Donald Munro

Complexities, discord revealed as Kuchar leaves Fresno Philharmonic

It’s clown vs. conductor.

On the Saroyan Theatre stage, a gaudily made-up member of the Cirque de la Symphonie acrobatic troupe dawdles in the spotlight, part of a prearranged joke.

Theodore Kuchar, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, is on the podium in front of the orchestra, baton raised, ready for the downbeat. He turns to face the audience, takes an exaggerated look at his watch and then, in a fake bit of pique, gestures for the clown to get off the stage.

The jokester slinks away. Round one goes to the conductor.

The gag gets a big laugh.

What most in the enthusiastic audience at the May 15 event don’t know, however, is that Kuchar – conducting the last public concert in his 15-year tenure as music director of the orchestra – really does have a good reason to hurry things along. He has a plane to catch.

In a typical example of logistical jujitsu for the jet-setting conductor, Kuchar needs to be at San Francisco International Airport for an 8:45 p.m. flight to Munich. Because the last connecting flight from Fresno already will have departed by the time the concert is finished, he lamented a few weeks ago to a group of friends, he was planning to drive to SFO in a little more than two hours to try to make the flight.

One friend intervened and arranged for Mark McAfee, a dairy farmer and orchestra supporter, to fly Kuchar in McAfee’s private plane. But it’s still a tricky itinerary. And the weather has to cooperate. McAfee can only fly into a smaller airport a few miles from SFO. Kuchar still will have to grab a ride by Uber or car service to get to the international terminal on time.

In many ways it’s a typical Kuchar plan: gutsy, complicated, frantic, maybe even a little crazy.

Musical heights

For those who don’t know Kuchar beyond the podium (the occasional canned comedy routine aside), this daring post-concert maneuver might come as a surprise. To the casual observer, his 15-year tenure often seemed elegant and refined, influenced by Kuchar’s Old World sense of manners and his Eastern-European-by-way-of-Cleveland holdover accent picked up from his Ukrainian immigrant parents. (If ever there were a guy to wear white tie and tails, he’s it.)

In a decade and a half he brought the orchestra to new artistic heights, coaxing an ever increasing level of musicianship from its players and bringing in a lineup of guest artists that read like a “who’s who” in the classical music world: Itzhak Perlman, James Galway, Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell.

He expanded the repertoire beyond Beethoven and Brahms, embracing more challenging Shostakovich and Prokofiev pieces than you could shake a Russian stick at. (Sometimes too much Shostakovich, a few patrons sighed.)

His enthusiasm charmed musicians and donors. As the second longest-serving musical director in the orchestra’s storied history, he embraced with zeal the role of creative artist-in-chief.

“Since he came here, the quality has really skyrocketed,” says violinist Bradford Taylor, who started playing with the orchestra in 1972.

Kuchar’s relationship with management was rockier, at least the way he tells it. In these last waning days of his tenure – his final official duties with the orchestra will be to conduct a series of Link Up youth education concerts May 24-26 at the Saroyan for thousands of schoolchildren, a cause near and dear to him – he reveals publicly what some close to him already know: He wanted to stay longer in Fresno.

“At the moment I was given my most recent three-year contract, I finished by saying that this would be the last one,” he tells me in one of a series of extended interviews. “I did see that if the direction we were headed under the most recent regime was to be continued, there would not be a future for me. It was clear.”

He also says that after a tough decade for the orchestra that saw contributions and attendance drop, the budget cut from a high of nearly $2.3 million to the current budget of between $1.5 million and $1.6 million, and lean years that required infusions of cash from major donors just to survive, he says he worries the institution still is struggling financially.

That perception is wrong, say Stephen Wilson, the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer, and John Hastrup, the board chairman-elect. Quite the contrary, they say: The orchestra has an endowment of more than $2 million and has taken “a huge bite” out of a years-long structural deficit of $200,000. While sad to see Kuchar go, the organization is looking forward to a new beginning with an improved fundraising and grant outlook and an exciting upcoming season featuring six candidates for the new music director.

Hastrup, who was involved with Kuchar’s last contract negotiation, says he doesn’t recall there being any discussion at that time about it being the conductor’s final contract. “I’m not saying he couldn’t have said it – and we had several meetings and there were different groups of people at the different meetings. If not immediately then, but in the coming seasons, it did become his decision to leave. It makes sense that he had those thoughts then because it morphed into words later.”

Kuchar is departing Fresno, then, in much the same way he is dashing out of the theater after the Cirque concert to make his unorthodox trip to the airport: with a jolt of adrenaline. But he still has plenty of concerts ahead of him around the world. Now if he can only reach SFO on time.

“I’m sure I’ll make it,” he tells me backstage minutes before the concert begins.

