Bloom of Youth: Kalamazoo Philharmonia features music across time with musicians across generations

Before the music begins, as musicians are tuning up their instruments, one’s first impression of the Kalamazoo Philharmonia is the range of generations seated among orchestra members. A flush of youth on some faces leans into the lines of decades of experience on others. This is an orchestra that represents the community — students, faculty, amateur, and professional musicians of all ages and backgrounds.  

“We have even had high school students on occasion, although usually young people that age play in the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra,” says Andrew Koehler, music director of the Kalamazoo Philharmonia since 2006. He directs both. “This orchestra is the brainchild of Barry Ross. He started it in 1990 as a way of uniting ‘town and gown.' Kalamazoo College, where we are located, is a small campus, so he wanted to bring in more ages. He called it the Kalamazoo College and Community Orchestra.”

When Koehler came to Kalamazoo College as associate professor of music — upon Barry Ross’s retirement — Koehler was also appointed as music director to the orchestra, then renamed Kalamazoo Philharmonia. Participation is offered as a music course at Kalamazoo College, although students may also participate outside of the course by audition. 

Andrew Koehler, Conductor of Kalamazoo Philharmonia“We have grown to 88 members through word of mouth,” Koehler says. “Many of the older members have had careers in different professions. We have a geologist, we have teachers, lawyers, doctors, and nurses, and that’s the model I want our students at Kalamazoo College to see. They are here for a liberal arts education, and most of them are not music majors. I want the students to see that they can make space to find beauty, that music can remain a part of their journey, no matter what career they choose.”

Jonah Beurkens, a Kalamazoo College senior, is one such example of a student who loves music but has chosen a different career path for his future. 

“I’m a physics major,” he says. “But I’ve been playing cello for 13 years, since 4th grade. I got interested in the cello when high school students who were in band came to my school so that we could try out different instruments. I thought the cello was the closest instrument to the human voice — I enjoyed its wide register.”

Maestro Andrew Koehler has been conducting the Kalamazoo Philharmonia since 2006.Beurkens met Andrew Koehler as a freshman exploring majors, and when he heard about the Kalamazoo Philharmonia, he agreed to audition, earning his place in the orchestra.

“Even though I decided on physics as my major, I wanted to keep music in my life as something fun to do,” he says. “I don’t want it to feel like a responsibility so that I never tire of it.”

The benefit of playing alongside musicians of all ages is clear to him. “It’s been interesting to learn about the experiences of older musicians. I’ve talked to others who put music aside for many years of their career, but then picked it up again. It’s good to hear you can do that.”

Molly Kohl, another Kalamazoo College senior, studying Spanish and music, has played violin since she was 10 years old. 

“I can’t say why I was so drawn to the violin when I first got to hold it in 4th grade,” she says. “It even felt uncomfortable to me back then, but it was what I wanted to play.”

Kohl says she realized that orchestra members were already an established community when she auditioned and was accepted. “Most of the orchestra members are older, but everyone was so warm and welcoming. I’m really enjoying making music that crosses generations.”

Sitting beside Kohl is Joanna Steinhauser. She is not only a violinist but also a concertmaster as well as an adjunct professor at Kalamazoo College. Steinhauser’s experience in the Kalamazoo Philharmonia began as a student at the college on up to becoming a professional musician. 

Dr. Joanna Steinhauser, Kalamazoo Philharmonia Concertmaster and K alum“I first played with the orchestra from 1998 to 2002, as a student here, with Barry Ross,” Steinhauser says. “It was smaller then. After K, I went on to grad school and earned my doctorate in Louisiana, but then I returned to Kalamazoo in 2010 and played with the orchestra again. I became concertmaster in 2015.”
Steinhauser says playing with the Kalamazoo Philharmonia as a student can initially be overwhelming. 

“Andrew can challenge us with a big repertoire, choose more obscure music, but music feeds the soul, feeds the brain, and it can be a wonderful way to commune with people,” she says. “Students can sometimes live inside a bubble in college, but this gets them out of that bubble and to share something beautiful with the community.”

At the other end of the life spectrum, Ron Chase came to the Kalamazoo Philharmonia only after retiring from his career as a professor of geosciences at Western Michigan University.

There will be a total of 88 musicians performing "In the Bloom of Youth."“I was fascinated with the French horn since I was a kid in 4th grade,” he says. “I played through my school years, and I auditioned for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra when I was in 10th grade. I earned a full-ride scholarship, but I didn’t want music as a career. My father was a forester, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps — I wanted a career that would keep me outdoors. But when I retired, I pulled my French horn out of the closet after 35 years of not playing. And it all came back to me.”

While the Kalamazoo community may be most familiar with the voice of Cara Lieurance over the radio waves of WMUK, the Southwest Michigan NPR affiliate station, look closely and you will also find her among the rows of musicians in the Kalamazoo Philharmonia.

“I started to learn flute at age 9 from my father, who was a high school music teacher and also played flute,” says Lieurance. “I earned an undergraduate degree in music at WMU, then let flute slip for a few years. I began playing again with Irish folk music in Whiskey Before Breakfast in 1999 and became a pit musician at the Kalamazoo Civic around 2010. That brought me back up to speed!”

Cara Lieurance, flautist with the Kalamazoo PhilharmoniaLieurance became familiar with the Kalamazoo Philharmonia in its early days, under the direction of Barry Ross. Later, she got to know the new music director, Andrew Koehler, as a frequent guest on her radio show, “Let’s Hear It,” on WMUK. 

“He always made the programs sound essential,” she says. “He offered me a part in Stravinsky's ‘The Rite of Spring’ in 2014. I thought it was the chance of a lifetime.”

Beside Lieurance is another flutist, Christine Griffith. “I’ve been playing flute for 66 years, since age 8,” Griffith says. “My school offered wind or string instruments. I like the cello, but the flute was easier to carry,” she says, laughing. 

A native of Illinois, Griffith moved to Kalamazoo in 1999 — for love, she says. Her husband John plays a euphonium, which looks like a small tuba.

When she moved to Kalamazoo, a friend told her about the Kalamazoo Philharmonia when she learned that Griffith played flute in school.

Griffith has played with the orchestra since 2001, originally auditioning as a substitute flutist, but then as a permanent position. She has also played with various adult bands, starting another called Ein Prosit, as well as in the Kalamazoo Concert Band, several flute choirs, and chamber music groups. 

Christine Griffith, flutist with the Kalamazoo Philharmonia“It’s a wonderful experience to play in the Kalamazoo Philharmonia with the younger kids,” she says. “We become like family. I’ve stayed in touch with some of the students even after they graduate and are off in their adult lives.”

On November 12, 2023, at 3 p.m. in the Dalton Theatre in the Kalamazoo College Light Fine Arts Building, the Kalamazoo Philharmonia will present “In the Bloom of Youth,” with the works of three composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite; Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 129 “Ils m’ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse” with Jason Coffey, baritone; and Vasily Kalinnikov’s Symphony no. 1 in g.

“These pieces are a revelation to some of our members,” Koehler says. “All three were young composers who tragically died young — in the bloom of their youth. Their works are less known, but they all deserve a seat at the table. One was Black, another a woman, another a young Russian born in poverty, so for one reason or another they were less known, nonetheless magnificent. 

"We can only imagine what they might have been had they lived longer. But the orchestra members were immediately attracted to their music once we began playing because of the beauty and drama of the music.”

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Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.