Interview with Peter Kjome, New CEO and President of the BSO

by Emily Skala

ES: Welcome to Baltimore. It’s really great to have you here.

PK: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

ES: I heard that you are a graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy. Are you a Michigander by birth?
PK: I was born in Minneapolis, MN, and as a young man, grew up in Laramie, WY. I had an oboe teacher out there who had been to Interlochen. There was an oboe lesson in the late 70s, I remember, when I finally decided that I would do a little bit of extra practicing. My teacher looked over at me and said, “Who is this who just showed up to the lesson!?” It turned out that once I applied myself and practiced a little bit I seemed to have some aptitude for playing the oboe. Before too long she was suggesting Interlochen. I was very fortunate to attend there for four summers and three years at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

ES: So, how old were you when you started at Interlochen?
PK: I started when I was about thirteen as a student at National Music Camp (now called Interlochen Arts Camp) and studied with Daniel Stolper, who is still teaching there today, and who was a wonderful teacher. He suggested that I consider attending the Cleveland Institute of Music to study with John Mack, which I later did.

ES: While you were in school, could you ever have imagined you would some day be leading an orchestra from the office on the top floor rather than from the Principal Oboe chair?
PK: Absolutely not! When I was in school I dreamed of being a professional oboist and at that point in my life I figured that if I were able to win one of those jobs then that’s what I would always do. That was always my dream. Over time I wasn’t able to play any more and today it has been a circuitous path to this place, but it feels like just the right spot.

 photo credit Johnny Quirin
photo credit Johnny Quirin

ES: So I understand it was an injury that led you to business school? Would you be comfortable telling our readers a little bit about that?
PK: I had some challenges with the air pressure from blowing into the instrument. Those readers who have seen an oboe reed know that the opening is very small and, for me, blowing into that small opening and having a back-pressure from playing was causing some challenges and ultimately it was determined that the best thing for my health would be to retire from playing the oboe. That was an enormously difficult decision.

ES: I bet it was. How many years were you performing professionally before you had to come to that conclusion?
PK: I had been playing professionally for about 7 or 8 years. I had played in the Grand Rapids Symphony for about seven years when I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to continue and I’d also previously had the privilege of playing as an extra musician in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. So it was just over seven years when it became clear that I probably wouldn’t be able to play for my whole life and that led me to then think about what to do next and where I felt that I could make a contribution.

ES: I would not know how to make that transition myself. Did you just decide right away to go to business school or did it take some time to get to that point?
PK: It was really devastating. In many musicians I know, if you were to ask, “What are you,” and this was true of me, they might answer (with) the name of their instrument before they would answer with anything else. “What are you?” “I am an oboist… or I’m a flutist.” Our identities are so closely wrapped up with playing our instruments that it is just integral to our lives so thinking about not doing that, as you can well imagine, is very difficult. I didn’t want to give up and somehow stop making a positive contribution so then it just led me to think about things that I felt I had enjoyed doing and that were interesting to me, that I had been involved with in addition to playing the oboe.

One of those experiences that was really formative was serving as a musician representative on our symphony’s Board of Directors. In 1993 there was a report from the League of American Orchestras that came out, that among other things, recommended orchestras consider having musicians sit on the Board, and I was one of the first two musicians to serve on our Board beginning in the mid-90s – in Grand Rapids – and that was a positive experience. I had some good mentors that helped me, and then I began to take more of an interest in all of the numerous factors that are so important in having a successful orchestra, and that ultimately led me to decide to go to business school.

ES: Would you tell me how your experience as an oboist informs your ideology of orchestral leadership in general, and for our orchestra in particular?
PK: I care very deeply about orchestral music and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to help sustain and advance our orchestra. Having performed as a musician for many years, having gone to school for that, I think helps inform the decisions that I make and that leaders at the BSO will be talking about and making together. I will be guided by the knowledge of what we have in Baltimore, and in Maryland, and that is an orchestra of international stature; that is an orchestra of exceptional quality; an orchestra that has a very special spirit of collaboration and partnership and people who care very, very deeply about our orchestra.

ES: If money were no obstacle, what would you most like to accomplish on behalf of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?
PK: Well, that is a wonderful hypothetical situation in life and in the coming months I expect that we will be convening conversations with Board members and musicians and staff and other community leaders to talk about where the BSO is today and where we would like to go in the future. Certainly we have dreams of additional recording, of touring, and of taking this incredible orchestra to other places so that people can hear our great musicians play. We also think about what we are doing not only on the stage but off the stage. What I hope will be happening as we begin these series of conversations is that it is going to be a great way for all of our key stakeholders to come together and look at where we are and dream about what we can be. It would be wonderful if money were no object. That said, if we were able to articulate visionary dreams and engage others in those discussions, I believe that is going to help us all move forward in a really wonderful way.

