve been to Ohio, particularly Cleveland, a ton. A good friend of mine there actually suggested Oberlin,” Winger recalled. “Of course I knew of Oberlin, so I called (Dean Stull) and everything kind of just fell into place. Oberlin was perfect.”


Professional Development

From Conservatory administration to behind-the-scenes staff, those working on the Conversations with Nijinsky project regard it an outstanding educational opportunity.

“This is the kind of experience students should be having before they graduate,” Conservatory Dean David Stull said, “because in the context of the professional world being called in to record a score like this is not uncommon. In fact, it’s work a musician would be glad to have.”

The Nijinsky sessions will be very similar to professional studio work, according to Ensemble Manager Michael Roest. After just two rehearsals, student musicians will have to “lay it down” in the studio, with only a few chances to re-record rough spots after the first runthrough. 

Winger is glad to provide the opportunity.

“I’m big on mentoring young musicians and carrying on the tradition of helping people get where they want to go in life,” he said in a promotional video, “so it will be a great opportunity for the students at Oberlin, and it will be great for me to hear my piece played.”

Recording Nijinsky will be a critical stepping stone in Winger’s artistic career, which draws from dance and several musical traditions, amongst other influences. Ultimately, he said, he has always wanted to write ballet, and considers himself first and foremost a composer.

“Think of me as a theater-renaissance dude with a major focus on composing,” Winger said. “Composing has been my main focus for my whole life.”

He’s begun to realize that ambition with the recent success of Ghosts, which secured him a nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Music at the 2011 Isadora Duncan Dance Awards. The piece is also the primary reason he was accepted as a student by composer Richard Danielpour of the Manhattan School of Music, according to Winger.

Winger has similar ambitions for Nijinsky. But without a recording, he said, it will be difficult at best to have it produced as a full ballet.

Art is a Juggernaut

Though none of the musicians in the all-student orchestra have heard Nijinsky, they’re eager to start recording.

Several are looking forward to working with conductor Scott Yoo, a violin child prodigy who has made his career conducting prominent ensembles such as the Metamorphosen and St. Paul chamber orchestras. Yoo premiered as an instrumentalist at the age of 12 with the Boston Symphony and is an Avery Fisher Grant recipient.

Some, such as violist Marina Kifferstein ’12, are excited to be part of a project that obscures the boundaries between two musical worlds.

“It shouldn’t be that there is such a huge divide between classical music and pop music,” Kifferstein said, “or that classical music is smarter than pop music. Classical music used to be pop music.”

Others, such as violinist and recent concerto competition winner Holly Jenkins, ’12, have an enthusiasm tempered by uncertainty.

As a member of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Jenkins is no stranger to musical hybridizations. She’s a fan, in fact. But she worries that Nijinsky may be written like the music of pop-classical groups that don’t actually have or have nearly forgotten their classical roots, such as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a prog-rock-opera band, or Bond, a “crossover” electric string quartet.

“I like music that respects composers of the past,” she said, “that looks at form and is based on the intelligent thinking of people before them. For instance, this year I played a piece based on Bach’s Chaccone, and it sounds nothing like the Chaccone, but it quotes Bach chorales and does some really beautiful things.”

Jenkins, however, is keeping an open mind, and has at least two reasons she’s glad to be a part of the project.

“I’m sure I’m going to be honing a new skillset by learning something that’s not entirely classical,” she said, “and I do like the idea of participating in something that may make classical music a little bit more accessible for certain crowds. Maybe this piece is not going to be my cup of tea, I’m sort of expecting for it not to be, but I like to go in with no expectations so that I can just enjoy it for what it is.”

Though some students are expecting “a pop version of Stravinsky,” as Kifferstein put it, Nijinsky is “straight-up classical” according to Winger. He hopes that his compositional training is thorough enough that his heavy-metal roots will only show in the vigor of the piece.  

“There’s a rockstar in everybody,” he said. “I want to ignite that energy in the classical world, and for me the way to communicate that with the classical world is to learn the language.”

Regardless of the Nijinksy’s apparent influences, it will still be an invaluable opportunity for students to hone their musicianship, according to Stull.

“Art is a juggernaut. It will go the direction it’s going to go, all by itself,” he asserted. “So the capacity to be a successful musician or artist comes down to first of all your versatility, and your capacity to enter projects without prejudice. Works have a tendency to function within the context of their own realm, and we have to have the discipline and openness to treat them as such.”

Winger, who’s nervous but looking forward to getting started, expects that students will perform exceptionally.

“I’ve worked with a lot of heavy rock and classical musicians, but I’m really excited to work with the students at Oberlin. I think they’ll be really excited and really dig in. I think they’re going to kill it.” 

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