Maestro Roderick Cox, who will guest conduct the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, wants to inspire other Black musicians to think big

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Maestro Roderick Cox’s appearance with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra could not have come at a better time. As the first guest conductor of CSO’s 90th season — and the first since the start of the pandemic — Cox will bring his baton to the Queen City’s Knight Theater, conducting the orchestra in its Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 program on Oct. 29 and 30

The Berlin-based American conductor said he looks forward to working with the Charlotte orchestra for the first time.

“Anytime I’m invited to work with a new orchestra, the first thing that comes to mind is what music to perform and what is right for this particular orchestra, and to learn about this orchestra,” Cox said. 

As one of a few African American conductors in the world, Cox has been called a “trailblazer” and “a conductor who will be in the vanguard.”

Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, one of his primary goals is to inspire young musicians of color to break through spaces they don’t often touch. In 2018, he launched the Roderick Cox Music Initiative, a scholarship program that aims to nurture the next generation of musicians of color. The effort has resulted in seven students receiving scholarships in 2020, and nine in 2021.

Cox wants to help young musicians find their passions through music — just has he established his.

Born in Macon, Georgia, Cox said his mother kept him actively involved in their church choir, which is where his earliest nodes of music came to light. He later attended Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University, and then Northwestern University, graduating with a master’s degree in 2011. At the latter, a professor prompted him to consider a career in conducting.

“I took a course in orchestral conducting and immediately fell in love,” Cox explained. “My teacher, Victor Yampolsky, told me, ‘I think you should conduct professional orchestras one day.’ It seemed like a very strange idea, but also a fascinating idea.”

Cox was considering a career in teaching at the time, but the idea of conducting finally took hold after a friend posed an intriguing question.

“A friend asked me, ‘If there was only one piece you could do before you passed away, what would it be?’” Cox recalled.

What came to mind immediately, he said, was Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4,” a piece he loved as a horn player.

“And in that moment, I realized that I wasn’t really on the path to fulfilling that dream of conducting this work because I was going to be a teacher, perhaps,” Cox continued. “And I said to myself that it would be a travesty not to — I mean to go through your life and want this as a dream, as an aspiration, but you’re not on the path to obtaining it. I always feel my motto is: if you want something, you have to place yourself at least on the path to trying to obtain it.”

As the name of the CSO program implies, Brahms’ “Serenade No. 2” will be the anchor of the evening’s performance. The piece is dear to Cox; it was the first piece he conducted in a live performance. Composed by Johannes Brahms between 1858 and 1859, “Serenade No. 2” is known for its use of violas as the main voice. It’s also known for its complex metrics.

Cox said the Charlotte program will give him a chance to explore one of Brahm’s most underrated pieces.

“Brahms wrote these two serenades that really show off the brilliance of this composer,” he said. “One of the positives about the pandemic is the fact that we have been relegated to having to space out onstage and use smaller numbers in terms of an orchestra on stage. It allowed us to do some very cherished, or neglected, repertoire that’s not often done in the orchestra. This is my opportunity to explore some of his early music that’s also a precursor to the four big symphonies, and it’s really a true masterwork.”

Two other pieces — Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5” — make up in the program’s repertoire. In addition to the stellar performers of CSO, Cox will be accompanied by renowned violinist Benjamin Beilman. Beilman is a star in his own right, with the New York Times praising his “handsome technique, burnished sound, and quiet confidence.” 

Cox and Beilman were originally supposed to showcase Coleridge-Taylor’s “Violin Concerto” in Charlotte before the most recent uptick in the pandemic. Now, they will have their chance to share the stage together for the first time in the U.S.

“I’m very excited to work with Benjamin Beilman, as I’ve worked with him twice before,” Cox said. “Even though we’re both American, we’ve never worked together in America. I’ve worked with him in Iceland. I’m also looking forward to exploring this very different type of repertoire that we haven’t necessarily done together, which is the most interesting.”

Leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is just the latest checkpoint in Cox’s long voyage to the podium. His years-long trek can be seen in the upcoming documentary “Conducting Life.” Directed by Diane Moore, the film chronicles seven years of Cox’s life, detailing his catapult into the world of classical music and how Cox has navigated “the intensively competitive profession of orchestral conducting.”

Cox said his biggest hope for the documentary is that it shows other musicians of color that their presence in predominantly white spaces can be existential.

“One of the big, elusive questions is how does one become a conductor and what does that entail,” he said. “I hope to inspire other young people, especially young people of color, to know that life in a profession where you’re underrepresented or not the majority, actually a very, very, very small minority… is possible.”

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