ES: Since money is an obstacle, which things among those that you just mentioned do you intend to prioritize until they are a reality for our orchestra?
PK: I think until we have gone through this planning process it’s too early to focus on one area. What I am looking at right now is trying to understand as well as I can where the BSO is today and there are a number of issues. There is a clichĂ©, “the tyranny of the urgent,” and certainly there are things that we need to address quickly, but at the same time, we need to look at all of the different projects we have, all of the different programs, and thoughtfully prioritize. After a bit more than 2 weeks on the job I feel it is too early for me to have a sufficiently informed view. That said, I think that we have a very, very bright future.

Certainly there is a tension between financial resources and our goals artistically and our goals for what we want to achieve in the future, but I believe we will all come together with the best interests of the orchestra and the institution at heart. We will work our way through whatever the challenges are. I feel very confident about that. It doesn’t mean it’ll be easy but, as I mentioned before, I think there is a very special spirit about this place and it makes me feel very encouraged and optimistic about the future.

ES: Since arriving here in Baltimore, what have you found to be the most attractive and endearing aspects of our city?
PK: Well, my very first impression of the city of Baltimore was on a beautiful, sunny day in June on the harbor and I had arrived late the night before and got up quite early in the morning and was jogging on the inner harbor and seeing the incredible investments that our city has made. Later that day I attended the League of American Orchestras Conference, and I think it was the next day that I heard the BSO perform live for the very first time (June 10th) and I remember that very clearly because the BSO performed so beautifully and then some of the talented young people from OrchKids came and joined the orchestra at the end of the concert and that helped me to understand how integrally involved the BSO is in our community. It has also been interesting to see the tremendous variety in the city. I have been to a number of the neighborhoods and it has underscored the importance of serving our broader community regardless of someone’s economic circumstances, regardless of where they are in our city, we want to really serve the broadest possible range of people and getting to know our city has helped me to realize that we can do more to open our doors to as many people as possible.

ES: I have read that a workplace is a direct manifestation of the greater environment in which it is located. This would help to explain regional differences in the amount of support orchestras are afforded across the country. What have you observed, if anything, that you feel might be influencing this pattern we have experienced for decades of never quite having enough resources to support the work which we love so deeply and feel destined to do here in Baltimore? As a newcomer, is there any link you can discern between the tenor of the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area and the tenor inside the BSO?
PK: I appreciate that question and as I reflect on the BSO’s place in our city and state it is remarkable that we are today the largest cultural institution in MD and that we reach more than 350,000 participants every year. It’s clear that the BSO is providing substantial value to thousands of people across our community and enriching the lives of people in the city of Baltimore and our broader MD community. Think about the guiding principles that we want to be reflecting on as we move forward together, and that IS providing community value through exceptional, world class music being presented on the stage at the Meyerhoff and at Strathmore, and it is also to be listening very carefully to our community about what is needed. This is part of the reason that the Baltimore Symphony’s educational programs are more robust and more extensive than (those) of many of our peers. These programs are reaching people from across the community, a very diverse group of young people, and we’re doing this because it is helping to support student achievement, it’s helping the lives of these young people forever. I just heard over the weekend that several of our OrchKids students have been accepted at Baltimore School for the Arts, and this is not the first time. We have had several of our OrchKids students accepted at Interlochen in the past and I know that that will continue in the future. Those types of opportunities that the Baltimore Symphony is creating for the students in our community are part of how we are going to serve the people of Baltimore and MD. And then, in turn, we hope that this will inspire and encourage people to continue to support our organization philanthropically, to continue to advocate for the work that we are doing.

I see a very bright future for us that will not be without its challenges, but if we are very carefully attuned to what our community needs from us, and are very careful listeners—and when we respond to what we hear, then I think that we will continue to be able to move forward together. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very special spirit here and I’m talking about our musicians, our staff, our board members, our Endowment Trust members, but also the many people who clearly, for decades, have been attending concerts and care so very much about the BSO.

ES: You know, at Peabody they are starting a new Music Medicine Clinic, and that is very interesting for me because I have often thought, I think many of us feel, that music itself is vibrational healing, and sometimes I wonder, I look around and I see that hospitals have an easier time raising money, educational institutions have an easier time raising money, than an arts organization has, and so I have played around with the idea of not referring to symphony orchestras as arts organizations any more, but more as a social service organization because, as I told you just last weekend, my dental hygienist recently came to a concert with her husband and felt so restored afterwards that all she could feel was the need to come and subscribe so that she could have that benefit more often in her life.
PK: Well, the breadth of what we do, the impact of the work the BSO does, is extraordinary, and we know that, for example, a young person who is studying music, regardless of whether they become a professional musician, is more likely to stay in school, that the study of music helps their cognitive development so it helps support student achievement, and your point about music and healing this can be much more than simply providing soothing music to someone who is ill. There have been demonstrated positive clinical outcomes from having music involvement in, for example, someone with a brain injury. In my former orchestra we have a music therapy program where we work with a local music therapist at a hospital system and it has helped people who are in our neuro-rehabilitation program. It is making a difference in the lives of those people. So to your point, communicating that incredible impact and the depth and breadth of the relevance of the BSO is something that we need to continue to do. It is providing deep spiritual meaning to people who are coming to a concert, but it’s also been helping to support young people in so many other ways in our community.

ES: Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with me today, Peter. And once again, welcome to Baltimore.