By Parth Upadhyaya

Tonu Kalam has been the Music Director and Conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra for 31 years, and most years, Kalam’s group has collaborated with a faculty performer for concerts.

But the collaboration on the UNC Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Tuesday, Dec. 4 is exceptional. It will be the first time the group will share the stage with guitar lecturer Billy Stewart, and it will be the premiere performance of Stewart’s composition, Three Pieces for Guitar and Orchestra.

Billy Stewart, guitar
Billy Stewart, guitar

Stewart started giving guitar lessons in 1972 as a sophomore at UNC, and he’s taught guitar for the department ever since. Though he’s had a variety of roles in over four decades at the university, he hadn’t been given an opportunity to perform with the UNC Symphony Orchestra until Kalam approached him with the idea last year.

The orchestra also has never played with a guitar soloist.

“I thought it would be a nice showcase for him and his talents,” Kalam said. “And also for the audience, a bit of a novelty to hear a guitar with an orchestra. You don’t hear that every day. We hear piano concerto and violin concerto with orchestra all the time.

“I thought it would be sort of a nice hook for this concert to have an unusual instrument and one of our longest-standing faculty appearing.”

In the group’s last concert of the fall semester, it will be performing Stewart’s composition, Beethoven’s First Symphony and the Capriccio espagnol by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov.

When he was asked to play with the UNC Symphony Orchestra, Stewart decided to write his own music instead of playing a traditional concerto.

“Instead of playing a concerto, I thought I’d just write some music for it,” Stewart said.

Since it was the first time Stewart had written for an orchestra, there were some challenges he ran into. Stewart said he learned a lot when he wrote for several instruments he didn’t know intimately.

“Tonu taught me a lot,” Stewart said. “I didn’t know the format to be used. He told me what I could do and what I couldn’t do. Then I took pieces that I played as solos before, and I had to change my part a bit.”

Though this concert is unique from any other the UNC Symphony Orchestra has put on because of the collaboration with Stewart, two of the three pieces the group will perform are recognizable.

Kalam expressed why he is so excited for his group to perform Beethoven’s First Symphony.

“The First Symphony is kind of groundbreaking work for (Beethoven), leading him into his later excursions and developments as a composer,” he said. “It’s a very seminal work and very important to expose the students to.”

Kalam also said that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol adds to the variety of the styles that will be on display during the fall concert.

“The orchestra loves the piece,” Kalam said. “It’s full of great tunes. The audience will like it. It’s got something for everybody. When I put together my programs, I like to always try to give a mix of things that are smaller, larger, earlier historically, later historically, something new, something familiar (and) something less familiar.”

The intent to provide audiences with a good assortment of different music was something Kalam thought about when he asked Stewart to collaborate with his orchestra last year.

Stewart has performed with many faculty members and other groups through his 47 years at UNC, but even he admits the collaboration on Dec. 4 will be unlike anything he’s ever performed in his decorated career.

“Some people might have heard me play before,” Stewart said. “And maybe, I’ve had incarnations of these pieces as solo guitar pieces. But they’ve never heard them like this before.”

UNC Symphony Orchestra with Billy Stewart, guitar

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