Julian Kuerti, who was named music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in June, remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a conductor: He was working in a basement laser lab during his final semester at the University of Toronto, weeks before he would graduate with an honors degree in physics and engineering.
“I felt this kind of Twilight Zone type of zoom-out moment where I saw my entire life and realized I would remain underground staring at computer screens until I was an old man, and this terrified me,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t what life is about. This is not what I love. This is not what I enjoy.’”
What he did enjoy was music. The son of famed Canadian concert pianist Anton Kuerti and cellist Kristine Bogyo, Julian grew up surrounded by music, played the violin and was the concertmaster of one of the University of Toronto’s two orchestras.
“Growing up, I thought everybody was a musician,” the 41-year-old says. “That was normal, and that was home base. Music was a big part of my life — it was my center — and when I graduated from university, I knew in my heart of hearts that music was what really fulfilled me.”
Was it easy to switch gears?
No. After I graduated I played violin in a Brazilian folk rock band. We just recorded an album and were going on tour in Brazil. The singer who led the band came to me on the airplane and said, “Julian, we’re about to land in Brazil. We’re going to be on television and the radio, and when people ask you about yourself, they don’t want to hear that you’re an engineer that plays music on the side. You tell them, ‘I’m a musician’ because this is why you’re here.”
I thought, “OK, that’s smart. I’ll play along.” And I did. The more I said it, (the more) I felt that it was a deeper truth than I even wanted to admit. It was difficult to let go of the time investment and everything I put into my science studies, but I realized I don’t have to give up my curiosity. To this day, I love mathematical problems and all sorts of things that I learned during that period of my life.
How did you go from a Brazilian folk band to becoming a conductor?
The band broke up, as they do, and some of my friends were filmmakers and asked me to write a score for their film. It was this really low-budget, self-produced thing, and it was terrible. It never made it to release, but it was my first contact with film scoring and composing and creating music for a larger group. When I had to record the score, I called in all my favors with my friends. We had one recording session at my parents’ house with 20 musicians. It was the first time I got to conduct something seriously, and it was my own music. I’d always assumed that conducting was kind of easy but discovered, first of all, how hard it was, but also that it was the best way for me to use all of my talents — the musicianship, the organization, the leadership, everything. It was this awakening moment. I wanted to take care of the whole and to be involved in the whole.
I was 24 and felt that I needed to catch up because many music directors have their first posts at 21 or 22. I returned to the University of Toronto and did an apprenticeship with Boris Brott at the National Academy Orchestra. He gave me my first big break, allowing me to conduct the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto, where my father was the soloist.
I moved to Europe because I wanted to learn another language and studied at the University of Berlin for three years. I founded a music collective there called Kaleidoscope that put together works by brand-new composers and ancient works by old composers. It was a very wacky group with a lot of out-of-the box thinking. I stayed there for two years, until I went to Budapest to be an assistant conductor of the Festival Orchestra. Then I went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor, and I’ve traveled all over the world working as a guest conductor.
What intrigued you about the position with the KSO?
I came here expecting something good, but what I found was something incredible in terms of how the organization is run, the people behind it, the support of all of the patrons and people who have a vested interest in the orchestra. Working with the orchestra felt so natural and so right. I felt that immediately.
What are your challenges in this job?
I’m coming in after a long period with one music director (Raymond Harvey, who served for 18 years), and I’ve got different ideas and things that I want to try that could shake up the format a little bit. But I know that there are a lot of people who have embraced the way that the symphony does things. Before I make big changes I need to know my public first. I need to be really aware of how they feel and how they respond, so I think my biggest challenge is to serve a community that I’m still getting to know.
– Interview by Marie Lee