Aram Demirjian, now in his third year as music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, returns to Kansas City to lead the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus in their annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
While the Knoxville Orchestra has its own holiday traditions, what they don’t have is a “Messiah,” which, said Demirjian, “is on my list of things that I want to do in the future.”
“There is a reason Handel’s “Messiah” is performed every year by thousands and thousands of ensembles all around the world,” said Demirjian. “It’s because it doesn’t get old. I must have heard it hundreds of times and it still gives me goosebumps. There are few pieces of music that I would rather conduct.”
Demirjian served as associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony for four years, from 2012 to 2016. “KC Studio” took the opportunity to catch up on his career and growth.
“My job in Kansas City was incredible. Everybody in Kansas City — Michael Stern, Frank Byrne, the board, gave me so much access to the inner workings of an orchestra,” said Demirjian.
When he got to Knoxville, Demirjian was able to jump right in with fundraising, organizational planning and public relations. “I owe that entirely to the experience in Kansas City and to the people who were willing to trust me and put me in those situations.”
He’s starting to put his stamp on KSO, building programs that reflect his philosophy and personality.
“A lot of what we have been doing programmatically in Knoxville, since I’ve gotten here, has been informed by my experience programming Classics Uncorked while I was in Kansas City. It certainly has hints of the model we developed . . . lots of talking to the audience, a lot of musical demonstrations, just slightly unbuttoned our top-collar button a little bit, which I think has put the audience at ease, in general.”
Knoxville music critic Alan Sherrod has watched Demirjian develop into his role.
“On balance, Demirjian has been quite positive for the orchestra and the Knoxville audience, generally stemming from his youth, focus, and enthusiasm, and from his ability to communicate confidently and clearly with an audience,” wrote Sherrod in an email.
“His programming has been a mix of the bold and the beautiful, regularly integrating contemporary works and composers with the standard repertoire stuff, presenting them with just enough background to make them intriguing for the old-school listeners. I’m also glad he doesn’t feel the need to hide his socio-political progressivism just for the sake of appeasing a conservative segment of audience members.”
Historically, KSO demonstrates, along with traditional classical series, a devotion to chamber music as well as a long-running and highly successful Music & Wellness program. (It was the first orchestra in the country to employ a music therapist on staff.)
Looking to the future, Demirjian was excited to share some big news for KSO. After a year-long application process and review, the orchestra was invited to the Kennedy Center in March 2020 for SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. “I’m really proud of the invitation, because we were invited based on the totality of what we do as an organization.”
“One thing that makes SHIFT Festival distinctive is that you are being invited on the criteria of artistic excellence, certainly, but also on an organizational commitment to transformative community engagement,” he said. “The whole idea behind the festival is the shifting nature of the role the orchestra plays in American society.”
While in KC, Demirjian anticipates a fun and exhausting week, catching up with old friends, revisiting favorite restaurants and reconnecting with the chorus, in addition to the orchestra. “I had a really special relationship with the Kansas City Symphony Chorus while I was the associate conductor, and it’s going to be fun to work with them again.”
“I’m really looking forward to conducting in Helzberg Hall again. It doesn’t get much better than that space. That alone is going to feel like coming home again. I can’t wait to be on the podium in that space.”
Kansas City Symphony and Chorus present “Handel’s ‘Messiah’” Dec. 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For details and tickets visit www.kcsymphony.org.
Above: Aram Demirjian, music director, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra