A Conductor’s Coda: Raymond Harvey reflects on 18 years of leading the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra

Years ago, conductors were aloof, intimidating figures on their onstage platforms. But when Raymond Harvey became the music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra 18 years ago, he knew his role required more and embraced the position as a community resource.

“If you love music, you want other people to love it, too,” said Harvey. “You want to spread that joy.”

It is fitting then that many of the memories he highlights from his tenure concern sharing music with the community.

Harvey announced in September 2016 that he would be stepping down this summer in order to fully shift his focus to being the associate professor and music director for the Moores Opera Center at the University of Houston.

From the beginning of his time as the KSO’s music director, Harvey has appreciated the low-key intellectualism of the community surrounding the orchestra. Having worked with leading orchestras all over the world, including those of Philadelphia, Atlanta and St. Louis, Harvey will especially miss the warmth and generosity of the people he’s encountered while in Kalamazoo.

“I’m in an odd profession where there aren’t many conducting jobs available,” he says. “I am very blessed to have worked with a high-caliber organization with quality musicians and supportive patrons who want to continue to make Kalamazoo a wonderful place to live.”

One of Harvey’s initiatives that has connected with audiences the most is his “The World Of…” series. During these multimedia concerts, Harvey examined the inspiration, influences and life events of composers and their most famous works. In his final season with the KSO, Harvey introduced the work of Italian opera composer Gioachino Rossini and Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.

One of Harvey’s greatest joys was presenting concerts with world-renowned artists, including collaborations with cellist Yo-Yo Ma during the orchestra’s 90th anniversary season and pianist Lang Lang in 2012. A rare skill that Harvey brought to the KSO was his ability to conduct from the piano. He called the opportunity to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini alongside the orchestra a “once-in-a-lifetime evening.” He also reflects fondly on the many large-scale choral pieces and the semi-staged operas he’s led over the years.

“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and some of the large oratorios like Mendelssohn’s Elijah are wonderful works of art on their own,” he says. “To perform them with great players and great artists is a real dream.”

Now, Harvey will make the move to opera, full-time. Coincidentally (and unintentionally, since concert programs can be planned years in advance), Harvey’s final concert as the KSO Music Director was an opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, this past May. Harvey’s colleague, Moores Opera Center Director Buck Ross, acted as stage director of the production.

Harvey began his career as a choral conductor, so he finds this transition to be a felicitous way to close this chapter and begin another. As Music Director of Emeritus at the KSO, Harvey will return to West Michigan once a year to conduct.

“Being a musician is a lifetime of growing and learning,” he said. “There are always ways of improving your art.”