In 1952, a talented young Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra member and oboist named Fran Klooster was asked by Conductor Julius Stulberg to solo with the orchestra. While running to catch a bus shortly before her debut, she slipped and fell on a frozen late-spring puddle and broke her leg. But in the spirit of dedicated performance, she made sure the show went on, leg cast and all.
Today, as the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Society celebrates its 75th anniversary, Klooster has added more to the KJSO’s history than this colorful tale – she is the start of a family legacy. Klooster’s daughter, Janet Channells, played French horn for the KJSO and toured with the group to Europe in 1977, and now granddaughter Holly Channells, also on French horn, is a current KJSO member and active participant in its anniversary season.
“The people in this community are very fortunate to have a youth orchestra of that caliber and with such an impressive legacy,” says Klooster, who went on to perform with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra for more than 50 years and may be the longest-serving member ever. “I’m glad I was a part of it. I’m glad my daughter was a part of it, and I’m glad my granddaughter is a part of it.”
Initially introduced as the Little Symphony in 1939 by Conductor Eugene Andrie and inspired by KSO founder Leta Snow, the KJSO has grown into an organization that features three training orchestras, four small ensembles and a rich history as the third-oldest continually running youth orchestra in the nation.
The 75th anniversary season promises to be especially exciting, featuring world-renowned violinist Midori doing a residency and performing solo in a collaborative concert with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra; a solo by prominent pianist Alon Goldstein in collaboration with the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; an alumni orchestra conducted in part by former KJSO Conductor Robert Ritsema; and an international tour to China.
“For the 75th, we are taking the basic work of learning music and playing it at the highest level we can possibly achieve and then sharing it with other organizations in town and with these really great artists,” says KJSO Conductor Andrew Koehler, who is also an assistant professor of music at Kalamazoo College and conducts the Kalamazoo Philharmonia. “As in the trip to China, we are sharing it with an even broader public. We are showing what Kalamazoo is up to and what is taking place here.”
One thing that has taken place is that the KJSO has had long-lasting effects on those who have made music with the organization.
“It was a major influence on my musical career,” says Janet Channells, who grew up inspired by her mother’s musical life and now teaches French horn, piano and baritone, performs with the Battle Creek Symphony and plays principal horn in the Kalamazoo Concert Band. “Realizing I must be pretty good if I can get into the Junior Symphony was a catalyst for making music my profession.”
Koehler, too, says “music can be a transformational experience.” But that transformation can look different for different individuals, he adds. “It may be that someone comes to truly and profoundly love music. Or it may be that the transformation occurs at the discipline level and that someone comes to understand the values and rewards of hard work,” Koehler says.
For KJSO members, that hard work includes devoting time to private lessons, rehearsals (three-and-a-half hours on Sunday afternoons) and personal practice.
“By the time they finish getting these pieces ready to perform, they are in their heart and soul,” says Klooster, who watches as granddaughter Holly experiences the same joy she did.
Holly Channells, a sophomore at Gull Lake High School, is in her second year with the KJSO. “In Junior Symphony, everyone who is there loves what they’re doing,” Holly says. “You share a common passion, and it’s very powerful.”
Holly’s mother, Janet, agrees. “The value of being in the organization extends beyond the experience,” she says. “You can form some lifelong friendships through your music.”
KJSO musicians are drawn from the Kalamazoo metropolitan area and nine surrounding communities and are a diverse lot.
“Over my 29 years at the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony, I’ve had the honor of seeing hundreds of young people come through our orchestral training programs and have come to think of it as a sort of mini musical United Nations,” says Lee Fletcher, the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Society’s executive director. “As long as you’ve done the work to play the notes and read the music, you become a valued member of a unique team that must pull together in order to succeed.”
More than 95 percent of orchestra members go to college, and some have become performers in major orchestras, such as the Dallas, San Francisco and Minnesota symphony orchestras. Violinist Joshua Bell and former KJSO member Anthony Ross, both Stulberg International String Competition winners, have both soloed with the KJSO.
Koehler and Fletcher both see the Junior Symphony as filling a valuable niche in the community.
“On the one hand, it’s creating a generation of young people who have precisely the sort of discipline and appreciation for culture that enrich a community,” Koehler says. “On the other hand, for those who come to hear our concerts, they will hear not perfect, but nevertheless, vibrant music-making from an orchestra that plays with real zeal and passion, which is very real and very exciting for an audience to behold.”
“KJSO members create something extraordinarily beautiful together that brings them pride in accomplishment and spreads great joy to others,” Fletcher says.” If that is not a prescription for life, then I don’t know what is.”
To learn more about the KJSO’s 75th anniversary season, visit kjso.org.