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Alumnus performs, mentor conducts in May 5 Peace Center concert

Erik Franklin ’11.

Last updated April 26, 2024

By Kelley Bruss

When clarinetist and composer Erik Franklin ’11 takes a musical journey, he intends to take the audience with him.

“We have to bring music that’s going to resonate with people,” he said. “The audience has to love what we’re doing because that’s why we’re there.”

Franklin’s “The Old Road,” a concerto for clarinet and chamber winds, will premiere next week as part of With the Wind, a Greenville Symphony Orchestra chamber concert. Franklin will be the soloist and his former Furman mentor and teacher Les Hicken will direct a program that includes Richard Strauss, Robert Kurka, Igor Stravinsky and Kurt Weill.

“I think people will find it a very engaging piece,” Hicken said. “It also shows his virtuosity.”

“With the Wind,” including the premiere of “The Old Road”

Sunday, May 5, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

At the Peace Center’s Gunther Theatre.

Tickets at the Greenville Symphony website

That’s the sweet spot for Franklin as both a performer and composer – pieces that musicians enjoy playing and audiences enjoy hearing.

“The Old Road” taps into Franklin’s childhood in rural Elgin, S.C., inviting listeners to wind through the Appalachians and bask in memories.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m very nervous,” Franklin said, laughing.

He’s played in hundreds of concerts. This is not his first solo. But bringing his own music to his own concert is a new experience.

“This is a piece of mine, truly a piece of me, that I’m sharing as well,” he said.


Passion and possibility

Franklin first came to Furman in high school as a member of South Carolina’s All-State Band.

“I just felt like it was Hogwarts,” he said, “this cool, magic place.” Deciding to come back for college was a “slam dunk.”

He started as a music education major but switched to performance.

Hicken, who retired in 2019 as professor of music education and director of bands, remembers Franklin as one of the best clarinet students he’s had, an avid musician who was involved in all the key musical groups on campus.

“He was a major contributor while he was here,” Hicken said. “And his passion about making music was there right from the top.”

Besides class work, Franklin credits four years of ensembles under Hicken and others with helping develop both his ear and his musicianship – laying the foundation for his work as a composer.

“They taught us so much about how to make music,” he said.

Franklin went from Furman to Indiana University, where he earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in clarinet. His academic work was interrupted by four years in the U.S. Army Field Band, an elite group based in Washington, D.C. The band toured about 100 days a year, playing everywhere from schools to arenas.

Franklin auditioned with pieces by Mozart, Stravinsky and Shoshtakovich. At his first concert, the top piece of music on his stand was a Muppets medley.

It was lesson No. 1 on playing music that people love to hear. And it became the seed of his belief that there’s space for works that are both musically rigorous and broadly engaging.

His earliest compositions began on the bus between Field Band gigs. Franklin hadn’t taken composition classes, but he had the deep theory and experiences of a performer.

“With not a lot of knowledge, you can make some cool stuff,” he said.

Headphones in place, he tapped out his first minuets on an iPad.

“I want to become a composer and save music from the academics,” he decided.

Since then, his acclaimed compositions for voice have won numerous awards and his instrumental work has been commissioned by groups such as the Interlochen Arts Academy Band and the U.S. Air Force Academy Band.


Audience in mind

Franklin’s composing process is more like weaving than linear development. Most pieces begin with a main melody, an “evocative melodic fragment,” he said. “When I have that, I can spin that into a piece.”

When the GSO asked Hicken to put together a program for its chamber series, he wanted to connect the concert to his own career as a clarinetist. He invited Franklin to join as soloist, thinking they’d work together to find the right piece.

Instead, Franklin offered to write one.

Roughly a year later, both men are looking forward to the final stretch next week, the rehearsals and the concerts, the first time they will hear “The Old Road” as a non-digital whole.

Hicken has the score but he hasn’t picked up his own clarinet to try out the solo part.

“It’s pretty difficult,” he said. “I’m letting Erik handle that.”

Franklin is anticipating the first rehearsal. If it’s fun for the musicians to play, “that’s when I know I did a good job.”

And then Sunday, he’ll take his first group of listeners on “The Old Road” with him.

“I think the audience is going to like it, because I wrote it with them in mind,” he said.

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