The history of classical music is full of composers who got their start at an early age. Mozart was performing for royalty in Salzburg when he was just 6 years old, while Frederic Chopin published his first piano works at age 8.
By contrast, Sam Kohler started a little late: He didn’t complete his first chamber music piece until he was 11.
But please don’t call him a prodigy.
“That first piece wasn’t very good at all,” Kohler said. “My family went to hear the LPO playing music from ‘Star Wars,’ and when I got home, I just started playing around on my dad’s music composing program and clicking random notes. But somehow that evolved into something that was planned and sounded a lot better.”
Kohler also is careful to avoid the “prodigy” label for another reason: “A lot of child prodigies make a splash early on and aren’t heard from again — Mozart being a notable exception,” he said. “And I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Still, it’s not hard to be impressed by Kohler’s musical accomplishments so far, which include several original compositions and the formation of his own nine-member chamber ensemble composed of fellow musicians from Lusher Charter School and the Greater New Orleans Youth Symphony.
After performing at venues including the New Orleans Museum of Art, Tulane’s Goldring Center and St. Paul’s Lutheran in the Faubourg Marigny over the past several months, the Sam Kohler New Music Ensemble will be winding up a well-received debut season with a concert at the Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans on Sunday .
The Trinity performance will mark the church’s annual Memorial Day weekend concert event. It will include Kohler’s own “Symphony No. 1” and a string quartet by Kohler’s uncle, a church organist.
“My dad is a jazz musician, and there are a lot of musicians in our family,” Kohler said. “So I’ve had music in my life forever.”
Kohler cites composers including Vivaldi, Ravel and Philip Glass as his main musical interests these days. But it’s the intersection of music and visuals, especially film, that has had the most influence on his own work.
“When I was younger, I loved listening to film scores,” Kohler said, citing works by composers John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman as particular favorites. “I always try to combine visual elements with sounds when I listen to music, and it’s something I attempt to convey in my own compositions, too.”
Raised in New Orleans after his family moved to the Crescent City from Oregon, Kohler is graduating from Lusher this month and will be attending Tulane University this fall.
In addition to composing, mainly on piano, he plays cello, bass and violin.
While some of the musicians he works with will be leaving New Orleans for college elsewhere over the coming months, Kohler says the wealth of local musical talent means his ensemble won’t be wanting for new members in the future.
That sense of optimism permeates Kohler’s compositional spirit as well.
“I want people to come away from our performances with a sense of hope for the world,” he says. “That’s really the main thing we’re trying to get out there.”