Editor’s note: We are changing up our WEEasked series a few times over the next several months, asking specific questions to the candidates vying for the position of Wheeling Symphony music director. There are five conductors in the running, and each one will have a shot at answering the same questions, with the answers posting a few days before their concert.
Roger Kalia is counting down the days until he returns to town to conduct the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra for its annual “Symphony on Ice” holiday show. And it’s only four days away — when the orchestra, over 300 student voices, dozens of skaters and a guest appearance by the Wheeling Nailers and Santa Claus all converge at WesBanco Arena.
Recently married, Kalia and his wife Christine are both music lovers and “total foodies.” Their wedding incorporated those loves — a ceremony at a former opera house and a reception catered by the New Orleans School of Cooking with music by a jazz band. World travelers, the couple honeymooned in Florence, Italy, this past summer, with side trips to Poland where Roger had a concert and to Madrid where Christine was doing research.
A lover of jazz as well as classic rock, Kalia has worked with Randy Newman and the B-52s. He also loves Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mahler. He played trumpet and drums as a kid and didn’t attend a classical concert until he was a freshman in high school.
One of his proudest achievements is the creation of the Lake George Music Festival in upstate New York — the first classical music festival of its kind in Lake George. The three-day event has grown into a two-week festival with 70 musicians attending from around the world.
Kalia, one of five conductors being considered for music director of the WSO, has some innovative ideas to share with the WSO — such as diverse programming, breaking barriers and listening to the community. He talks about those ideas in his answers to Weelunk’s questions below.
After conducting the symphony’s Celebrate America Fourth of July Tour to mega-crowds throughout West Virginia and meeting many concert-goers in the “blazing heat,” he’s looking forward to “cooling off with Symphony on Ice.” The event begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29. Tickets are available at www.wheelingsymphony.com.
Get to know Roger Kalia. Here’s what he answered when WEEasked:
1. Tell us about yourself — some highlights of your professional career, training and education.
I grew up in Manhasset, N.Y., which is a small town on Long Island. I was fortunate that our public school system had an extremely strong music program, and when the time came to choose an instrument, I decided to choose the trumpet thanks to my grandfather, who always had Louie Armstrong records playing in his home when I visited him. During my middle and high school years, I played in every possible group that I could: band, orchestra, marching band, jazz band, pit orchestra and brass choir. I also experimented with the drums, and I played in a rock band with friends during my high school years.
During my freshman year of high school, a major turning point for me was when our high school band attended an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. Up until this point, I had never heard an orchestra, and I truly did not know what to expect. The work being rehearsed was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is an iconic work in the classical music repertoire. As I sat there listening to these intense sounds and tribal-sounding rhythms coming from the orchestra, I immediately noticed the conductor. The energy and the way he used his body to influence the sound of the orchestra was truly special, and one of those major turning points in my early musical development. Fast-forward one year later, I joined my local youth orchestra, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, for a two-week tour of China. We performed sold-out concerts in eight different cities, and the experience of being with such dedicated and talented musicians was truly special. After the tour, I knew that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to music in some way.
I ended up pursuing a bachelor of music in Music Education at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music in upstate New York, where I had my first experience conducting an orchestra, and I guess you can say that the rest is history.
From there, I ended up moving down to Houston to pursue my master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Houston, which is where I met my wife. Shortly after, I attended Indiana University to pursue a doctorate in orchestral conducting, where I had the opportunity to serve as an associate instructor in the conducting department.
I have been fortunate to meet some amazing people in my journey, each of whom has contributed and helped me pursue my dream. I’ll never forget being one of three winners at the Memphis Symphony International Conducting Competition (one of the only major American conducting competitions), which led to my professional debut with the orchestra. After my debut, I ended up taking an audition out in Los Angeles and being named the music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, which is one of the oldest pre-professional training orchestras in the country. During my three-year tenure, I conducted a variety of music that was close to my heart, everything from the classics like Mozart and Beethoven to film scores by John Williams to unique collaborations with famous actors like Jack Black!