Familiar figure

I covered Kuchar both on and off the podium for nearly all of those 15 years, interviewing and reviewing him so many times I lost count. I chased him around the globe via email and Skype as he juggled his conducting duties in such places as the Czech Republic, South Africa, Ukraine, Reno and Venezuela.

I laughed at his jokes and shepherded him through photo shoots. I puzzled at the sometimes bewildering prepositional thicket in which I found myself ensnared when asking him questions. I discussed with him the fine points of Kalinikov and Hindemith. I watched him schmooze with donors, bark at musicians, flirt with pretty young soloists and attempt a country-western twang while hosting the Sons of the San Joaquin. (It was awful.)

More than anything, I experienced his all-consuming passion for orchestral music.

As his time in Fresno drew to a close, I asked for and received a chance to hang by his side during his last two public concerts, and I interviewed him multiple times. I talked to members of the orchestra, guest artists, donors and Kuchar’s personal friends.

What I discovered was a driven, elegant and often intense 55-year-old who (usually) handles jet lag better than most 20-year-olds. His wit can be infectious and goofy, his gruffness more of a growl than a roar, his insights about music and personalities sharp and biting. He often speaks not in sentences but convoluted paragraphs.

I experienced him sunny and stormy in the same day. At times a streak of sentimentality emerges (“Of course, I’m emotional,” he tells me at his last Masterworks concert), but his swagger usually overrules it.

Then there is his filter. He runs hot and cold on speaking his mind, but what he says on and off the record, even when a photographer is filming video, is perhaps a little less politic than it could be, at least from a public relations standpoint.

“Fifteen is a large number, but, hey, I wanted to stay in Fresno,” he says. “I’ve never gone anywhere without wishing to stay there the rest of my life. Every job I’ve taken I’ve taken as being the most important.”

Behind the scenes

There is something refreshing about this determined openness of his, even though he is clear that some aspects of his private life remain off-limits, and also a little unnerving, because it means he feels strongly enough about his treatment by the orchestra to go public about it.

(At the same time, it can be difficult to distinguish in his complaints the difference between any systemic issues he has with the organization and individual personality conflicts.) When it comes to his tenure, he seems determined to leave Fresno while being more frank about his departure than people in such high-profile situations usually are.

Music can be beautiful, but the nuts and bolts of making a professional orchestra work sometimes isn’t. Some jobs probably aren’t meant to last forever. School superintendents, TV anchors, ministers: Anyone in a position who has to satisfy both the public and a boss (or board) knows that lifetime employment usually isn’t in the cards. (Get on the news director’s bad side and things can get rough.) Usually, though, when someone leaves such a position, the details are smoothed over for public consumption.

When I wrote the story in 2014 announcing Kuchar’s departure, he used that occasion to criticize his diminished role as music director as determined by Wilson and the board. He chafed that Wilson was assuming a greater public role as a public representative of the orchestra.

“The qualities which I’m available to lend to the orchestra, as I did in the first 10 years, and with all my other orchestras, I feel are no longer prioritized in the present scheme of operations,” he told me. “Because of that, I believe the organization is ultimately suffering.”

Wilson has been on the job since 2012 and was previously executive director of the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra in New York.

Kuchar says he stopped trying to talk to Wilson about the fiscal health of the orchestra. “I don’t ask, because I’ll never get the honest answer,” Kuchar says. “That’s an honest answer.”

He is frustrated that a project of his – a tour he is leading in 2017 featuring the National Symphony of Ukraine – will not get a chance to stop in Fresno. People here need to be exposed to other professional orchestras, a rarity in this area, he says.

“He (Wilson) wants me out of town as quickly as possible so people forget,” Kuchar says. “The National Symphony of Ukraine is going to New York, to Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Reno and approximately 40 other destinations in North America. I organized conditions so advantageous to the Fresno Philharmonic so they could use it as a benefit. He (Wilson) wants me, and everything that is going to remind people of me, so far out of town. The orchestra is going to have three free days between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You figure it out for yourself.”

In response, Wilson says that he followed up on a possible concert date for the Ukraine group but that the timing, coming as it would have between two scheduled Masterworks concerts, just wasn’t feasible. Neither were the financials: Without a sponsor, such a concert could actually lose money instead of raise it.

When asked about his working relationship with Kuchar, Wilson responds: “It is fair to say that the relationship between music director and exec director in professional symphony orchestras is a complex one. Both the music director and executive director are charged with making the organization successful and fulfilling its mission in a financially sustainable way. For an organization to be successful, it absolutely has to be a partnership. That’s absolutely true.”

Musical childhood

Kuchar has long been intense – he ponders whether “compulsive” is a better word – about classical music, even as a teen growing up in Cleveland.

