Allison Kaiser is off the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra’s beaten path.
Asked to pick a place to meet to talk about her new gig as executive director of the orchestra, Kaiser bypasses its offices, where she says her ear is glued to the phone, and the Phil’s traditional performance home, the Singletary Center for the Arts.
Kaiser is settled into one of the purple seats in the black box theater at the Downtown Arts Center.
“This is where we are instituting one of our new concepts, ‘Kicked-Back Classics,’” Kaiser says, referring to informal, conversational performances Nov. 18 and March 24 that will precede Philharmonic Classics concerts. “It will be a smaller event with the guest artists in an environment that is not as traditional as the Singletary Center.”
Change is to be expected. With Kaiser’s hiring earlier this year, there was a complete turnover in the orchestra’s top leadership in less than two years. In April 2009, it hired Scott Terrell to succeed George Zack as music director. Then earlier this year, after executive director Peter Kucirko announced his retirement, Kaiser was tapped to replace him.
In taking the post, she has accomplished a rare feat in Lexington arts, moving from the top management post at one group to the same position at another.
Since 2003, Kaiser was executive director of the Lexington Art League, widely credited with taking a struggling organization and turning it into one of the city’s most vibrant arts groups.
Kaiser did that, she says, by frequently employing ideas and inspiration from her years as development director for the New World Symphony in Miami.
“The New World Symphony was the most mind-opening opportunity I had in the arts,” Kaiser says. “Working with someone as creative and visionary as Michael Tilson Thomas (the orchestra’s music director) to make music something it had never been before was a huge learning opportunity.”
Kaiser points out that the New World Symphony was developed as a “bridge” orchestra between the academic and professional worlds. With a non-traditional foundation, that gave the New World room to innovate to create new music and attract new audiences.
Implementation of some programs at the Art League — such as the Election exhibit in summer and fall 2008 and projects that were pursued in conjunction with groups like Habitat for Humanity and organizations that combat domestic violence — were direct manifestations of her work at New World, Kaiser says.
“As we started exploring the contextual aspect, that took us working with art more of our times,” she says. “It showed how art can be a bridge between people and difficult topics, and that art is more than an object.”
At the philharmonic, Kaiser says, she is taking over a solid organization with two distinct constituencies: “longtime, devoted supporters” and “an emerging base that is not invested in the way things were done but really wants to engage with orchestral music.”
In addition to the Kicked-Back Classics events, Kaiser points to initiatives such as a new commissioning collaboration with the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington to engage a composer who will work with each group every other year. That concept gets a soft debut this year with the world premiere of the orchestral version of Daniel Thomas Davis’ Book of Songs and Visions, which premiered as a chamber work at the festival in 2008.
There are also new initiatives in Classics series programming and ticket selling. Kaiser says season subscription sales are up 15 percent this season, primarily because of a “Pick 4” option that allows subscribers to choose four out of the eight season subscription concerts. While she has not looked at the demographics of that increase, Kaiser did say that the Jan. 22 Soul Celebration concert with Take 6 and Kentucky State University Gospel Ensemble is the top seller. It is one of several programs that has the philharmonic partnering with new organizations, including the Lafayette High School Chorale and University of Kentucky’s AcoUstiKats for Friday’s Romeo & Juliet concert and the Dec. 2 and 3 Messiah performances with the Lexington Chamber Chorale.
“I have always been impressed with the role the Lexington Philharmonic plays in this community,” Kaiser says. “Under George Zack’s leadership, it has been able to grow from a community orchestra to a professional group, and its success is something Lexington should be proud of.”
But, like most orchestras, it was facing the reality that its core audience was eroding, and a natural replacement audience was not being developed as orchestral music plays a decreasing role in society.
“When they started talking to me about this position, they made it clear there was a desire and willingness to evolve beyond what has been,” Kaiser said. “That has to happen to develop new audiences.”
So, moving forward, expect to see Kaiser and the Philharmonic in more unusual places.