Another highlight for me was conducting the New York Philharmonic (as an assistant conductor finalist), which was my hometown orchestra growing up. Many of these musicians in the orchestra were my idols, and here I was standing on the same podium that was used by Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta and maybe even Gustav Mahler. This was an experience that I will always cherish.
Looking back on it all though, I would have to say that my proudest achievement is the creation of the Lake George Music Festival in upstate New York, which started in 2011 and takes place every August. This is the first classical music festival of its kind in Lake George, and what began as a three-day grassroots festival has now become a two-week festival with 70 musicians attending from around the world every year. Being in a serene and beautiful environment like Lake George, and making music with dear friends and colleagues each summer is a true blessing.
For the past four years, I have been based in Long Beach, Calif., where I am the assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony and the music director of the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra.
2. Tell us something personal you’d like your audiences to know about you.
I just got married this past March, and I think our wedding says a lot about us. We were married in New Orleans — where my wife was born — at the Marigny Opera House, a former Catholic church-turned-performing-arts-venue. We clearly love music and are total foodies, and we had an amazing jazz band (Panorama Jazz Band) at our reception, which was at the Riverview Room, a venue catered by the New Orleans School of Cooking. Though I was born in New York, my father is from India, and we were so honored to have friends and family travel from literally around the world to share the occasion with us.
Christine and I also love to travel, and this past summer we had the opportunity to visit Spain, Poland and Italy. We are dog lovers, and we have a wonderful little dog, Burney (named after music historian Charles Burney). When we get the chance, we love hiking and exploring new places together, and this past summer we hiked a few of the Adirondack peaks in Lake George. I am also an avid college basketball fan, and I adore the Indiana University Hoosiers. I always try to make it back to Bloomington for a game every year!
3. How do you see yourself incorporating the changing landscape of orchestral music with the Wheeling Orchestra?
At the heart of my work as a conductor is making the concert experience entertaining, innovative and accessible. I would like to treat every concert as an event, where the experience begins the moment you walk through the door and continues long after the concert has ended. This may include transforming the lobby of The Capitol Theater in a way that relates to the theme of the concert as well as having pre- and post-concert events that are fresh, dynamic and eclectic. As music director, I would make it a priority to foster more diverse programming, especially music by living American composers. I also think it is important to collaborate with up-and-coming guest artists from a variety of backgrounds including instruments that you may not normally see on the concert stage such as a guitar, banjo or even accordion. I have worked with a variety of artists including the genre-bending group PROJECT Trio, Randy Newman and even the B-52s! With this in mind, it is a priority of mine to make use of the full breadth and diversity of orchestral repertoire while emphasizing music and collaborations that are most relevant to the orchestra and community.
This past summer, I had the privilege to lead the Wheeling Symphony on their state tour to four different cities throughout West Virginia. I was truly inspired by the audiences that I met, and their love and passion for the orchestra. The orchestra performed an array of music, everything from classical masterworks to Broadway hits to patriotic tunes and movie scores, which is exactly the kind of programming that will bring in new audiences while pleasing our core audience. The opportunity to perform with Wheeling natives Tim and Mollie O’Brien this past summer was most delightful. The fact that they were local while being amazing artists is exactly the type of collaboration that I would love to see continue. In my view, I would like the Wheeling Symphony to be seen as fostering innovation, opening doors, and finding new ways to listen and enjoy orchestral music. In other words, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel but rather reimagine the possibilities of the 21st-century symphony orchestra.
4. How do you see the community playing a part in the role of the Wheeling Symphony’s music director?
An orchestra needs to reflect the people and spirit of its city. I immediately fell in love with Wheeling’s stunning location along the Ohio River and the surrounding landscape, and even though my initial visit was short, I experienced incredible friendliness and positivity from everyone I met. Community and supporting local endeavors is clearly a priority to the residents of Wheeling, which is why I would love to explore local collaborations with the orchestra and get the orchestra out into the community as much as possible. In addition to performances at The Capitol Theater, there are many great spaces in Wheeling that could showcase performances: museums, restaurants, schools, bars/breweries, factories, dance studios, not to mention outside spaces! Similarly, creating local partnerships with different organizations such as local schools and businesses that contribute to the well being of Wheeling is equally important. I recently created and took part in a “Symphony Happy Hour” with my orchestra in Santa Monica, which was a huge hit with our audiences and supporters. As a craft beer lover, it was an excellent way for me to tell people about the wonderful things we are doing as an organization, and how they can be a part of it.