His musician mother, intent on inculcating her two sons with as much culture as she could, demanded violin lessons of both boys from age 11 on. “Along with being force-fed the violin, we were also force-fed the Cleveland Orchestra on a weekly basis,” he says. “When I used to cry and plead with my father as to why he wouldn’t step in to break this up, his only concern was to keep peace in the house.”

Something changed at age 15 or 16. The young Kuchar got a paper route. He used some of his money to buy a season ticket to the Cleveland Orchestra. He often would sneak back in on other performance nights so he could see all three versions of the same concert. He started collecting LPs.

Another major impact from his childhood: He could only speak Ukrainian at home.

“Being forced to speak that language at home, it made it so much easier to adapt to other languages,” he says, particularly Eastern European ones. That served him well in a career that featured long stints as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic.

He recorded more than 100 albums with European orchestras for Naxos and other labels.

His passion about music carried through to his academic career, when he spent a decade as an associate professor of orchestral studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, considered a Top 20 music school.

“I was often accused of being too tough on my students,” he says. “I was told more than once by the dean, ‘Don’t try to make Juilliard students out of our University of Colorado students. They’re our paying customers, and we’re here to make them happy.’ 

Kuchar’s intensity served him well when he took the Fresno job. He left Colorado to make a home base in the Sunnyside area of town in a house with dozens of orange trees. He used Fresno as home base to travel to conducting gigs near and far.

Kuchar was willing to do just about anything to promote the orchestra. Probably the topper in terms of publicity: For a Fresno Bee photo shoot previewing the Sons of the San Joaquin concert in 2009, he squeezed into a tight white Western-style shirt with steel snap buttons, donned a black felt cowboy hat that would have made Johnny Cash proud and put a weed between his teeth. It was so remarkably out of his comfort zone that I still wince at and admire the memory.

Taylor, the longtime violin player, says the best thing Kuchar did during his tenure was add polish to the sound. What improved was the orchestra’s phrasing – the detail and consistency with which Kuchar made each phrase “sing.”

“The quality of orchestral performance is just leaps and bounds beyond what it was before then,” says Hastrup, the board chairman-elect. “We owe him incredible praise for that. And hopefully we stand on his shoulders and get even higher.”

He knows how to toe the company line. At an April 24 gala celebrating his tenure, a dressed-up affair featuring big steaks and a live auction, donors celebrate the Maestro. Kuchar, for his part, offers mostly effusive remarks, the only cryptic comment being when he insists the orchestra “must be held accountable just the way any commercial or educational institution is.”

The high point is a toast from Judith Kuipers, the chairwoman of the board.

“We feel absolutely honored to have had you here for 15 seasons,” she says. “You brought a musical excellence that made our hearts soar. You brought repertoire that was varied and extremely interesting. You brought guest artists who were thrilling. You enhanced the excellence and reputation of our orchestra. With our deepest thanks and all the best in the world to you, for your new beginnings.”

Hastrup, in a later interview, adds that he is looking forward to the orchestra’s new beginning with six candidates for the music director position.

“We have a group of extremely excited and ambitious folks who have a lot of great ideas,” he says.

Up and away

Just before the Cirque concert, Kuchar sits in his dressing room at the Saroyan. Across from him is Alexander Streltsov, one of the members of the acrobatic troupe. They’ve worked together before. This is the fourth visit to Fresno for the company. Kuchar has toured with them in South Africa and Australia. The two men aren’t discussing performance order or when to ad lib, however. They’re talking business.

“We’re hoping you can use your connections to expand into Europe,” Streltsov says.

Kuchar mentions he can make a few calls. Perhaps they could do Cirque together in Istanbul, one of his favorite concert cities.

“We’re ready for you,” stage manager Vincent Keenan says, knocking at the open dressing-room door.

Kuchar gets up to leave. “This will give you something to write about: What does Maestro think about five minutes before the concert?” he says to me.

The performance is a hit. Kuchar is purposeful and funny, even participating in a magic trick on stage. His conducting is brisk. It’s a pops concert, and he knows how to make things swing a little.

He gives a nice little speech to the audience at the end: “I say goodbye to you the same way I said goodbye to the orchestra – with the most positive memories. And, really, I’m still smiling.”

After the last number, there are bows, applause, more bows. After exiting the stage for what he thinks is the final time, Kuchar makes a tear for his dressing room. He has a plane to catch, after all. The continuing applause can’t be ignored, however. The Cirque performers spin him around and tell him to make one more bow.

“Go, go, go!” he cries, shooing them to speed up.

Three hours later, I receive an email from the plane on the SFO tarmac. He made it. From Munich he would go to Kiev, then a six-hour drive to Lvov in western Ukraine, arriving 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. He sets the alarm for 8:15 a.m. to get ready for his first rehearsal.

For Theodore Kuchar – and the Fresno Philharmonic – the music goes on.

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