Conductor Seeks to Make Concert ‘Event’
WHEELING — Conductor Roger Kalia believes in making a concert an event that extends beyond the music.
Kalia, who holds three positions on the West Coast and directs a festival in upstate New York, is one of five candidates for music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
He is conducting the WSO’s Symphony on Ice performance at WesBanco Arena at 7 p.m. Nov. 29. He also led the orchestra’s July tour.
Andres Franco, Timothy Hankewich, Silas Huff and John Devlin were named as finalists for the post in April. Kalia said he was ecstatic to be added as a finalist in July.
Kalia, who lives in California, said he and his wife Christine, a violinist and musicologist, would like to move to Wheeling and become part of the community.
Currently, he is music director of Orchestra Santa Monica, assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony and music director of the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra. He also is the co-founder and music director of the Lake George Music Festival in New York.
“A conductor is like a nomad, always moving around,” he said regarding his busy schedule.
But, he said, “I want to be in a community where my wife and I can live and there is a pride in the orchestra. I think Wheeling is that place. Now is the time to really bring it together with an orchestra like the Wheeling Symphony.”
Symphony on Ice “is definitely a first for me … This concert is so unique and so nice, such a community event,” Kalia remarked.
“I feel really fortunate to be given these concerts that really connect with the community. That’s really fantastic and important,” he said.
The WSO’s four-day tour in July provided “a great opportunity to really connect with the different areas of West Virginia, the different cities … It went really well,” he said.
Kalia reflected, “It really was a wonderful experience in Wheeling. It really made me excited to be up in the running. The state tour gave me a glimpse into the community and the different types of things that were happening, not only in Wheeling but also in Clarksburg and Weirton.”
The tour, which featured a broad selection of music, also gave the conductor insight into the musicians’ range. “It is an orchestra that can play it all,” he said, adding, “I enjoy programming all kinds of music.”
He remarked, “For this type of tour, we had one 2 1/2-hour rehearsal the day of the first concert. The orchestra played with such grace and energy and musicality. I was really impressed.”
Kalia said it was special to collaborate with Wheeling natives Tim O’Brien and Mollie O’Brien who performed as guest artists on the July tour.
Audiences and musicians enjoyed the music that the singers brought to the program. “It showed the variety of repertoire the orchestra can play, how well they were able to dig in to all the different nuances and create something that is special and unique,” he said.
Noting that orchestras may seem “a little bit stuffy and not so accessible” at times, he observed, “But it was the complete opposite with this orchestra. There was this joy in their faces and in their playing. That energy transmitted out into the audience. It’s something that you don’t see all the time.”
Reflecting on a symphony’s role today, he commented, “I think in general it’s clear to me that an orchestra in the 21st century can’t be just a performing arts organization. It has to get out in the community. I think an orchestra has to reflect the people of the city. I want to make the Wheeling Symphony the most accessible and entertaining place in the city.”
Kalia, who grew up on Long Island, cited the Lake George Music Festival as an example of this approach.
“I started that eight years ago from the ground up. It was the first music festival of its kind in the region … (now) it’s part of the community,” he said. “For two weeks, we basically perform music throughout the village, in a variety of venues, in churches, auditoriums, bars … It’s the sense of local collaboration and playing in different and unorthodox venues.”
In Wheeling, Kalia said, such concepts “would be a wonderful way to get the community involved. Going out into the community, to bars, coffee shops, outdoor spaces, with smaller ensembles and chamber orchestra is really a great way to get out into the community.”
At Lake George, he holds a “symphony happy hour” with conversation about music over craft beer at a local brewery. “I would like to try that in Wheeling,” he said. “It’s something that orchestras are doing, and I think it’s a great way for people who don’t know about the symphony to get involved.
“We are trying to remove that invisible barrier between the audience and the musician. That’s kind of what we need to do,” he said. “Doing these types of events would be a really great way to connect with the community.”
The Lake George events include a series that combines classical music with an artist who is not of the classical genre.
“This series has taken off at the festival,” he said. “I would love to bring these types of collaborations to Wheeling with the focus being on local artists and establishments.”
He advocates combining new music — “fresh and unique works that are part of our changing orchestral landscape” — with well-known pieces on a program.
Also in terms of programming, he said, “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 Theatre as well as having pre- and post-concert events.”
As assistant conductor of Pacific Symphony, Kalia said, “I am a big ambassador for the symphony, conducting a lot of educational and pops concerts, bringing music to the next generation. I would love to bring some ideas and experience with music education here in Wheeling, to create a number of amazing opportunities for the symphony to try new things.”
Kalia had never heard a professional orchestra until his high school concert band attended a performance by the New York Philharmonic. “I was blown away. I was not from a family of musicians,” he said. “That made me decide I wanted to be a musician. It was a life-changing experience for me. I joined the youth orchestra. It really opened my eyes.”
He majored in music education and studied trumpet at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He took conducting lessons and worked with a community orchestra at Clarkson University.
“From the moment I did (conducting), I was hooked. I took master classes here and in Europe,” he said. “Playing the trumpet was enjoyable, but somewhat isolating being at the back of the orchestra.”
Kalia earned a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Houston and a doctorate at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he gained experience in conducting opera. He conducted the Memphis Symphony in 2011 after winning second prize in its international conducting competition.
His wife is completing a doctorate from Indiana University. “It’s a wonderful partnership. Christine will write program notes and give interactive pre-concert talks,” he said. “She also performed in the orchestra with me. That really did bring us together, her playing in my orchestra. She’s been extremely supportive. We have that musical connection and that’s great.”