I have never met anyone who, after learning I was a conductor, did not want to know more about orchestral music and attend a concert. This is why I believe there is no substitute for personal interaction, and how an entire organization and its supporting community can ensure all have an opportunity to experience the incredible artistry of an orchestra like the Wheeling Symphony. Being present in the community and being an active part of it, whether it be picking up groceries or seeing a movie with my wife, is not only important to me but also vital to create the type of connection that the orchestra needs with the community. To embrace your community, to listen to it and then to make your decisions based on their voices is of the utmost importance in my opinion.
I am a firm believer that classical music is for everybody, and I am going to go out of my way to make the Wheeling Symphony the most inviting, welcoming place for artistic entertainment in the community. In order to accomplish this, we need to remove the invisible barrier between stage and audience. One way to do this is to experiment with different seating and performance layouts to allow for a more up-close-and-personal experience for our audience members. Furthermore, I have always enjoyed finding ways to speak from the stage during a performance as well as being out in the lobby and conversing with our patrons before and after the concert. Above all, I am eager to share this amazing art form with you and be a part of this thriving community.
I am a firm believer that classical music is for everybody, and I am going to go out of my way to make the Wheeling Symphony the most inviting, welcoming place for artistic entertainment in the community.
5. Who is your favorite composer? Why?
The typical conductor answer would be the one that I am conducting at the moment. For me though, Beethoven will always have a special place in my heart. He made us think about music and what it means. The concept of the symphony as the definitive genre for conveying our deepest thoughts, and for notable changes in the orchestra itself, such as expanding the size, is due to Beethoven. Not only that, he expanded the scope and length of the symphony, which was groundbreaking at the time.
I also have a deep love for the music of Gustav Mahler. He said that “a symphony should be like the world — it should contain everything.” His music is pure emotion, and there are moments of despair filled with pure ecstasy. I also love Stravinsky for the energy and rhythmic intensity he is able to create within the orchestra. Although I love the beauty of The Firebird, I love the absolute primal nature of The Rite of Spring. This was a groundbreaking work that literally caused a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913!
I also think that music is really a reflection of our world, and there are so many wonderful composers that are working today that have very specific things to say to us. I am constantly discovering composers whose voices and works speak to my own experiences and whose works offer something fresh and insightful while also being evocative and communicative. A few of them that I would like to introduce to Wheeling include Paul Dooley, Chris Rogerson and Sheridan Seyfried, all of whom are doing amazing things for contemporary music in this country today.
6. What’s your favorite non-classical music style?
I love jazz, and it is a huge part of who I am. I played trumpet in a jazz trio and big band during my college years, and I even minored in jazz during my doctoral studies at Indiana University. I actually miss it very much, and one of the ways to alleviate that is by listening to as much jazz as I can by artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus, among others. Back in 2009, Christine and I got to experience the Montreal Jazz Festival and see a number of amazing artists including Stevie Wonder and Chris Botti! I also always enjoy listening to classic rock by groups like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, and Billy Joel. I still remember being in college and seeing The Doors at Madison Square Garden, which was a thrilling experience!
7. What’s on your current playlist?
I actually have a number of playlists depending on what I’m doing at the time. Since I live in California, I do a lot of driving, which means that I need a good playlist to help pass the time. At the moment, I have music by electronic artists such as Above & Beyond and Sigur Rós, and other musical groups like Radiohead, Bon Iver and Dave Matthews Band. I also love listening to different podcasts such as NPR’s Fresh Air, TED Talks and Indiana University Basketball Assembly Call.
8. What else would you like to share with Weelunk readers?
I had the pleasure of meeting so many of you during our state tour this past summer in the blazing heat, and I enjoyed every second of it. I am looking forward to cooling off with Symphony on Ice, and I’m already counting down the days!