Monday, 02 January 2017 10:00

Looking Back, Moving On: Peter Kjome reflects on time with Grand Rapids Symphony as president, CEO and performer

Written by  Jane Simons
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Peter Kjome’s history with the Grand Rapids Symphony goes back to 1990, when he first joined the organization as a musician. But it’s his time as president and CEO that Kjome will be remembered for when he steps down in January to embark on a similar role with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

During a visit in June to Baltimore to attend the League of American Orchestras Conference, Kjome said he had an opportunity to hear the BSO perform, which included a performance by children.

“After hearing the orchestra perform and hearing and seeing the impact the BSO was having on children, it caused me to reflect that this might be the right time for new leadership at the Grand Rapids Symphony and (that) an opportunity to work with the BSO was something I should consider,” Kjome said.

He will be going into his new role as president and CEO of the BSO with a mindset of being a thoughtful and careful listener, he said.

Earlier this month, the GRS appointed Peter Perez, a longtime symphony supporter and immediate past board chairperson, as interim president and CEO. Perez, owner and chairman of Carter Products Company in Grand Rapids, will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s administrative staff while its board of directors begins the search for a permanent leader of the orchestra.

Kjome said that it will not be easy to leave an orchestra and city that has given him opportunities he never thought he’d have.

“I’m going to miss my many, many friends in Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” Kjome said. “This is an incredibly supportive and close-knit community with a tremendous vision for the future.”

A number of the friends he will be leaving behind are his fellow musicians in the GRS, he said.

“Some of us have known each other for more than 25 years,” he said. “ I will miss being with people who I know so well.”

Kjome’s relationship with the GRS began in 1990 when he auditioned for second oboe and ended up being hired as first oboe when the position opened. He grew up hearing his mother play the organ and the flute. At age 11, he began playing the oboe, the same instrument his father played in high school.

“All of the children in our family were encouraged to play,” said Kjome, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music. 

Eight years after landing his dream job with the GRS, he was forced to give up playing full-time as air pressure from playing the instrument began to cause health issues.

“For many years, I had dreamed of being an oboist with a great orchestra. Giving that up was not easy,” Kjome said.

While thinking about a transition into another role and the difficulty of giving up on a dream he’d taken since childhood, he also started to think about other non-performing roles he’d had with the symphony. One of those was serving as a musician representative on the symphony’s board, which got him interested in the management end.

He enrolled at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management where he earned an MBA and went to work at 3M in his native Minnesota. He remained there for eight years in a variety of positions.

In September of 2008, Kjome came back to GRS as its president and CEO.

“It was a very interesting time for many organizations, as the financial crisis was deepening,” he said. “But all of our key stakeholders pulled together during that challenging time. Not only did we sustain, but we advanced the quality of our program.”

He takes pride in knowing that his efforts contributed to top-quality concerts put on by superb musicians.

Among his favorite memories: “Live Arts”, a collaboration involving the symphony, Grand Rapids Ballet, Broadway Grand Rapids, Opera Grand Rapids and youth arts organizations that all came together for one night in April to perform on the Van Andel Arena stage. The extravaganza involved 1,564 performers, including 1,000 schoolchildren.

Kjome said the successful completion in April of the $40 million Legacy of Excellence endowment campaign and hiring Marcelo Lehninger as music director in July are both among his most important achievements. He said he also is very proud of the work being done to engage the next generation of symphony-goers.

For example, “My Symphony 360” offers highly discounted tickets for the best seats in the house to individuals between 21-35 years of age. There also are programs for families where children get in for free when a parent purchases an adult ticket.

“We want to reduce economic barriers and work on ways to excite the next generation with our young professionals program,” Kjome said. “Young people like to come and hear classical music.”

In January, the symphony will be presenting a concert incorporating visuals and video games, followed by a concert featuring a full score with a Harry Potter movie.

Kjome said the GRS is fortunate to have so much support from so many areas of the community.

We have an extraordinary board, strong management team, and a community that continues to be incredibly supportive of the symphony,” Kjome said. “The future is very bright.” 

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