Conductor Kenneth Kiesler was in many ways the golden boy of the American Symphony Orchestra League 1988 conference, held in Chicago last June. There he garnered a major award, participated in panel discussions and led one of his orchestras in a featured concert.
He did not, however, feel that those honors made him a front-runner for the post of music director of the Long Beach Symphony, although the orchestra’s general manager Mary Newkirk attended the conference.
“I’m the only one (of the five candidates) without a West Coast connection,” Kiesler pointed out in a conversation after the performance by his Illinois Chamber Orchestra. He was also frankly concerned about the impression his ensemble made, playing fresh off the bus after a long ride into Chicago from Springfield.
Tonight, the 35-year-old conductor makes his West Coast debut, leading the Long Beach Symphony in the West Coast premiere of “Transparent Things” by Steven Stucky--composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic--Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and the Piano Concerto in G-minor by Mendelssohn, with soloist Joseph Kalichstein.
The music for this concert was carefully considered. “Programs for guest conductors are most of the time compromises,” Kiesler says. He submitted three programs before arriving at the slated works.
“It’s a balancing act,” he says of choosing repertory. “I think it’s really important not to be too extreme.”
Though Kiesler has become a notable champion of contemporary American music, resisting the pressure to do new music is part of that balancing act for him. “Conductors are taking music for a lot of reasons other than it is a good piece,” he says.
He has no reservations about “Transparent Things,” however, or Stucky’s music in general. While he was assistant conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony (1980-83), he led the premiere of Stucky’s Fourth Symphony.
“I’m very excited about Stucky’s music,” Kiesler says. “He’s a wonderful orchestrator--he really knows the orchestra inside out.”
The Shostakovich Symphony, on the other hand, Kiesler sees as “a kind of control,” in his own comparing and assessing of orchestras. That is something he has had a lot of opportunity to do recently, though not with the Shostakovich Fifth.
“It’s been one program after another because I couldn’t get any orchestra to accept the same music.”
An intent and articulate speaker, Kiesler will introduce the Saturday program in a preconcert talk with Kalichstein.
“I talk before every concert,” Kiesler says of his usual practice, “not a lecture, it’s very informal. It’s really sort of Johnny Carsonish. I like to be entertaining and also informative.”
This week should prove informative for Kiesler, who is studying the orchestra and the city at least as intently as he is being examined.
“I knew of the orchestra and it’s doings largely secondhand,” he said in Chicago. “I knew the level of playing was very high, and I knew of Murry’s (ex-music director Murry Sidlin) programming.”
He also knew of the orchestra’s widely publicized financial trauma of recent seasons, but is impressed with the way the recovery is being managed, citing a “positive attitude, solid financial base, staff that’s supportive and a concerned community.”
“The city seems on the move,” he reports now, “and the people I’ve met--board members and management--are all high-caliber. The questions I’ve asked them have received clear answers.”
For all his success in Springfield, Kiesler says he would be prepared to relocate and has no desire to be a commuter director. “The No. 1 question in my mind is: What is the potential here? How far can it go, given the nearness to Los Angeles competition, and a board that has been burned once.”
Kiesler was in Israel last month, conducting the Jerusalem Symphony in a concert that was broadcast live. “It was an amazing experience,” he said. “We had quite a good time. They immediately reengaged me for three weeks next year, including recordings.”
From Long Beach, the conductor goes on to a stint with the Long Island Philharmonic, will conduct five orchestras in Japan in May, and of course has ongoing seasons with his own orchestras. He has been music director of the Springfield Symphony since 1981, founded the Illinois Chamber Orchestra in 1985 and was music director of the South Bend Symphony for four seasons.
During Kiesler’s tenure, the Springfield Symphony has quadrupled its budget and the length of its season. It has also provided a receptive Middle-America home for much new music. Kiesler has recently commissioned an intriguing work from Gunther Schuller, featuring two piano soloists playing three-hands. It will be premiered by Lorin Hollander and Leon Fleisher, whose right hand is disabled.
For these activities, Kiesler was the recipient of the Helen M. Thompson Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League last summer. The $1,500 prize is given annually to a young music director or administrator of an orchestra in the league’s smaller budget categories.
As one of the contenders for the Long Beach position, Kiesler has been as busy this week as he was in Chicago.
“Busier--it’s been absolutely incredible,” he says with a laugh, listing a lengthy series of press interviews, meetings and receptions. “It’ll be nice to get to the music.”