Sunday, October 13, 2002

[photo] The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra during a recent rehearsal
(Ernest Coleman photos)
| ZOOM |

Kentucky Symphony dreams big

As this orchestra turns 10, its energetic director works to keep its growth and accomplishment in crescendo

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

James “J.R.” Cassidy has big dreams for his Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.

Among them are a new concert hall that would be its home, an endowment and musical exchanges with established Kentucky orchestras, such as Louisville.

These are not pipe dreams. Mr. Cassidy, 43, and the KSO have come a long way since their first concert a decade ago, an anniversary observed this weekend in Greaves Concert Hall at Northern Kentucky University. As the KSO enters its second decade, it is poised to become a major player in the Greater Cincinnati arts scene. It's all laid out in a new, three-year strategic plan, funded by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. First, there are big hurdles to overcome.

“Within the next 10 years, not only the infrastructure has to happen, but we need a base of operations. The offices, rehearsal space — everything needs to be housed in the same place,” Mr. Cassidy says with nonstop zeal, over lunch at Newport on the Levee.

“A new hall needs to be built on this side of the river, that serves the entire Greater Cincinnati region. There has to be a succession plan in place for myself and Angela (Williamson, the KSO's general manager). Obviously, there needs to be an endowment or a capital campaign.”

Big ideas, these, but Mr. Cassidy has always thought big. Indeed, it's hard to separate the symphony from its colorful music director. For 10 years, he's been a one-man-band: conductor, music librarian, stage crew, public relations director, fund-raiser, program printer.

In the beginning, he was also the orchestra's marketing director. Which is how their first mailing came to be sent to dogs and cats.

[photo] James “J.R.” Cassidy is conductor of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra
| ZOOM |
The first board president, Jim Ebel (also a trumpeter) was marketing director for Iams Pet Food. The orchestra sent a 3,000-piece mailing to Iams customers — the theory being that people who spent money on premium food for their pets would buy quality entertainment for themselves, Mr. Cassidy says. Nobody knew the names on the mailing list were those of the pets — not their owners.

Even though Fido and Fluffy never became subscribers, the fledgling orchestra persevered. It now has a 24-member board of directors, and a staff of two. The KSO offices take up two floors of Mr. Cassidy's Newport home. Last October, Mr. Cassidy married his general manager, Ms. Williamson.

“From the beginning, J.R. was unloading the trucks, setting up everything, getting the music, doing publicity, sending out flyers. He worked night and day,” says Bernice Robinson, a cellist. “He still never really sits down to relax at a meal because he's always planning the next thing. When he wants to raise money, he sees people one-on-one, because he finds that to be much more influential. Last year, Delta was on hold for a while as sponsors. It's been less; we've had to cut back. But they came through.”

Even in a booming economy, the challenges of starting up and maintaining a symphony orchestra are formidable. The orchestra has few assets: it doesn't own its own music stands, chairs or percussion instruments, for instance. Although it has not had an operating deficit since 1993 (when it retired a $2,000 deficit), every season is a break-even proposition, with no money left over. Earned revenue is low by industry standards: only 14 percent of its budget.

It's not a union orchestra, but a hybrid of paid “core” musicians (below union scale) and others who merely receive a small stipend — a sore point with Cincinnati's musicians union.

Yet Mr. Cassidy's accomplishments are substantial. In 10 years, the KSO's annual budget has swelled from $20,000 to $610,000. The subscriber base has grown from a handful to 585for his main concert series. The KSO reaches 45,000 people, including thousands who attend the KSO's free summertime concerts in Covington's Devou Park — an estimated 10,000 came out in 2001 for Blessid Union of Souls — and educational and community concerts. It has major corporate sponsors, such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Cinergy, U.S. Bank and Fidelity Investments.

And it has struck a chord with Northern Kentuckians, who point to it with pride.

“The thing I found attractive is, it's identified with the Northern Kentucky area,” says John Goering, 69, a subscriber since 1993 and former professor at the University of Cincinnati. “The programs that J.R. puts on are very innovative and creative and appeal to perhaps a different audience than might (attend) the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a much larger orchestra and a professional orchestra.”

Harmonious collaborations

Mr. Cassidy is the Tristate's most innovative marketer of classical music. He has collaborated with the Cincinnati Observatory, Cincinnati Zoo, Hasbro Toys and aerobic instructors (“Sweatin' to the Symphony”). He doesn't shy from gimmicks like celebrity ushers or in-your-face promotions. Perhaps the looniest theme this season will be April's “Who Spiked the Symphony?” — a takeoff on Spike Jones, for which Mr. Cassidy encourages attendees “to point and laugh at the orchestra (this show only).”

His credo is to “be attractive, accessible and affordable,” and his scheme is to eliminate perceptions associated with traditional symphony orchestras: high prices, snobbery, fancy clothes and boring concerts.

Sandy-haired, stocky and personable, the Orlando, Fla., native also has a reputation for being demanding, impulsive and brash. Last year, he balked at the first rent hike in five years at Northern Kentucky University, where the orchestra has used facilities since 1992, complaining it was money they couldn't afford. This year, although the orchestra returns to NKU's Greaves Hall for three concerts, it is experimenting with new venues.

“I don't think anybody could have done what he did without having a little bit of that brash side, to just say, hey, I'm going to start an orchestra,” says David Dunevant, 49, principal trombone and former chair of NKU's music department.

“But from day one, he's had the right idea of the programming and trying to fit in with the community. It seemed to coincide with the growth and identity that Northern Kentucky has experienced in the last decade. It's not the CSO and it never will be. But it does have a niche, and the people who support the orchestra are very proud that there's one over there.”

KSO board member Donna Salyers, 57, agrees. “There's a huge part of the population that the KSO embraces,” says the owner of Covington's Fabulous Furs. “I think it's for everybody who doesn't go to the Cincinnati Symphony, that maybe is just a little too formal. This one is for everyone else.”

Roots go back to '84

The KSO began as the Northern Kentucky Symphony in 1992. (Not to be confused with Northern Kentucky University, the orchestra changed its name to KSO last year.) But its roots go back to the Carnegie Music Society, a community orchestra that initially met in Covington's Carnegie Arts Center in 1984 under Jack Kirstein, former member of the LaSalle Quartet.

In 1986, it became the Music Society of Northern Kentucky. When Mr. Kirstein became ill (he died in 1996), Mr. Cassidy, a graduate student in conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, was invited to guest-conduct.

“I was only going to be there a couple of weeks,” Mr. Cassidy recalls. “They had three violins, and were trying to play Beethoven. I said, OK we'll do what we can.”

The musicians asked if he was interested in staying. He said no. But when he finished school, he reconsidered.

“I sat down, after getting a degree that really doesn't mean anything, and said, what if we started an orchestra that was about the people? A little more friendly? I saw it as a feeder to theCincinnati Symphony,” he says.

Clearly, he saw potential. The music society was already incorporated. For $12 he changed the name to the Northern Kentucky Symphony.

He began to divert from the idea of an all-volunteer orchestra, to one with a core of paid professional players and some amateurs. He demanded auditions, offending some players, who left. (A wind ensemble splintered off and performs as the Northern Kentucky Chamber Players.) He bolstered his ranks with CCM students.

“J.R. had a vision to see this as a possibility to have a good semi-professional orchestra south of the river,” says Allan Lunn, a cellist who has played since the Music Society days. “He's done a first-rate job of getting the orchestra up to standard. . . . There's a good spirit of comraderie. The orchestra likes him and enjoys playing with him.”

Over a decade, Mr. Cassidy has presented an impressive list of soloists, including singers from Cincinnati Opera Outreach, former CSO concertmaster Alexander Kerr

and trumpet virtuoso Vincent DiMartino.

Classical and pops

His programs blur the line between pops (“The Three Kentucky Tenors”) and serious classical music, such as Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and Brahms' Academic Festival Overture.

Is it pops entertainment or serious art? Most concertgoers don't care.

“The reason I became interested and involved in the symphony is because I'm from Northern Kentucky (Ludlow) ... and grew up thinking that Baroque is when you have no Monet,” says board president Richard L. Robinson, 45, an attorney in the Florence firm Graydon, Head & Ritchey. “I find great relevance and great entertainment value in it. You can take someone like myself, who enjoys Spike Jones, Jesus Christ Superstar and the fun stuff we do, and also goes to the Italian Opera Night, and finds it one of the moving experiences I've ever seen. I wouldn't normally do that type of entertainment.”

Between lighter fare, Mr. Cassidy has programmed a large slice of contemporary American music: John Adams, John Corigliano, Philip Glass, Ned Rorem, Frank Zappa, William Schuman, Duke Ellington and more. KSO has performed more than 50 regional premieres — including Paul McCartney's oratorio Standing Stone — several U.S. premieres and four world premieres.

Until this weekend, when the KSO played a replica of its first concert, it had not repeated a piece on a subscription concert in 10 years. Susan Magg, principal flutist since 1992, remembers a recent program that included Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, followed by Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2.

“That was very tough for me, personally. But it was a lot of fun to play, which is one reason I stayed in the orchestra. I'm able to play things that I probably wouldn't get a chance to play,” she says.

Raising the bar

Mr. Cassidy tries to “raise the bar” for his players with challenging repertoire, something that has helped the ensemble improve technically. Mahler's Fifth, scheduled for May, is “probably a little above us, but it's something to shoot for,” he admits. He increased his number of “core” (regular) players from 14 to 45, thus improving continuity from concert to concert, year to year. (A typical concert utilizes 70 to 80 players.)

NKU's Mr. Dunevant creditsthe maestro for the orchestra's improvement.

“He has mellowed over 10 years, realizing what the group actually is, and what its function is,” Mr. Dunevant says. “From a musical standpoint, I've always thought he was very solid. The growth of the players is reflected by the demands he can make on the group. So the concerts simply have gotten better.”

Ever the promoter, Mr. Cassidy has a new strategy for building the Northern Kentucky audience, and involving community leaders in the orchestra's strategic plan. In “City Nights,” six Northern Kentucky mayors and city managers will compete for a free concert in their city. The winner? The one who brings out the most people to the KSO on their designated night.

Mr. Cassidy's musical evangelism stems from something his dad told him when he was a little boy.

“It was, remember, you're no better than anybody else, and they're no better than you,” he says. “Why can't the CEO of a corporation come without a coat and tie, and sit next to a janitor — and enjoy something on the same level?”

For the KSO's board president, the possibilities are endless.

“In 10 years, this organization has done things that nobody ever thought could happen,” says Mr. Robinson. “The programming, I would contend, is equal to any symphony in the country. They're fun, they're unique, and it draws people in. If you think about what we've done in 10 years, look at what we can do in the next 10.”


- Kentucky Symphony dreams big
KSO reaps well-deserved kudos on 10th anniversary
Orchestra mix of pros, amateurs
'SNL' really misses Ferrell
You can join Broadway stars for theater chat
Amy Rigby handles one-singer show with aplomb
Cinci Freedom enjoys bovine bliss in N.Y.
Crowning moment arrives for prince of the ballet
KENDRICK: Alive and Well
Vintage posters have a magical allure
DEMALINE: The arts
King Records CD a worthy tribute
'You're Dead' could save lives
Harvesting fall's flavors
Get to it