By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Saturday marks the end of an era for the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, as music director Kim Allen Kluge conducts his last concert after 28 years at the helm.
In that time, Kluge has made the orchestra one of the premier ensembles of its kind in the region, and a key part of civic life in Alexandria. But he said one of his proudest achievements is touching people with classical music from all walks of life and backgrounds.
“Really in the end, it’s the personal legacies and the personal relationships. That’s what I’m most proud of and that’s what I’ll remember,” he said. “It’s the personal relationships that stem from the music: after every concert in the lobby I stand out and thank people for sharing the music with us. The same people say to me, ‘That was your best concert, you can’t outdo this.’
“Then the next concert, they say, ‘This was the best,’ and on and on and on it goes.”
The ASO was founded as an amateur orchestra in 1943, but when Kluge took over in 1988, he made it professional and said he improved the standards of musicianship through mentorship and one-on-one training. In just his second year at the helm, Kluge conducted the orchestra in a concert at the Kennedy Center, a performance that received rave reviews and awoke some parts of the city to the orchestra on their doorstep.
“Most Alexandrians didn’t even know there was a symphony orchestra [in the city], and if they knew, they’d say it was amateurs so they wouldn’t spend money to go and see it,” Kluge said. “It was a strategic move to go to the Kennedy Center in my second season, a way of telling people to look at the jewel that they have in their own community. That marked the turnaround in terms of the city’s perception.”
To improve that perception and to in turn foster relationships across the city, Kluge said it was imperative to improve musical standards. It has served the orchestra well, as its 40 regular members and two guest artists perform across the region as well as at the city’s annual July birthday celebration the waterfront. Its permanent home is the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College.
“You can invest your money into advertising and marketing and PR, but in the end, if you can’t deliver, you have no future,” Kluge said. “So I always knew I needed to turn the orchestra around artistically in a very dramatic way, so that’s why we went to the Kennedy Center.”
Beyond concerts, Kluge and the ASO have made education central to their mission, both of children and adults as they look to bring music to new audiences. In 2003, the ASO introduced the Children’s Arts Festival featuring inter-arts activities, workshops and performances for young children, while the Mary Graham Lasley Scholarship Competition and the newly founded Kluge Young Composer’s Competition look to foster young and talented musicians.
The ASO’s newest initiative, “ASO Sympatico” completed its first full school year in June 2015, having been launched in 2013 at John Adams Elementary School. The before- and after-school music program allows students from Kindergarten through fifth grade to participate in five ensembles free of charge. Kluge said inspiring children to appreciate music is vital, as is the need to recognize its importance in everyday life.
“It starts with children in the home and in the schools,” he said. “As a music specialist, I use my soap box and my influence to create a curriculum that makes connections to visual arts, to literary arts, to mathematics, to history, to science. This wasn’t my invention. A lot of schools have been doing that for a century. They’re all interrelated; they’re all the same thing really.”
In addition to his work conducting the ASO, Kluge has kept busy through a variety of projects across the country, including composing alongside his wife Kathryn for a wide range of clients, including for films and live performances. Despite a jet-set lifestyle that sees him in New York, Los Angeles and other cities, Kluge said he will retain strong links to Alexandria, a city he loves.
“On the one hand, my artistic and professional and personal roots in the region are so profound I see so many interesting projects and job offers in the area that I will most likely end up doing — producing and conducting more concerts in the region than I ever possibly
could have dreamed of doing in my capacity as music director of the ASO,” he said. “That’s part of the evolution. These are passion projects that are coming my way that I’ve always wanted to do and dreamed of doing.”
Kluge said he will hold a strong affection for the ASO, especially having put so much work into its development over the last 28 years.
“It’s my first baby,” he said. “I have a 2-year-old, and it’s our first child, but I always say the ASO was my first baby. I’ve poured my blood, sweat and tears into my baby’s development,
and they say now that I have a human child, they say true love means you can let go. So I guess my real test will be in 16 years.”
Kluge’s last concert is Saturday at 8 p.m., when the ASO will perform pieces by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Hans Zimmer, as well as the world premiere of the Kluges’
“American Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” Kluge will be honored as ASO’s first Maestro
Emeritus at the performance, and will lead a question-and-answer session and discussion one hour before the concert.