If you want to know how Jessica Mallow became executive director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 30, you have to start with her dad.
When she was growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, her father, Rick Mallow, would take the young Jessica to the symphony. “My father was the classical music lover in the family who took me to the symphony at a very young age and showed me what it’s like to appreciate classical music and to be part of that,” she says. “If he hadn’t been willing to purchase a ticket and send a young kid to see a performance like that, this would have never happened.”
Mallow, a former professional opera singer, took the helm of the 84-member KSO in December, just in time to help usher in its 100th season this coming September. Mallow says the fact that the KSO is celebrating a birthday that’s 70 more years than she’s been on Earth is telling.
“It’s one of the reasons I was the most excited to come here,” she says. “You can’t create the kind of appreciation and culture for the arts that Kalamazoo has overnight. That culture develops over time from community support, philanthropy and people being willing to step up and say that it is worth it for our community to have this kind of arts or this kind of a symphony.
“People have to care, and it’s evident that people here care a lot.”
How did you get where you are today?
I majored in vocal performance for opera in college, but also I got a minor in marketing. I did a lot of internships for marketing in the corporate world. I never realized that there was a career path that could actually mold both of those things into one. My plan was always to be a full-time performer. Shortly after graduating, however, I was performing around the Midwest and fell into my first job with Orchestra Iowa, which had formerly been the Cedar Rapids Symphony.
They had just gone through an enormous flood. The symphony was developing its re-emergence and was working to reopen their historic theater. I’ll never forget the very first time we did a performance in that space with Harry Connick Jr., who had come to help us celebrate.
Seeing the energy that the community had around this theater, this history, this music and how every single seat in that house was full, I was so moved that I helped to make it happen. I just thought to myself, “This is it. This is what I want to do — I want to bring this to people.”
I was the executive assistant there for a couple of years, and if you’ve known any executive assistants, you know they wear a lot of hats and get their hands into the workings of everything from marketing and fundraising to special projects, board planning and forward thinking. It helped me learn early in my career what it takes to be in a leadership role.
Looking at other leaders in our field at that point in time, I noticed that fewer than 50 percent had master’s degrees. I didn’t want the barrier for my success to be the fact that I did or didn’t have a master’s degree, and I wanted to learn more about this business model. So instead of going back into vocal performance, I took a leap and I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked on a master’s degree at American University and worked for Washington Performing Arts and managed the American University Symphony.
From there I went to Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony, where I was for 3½ years.
What would draw someone from Florida back to the North?
I am now in driving distance to my hometown, which my parents are very happy about. They’ve been asking me for the last 10 years to get off the East Coast and come back where I can visit them again more often.
What does being the executive director of a symphony entail?
We take all of the wonderful pieces and moving parts and help them to make sense into a vision. The music director is in charge of working with the musicians and the artistic product, while the executive director makes sure that all of the wheels turn and the administration comes together and helps set the course for what needs to be happening for the future of your organization, for all the pieces to work, between marketing and fundraising and finance and human resources, to sustain the operation so that you can continue to offer your product. It’s very fun work.
Do you still sing?
I’m what you’d call a “pro amateur.” The voice is still there, and I’m happy to get it out for family or friends or if we are making music in a living room with other people. But in my early twenties I found out that helping other people make music was just as fulfilling to me.
What’s on your bucket list?
I am marrying Ben Gulley (a professional tenor) in August, and traveling is a shared passion of ours. I would like to travel to see Ben sing. He goes to some very interesting places with his career. So to be able to find a spare weekend here or there and tag along to some countries
we’d like to be in together is high on the list.
— Interviewed by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity