Vol. 113 (2022) 

Five Questions for Conductor
Julian Kuerti



The modern Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra's (KSO) history began with its founder, Mrs. Leta G. Snow, a local civic leader, who went on to create the League of American Orchestras. Snow believed that a local symphony orchestra was critical for the development of a community and a quality of life.

Mrs. Leta G. Snow

In May 1921, Snow held a meeting at her home with twenty-five leading local musicians and laid the groundwork for the today's Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. She became the orchestra president and business manager, and Chester Z. Bronson cancelled his contract with the Wallace Circus to assist with the new organization. Bronson, who was highly respected among community members and local musicians for his expertise, volunteered his time as conductor for the new orchestra and brought along his extensive collection of orchestral and band music.


The KSO’s first concert, featuring an all-volunteer orchestra, was on December 21, 1921, at the Masonic Temple under conductor Bronson.


Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, ca. 1921 with C. Z. Bronson conducting. Pictured: (partial list) Charles Brocato, first clarinet; Herman Salomon, second clarinet; George “Lem” Trombley, horn; Albert  E. Waldo, alto clarinet; William Boyce, bassoon; Bill Shumaker (William Schullheimer), bassoon; Clarence Reed, trombone; Henry Eich, concertmaster (first violin); Esther Rasmussen, first violin; Alvin Schaeffer, first violin; Lloyd Lohr, viola; Czerl Corbin, cello; Leta G. Snow (holding cello for absent person); John Holman, first bass; Charles Jannasch, second bass; Fred Conine, percussion; C. Z. Bronson, conductor. (Members identified by Clark den Bleyker, a longtime orchestra member, KSO personnel manager and librarian. Handwritten list ca. 1940s, Kalamazoo Valley Museum).


Now, 100 years later, what started as one woman’s idea has become a critical part of the region’s cultural life with more than 80 professional musicians under the leadership of Music Director and Irving S. Gilmore Conductor's Chair Julian Kuerti.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with Julian Kuerti at the KSO. He has an extensive international resume and is the former Principal Guest of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal and Principal Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Concepción in Chile. He is also the Principal Guest Conductor for the National Symphony of Peru, in addition to his influential role at the KSO that began in 2018.


Maestro Kuerti was most enthusiastic to share his perspective on the importance of local symphony orchestras and his vision for the future in his responses to our Five Questions.

Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra Logo

STAY THIRSTY: How important is the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) to the city and people of Kalamazoo, Michigan?


JULIAN KUERTI: I think we’re pretty important! Obviously, I’m biased because I care so much about the symphony. But I would like to believe that the KSO continues to be incredibly important to all sorts of people in the community. We deliver the highest quality music education to over 30,000 students per year and connect with people across the region who care about world-class symphonic music. We bring the greatest names to the stages where we play, present movies with a live symphony, and perform free outdoor summer concerts for every musical taste. The KSO also has a deep and varied history of commissioning living composers, including giving the World Premiere of Andre Previn’s final composition during our 2021/22 Season Finale. The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is responsible for bringing great symphonic music to thousands of eager listeners each year, and we have so many dedicated fans who keep reminding us how much we brighten their day.

Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra - 100 Years

STAY THIRSTY: With the KSO celebrating its 100th year, how was it able to navigate and survive for that length of time and to make it through the COVID pandemic?


JULIAN KUERTI: Over the years since our first public concert on December 21, 1921, the KSO has weathered quite a few storms: the great depression, World War II, a few financial crises, and despite those obstacles, we have managed to not only survive but to grow and become stronger. And I believe this is really thanks to the outstanding leadership we have had over the years. The vision of our founder, Leta Snow, is the cornerstone on which the KSO was built. I think her determination and commitment have been woven into our corporate DNA.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, we faced the greatest challenge to the performing arts I have ever experienced in my lifetime; theatres and concert halls across the world went dark for months, musicians had nowhere to play and nobody to support their art. As soon as it became clear that this pandemic would last longer than two weeks (Remember that?! We actually believed it would blow over by the late spring!), we began to pivot at the KSO. We released online content from massive videos of the orchestra playing from home to a whole series of concerts recorded and streamed for our fans. We really tried hard to keep our musicians playing, but also, I must say I wanted to keep them mentally active and challenged – anything to keep their minds off the larger and scarier existential questions that everybody was asking. In the end, I am incredibly proud of the art and music we were able to produce with our minimal staff and production team – and our musicians remain thankful that we were able to keep them playing (and earning) during some of the most challenging times we have lived through as a nation.



STAY THIRSTY: How does the KSO integrate itself into the local community and its organizations? What type of programs does the KSO do that engage children and adolescents? Are there any programs that focus on underprivileged children or on children with disabilities?

KSO's Symphony in the Summer Program

JULIAN KUERTI: The KSO strives to be a diverse community partner by lifting up other artforms across all genres. We are thankful to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships with many organizations across town: we are constant collaborators with the Gilmore Piano Festival, the Arts Council, Western Michigan University, and many more; it’s almost unfair to only list a few!


And of course, a significant part of our mission is centered around delivering our award-winning education curriculum to tens of thousands of students across the region. We have one of the country’s foremost education programs, which is something I don’t think a lot of Kalamazooans are entirely aware of! The KSO offers ensembles that play and teach in schools, symphonic concerts for kids and their families, and our nationally recognized Orchestra Rouh program, which teaches children from refugee families and recent immigrants to make music together. Some of our other foundational programs include Marvelous Music, a program that brings music educational opportunities to over 600 preschool students each week, and KKIT (Kalamazoo Kids in Tune), a nationally recognized, El Sistema-style afterschool program for youth.



STAY THIRSTY: Your resume includes Musical Director of the KSO, Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony of Peru, as well as former Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal and Principal Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Concepción in Chile. How are you able to wear so many hats at the same time?


JULIAN KUERTI: Typically, Music Directors hold more than one position at a time. I also continue to keep an active guest conducting schedule (although most of this activity was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic). As the head of an artistic organization, it’s essential to stay connected to the people in the community and the people you work with and play for. As long as I can continue to do that, I am not worried about becoming over-stretched.

Maestro Julian Keurti

STAY THIRSTY: You have had the opportunity to work with some of the most distinguished soloists of our time, including Yo-Yo Ma, Leon Fleisher, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and Peter Serkin. What did collaborating with such accomplished musicians teach you? 

JULIAN KUERTI: Looking back on all these collaborations I have been lucky to enjoy over the first two decades of my career, the thing that strikes me the most is the humility these great musicians all share. They served the music; they didn’t see themselves as stars or even very important people. Simply they were given a gift, and it was something like a responsibility to use it to benefit the music, and the listener. I remember being backstage with Yo-Yo minutes before going on stage to perform a concerto, and he was still so full of wonder for the music we were about to play. It felt so new and exciting, even though it was a piece I’m sure he’d performed hundreds of times before. To stay humble and keep learning – that is what we should all hope for.


(Historical Accounts - Courtesy of the Kalamazoo Public Library Archives)




Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra     

Julian Kuerti  




All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.