Young Kalia brings veteran touch to Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

Roger Kalia conducts Lake George (NY) Festival Orchestra performing Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 5 - III & IV, Scherzo & Allegro, Aug. 22, 2013.

The most important five minutes of Roger Kalia’s conducting life came in September 2012, when music director Christopher Warren-Green let him take the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra for a spin.

Kalia found himself in charge of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, as the back-up conductor in case anything happened to Warren-Green. Like Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chevrolet or Cam Newton on the grass of Bank of America Stadium, he knew at once he was at home.

“I got an immediate response from the orchestra,” he recalls. “I just felt a connection with them.” Seven months later, he applied for a job here. Four months after that he had one, as assistant conductor.

Kalia has become the face of the orchestra for kids at Lollipops Concerts (including “Little Red Riding Hood” this Saturday), the 15,000-plus people who saw N.C. Dance Theatre’s “Nutcracker” and fans at concerts from school auditoriums to Carmel Country Club. He now covers every concert, preparing music in case any conductor can’t take the stage.

In an alternate universe, he might have been a basketball player – in high school, he was a power forward on an AAU team that toured the East Coast – or a jazz trumpeter, emulating records he listened to at his grandpa’s house. (When he auditioned for a youth orchestra tour of China, he played a Louis Armstrong number.)

But his height topped out at a bit over 6 feet, and his lips began to quiver when he stepped up to take trumpet solos. He felt most comfortable telling 50 or 60 people what to do from a conductor’s podium.

Wait – make that encouraging 50 or 60 people.

“Roger takes a collaborative approach to pretty much everything,” says CSO tuba player Aubrey Foard, who soloed in “Tubby the Tuba” at the February Lollipops concert. “He’s in control, but he doesn’t exert that control to the point where we’re not artistically responsive. That’s a somewhat rare quality in a young conductor, to be so easy to work with.”

Philosopher of the podium

Talk to Kalia, and you can quickly forget he’s 29. He shows self-awareness not everyone his age possesses.

“A young conductor has a separation between hands and ears. As you get older, you learn to connect them. …Young conductors talk too much. They’re nervous and want to communicate everything they know about a piece.”

Or “Working with talented musicians frees you up to conduct less. It’s like driving a Rolls-Royce: You’re still at the wheel, but you don’t overbeat.”

Foard says youth is no drawback if a conductor has confidence and can “make a compelling musical statement but not cram it down our throats: ‘This is what I want, but it’s up to you to interpret it and give it to me.’ He’s really good at that. I’ve yet to see him make a mistake. He doesn’t give bad beats or forget we’re playing in five and start conducting in four. That can happen with even the most seasoned conductors.”

David Effron, Kalia’s conducting mentor during his doctoral studies at Indiana University, was drawn not only to his protegé’s musicality but “his humility and work ethic.

“Roger has the ability to engender musical trust and the kind of personality that inspires players to do their best. They know he is all for the highest level of music making, and he understands his players on a human level.”

Maybe that’s because he initially expected to be one of them. He went to college as a trumpeter and music education major, expecting to teach.

Raw energy of youth

When he found his calling, he conducted everything from avant-garde operas to college musicals. He earned graduate degrees in conducting and took master classes, including one in Europe with Kirk Trevor – who, unknown to Kalia then, was the assistant conductor in Charlotte 35 years ago.

Kalia now divides his time among guest appearances with orchestras, the CSO and leadership of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, which gives students their first professional experience. The Debut Orchestra has been a jumping-off point for prominent baton-wavers – Michael Tilson-Thomas, Andre Previn, Myung-whun Chung – and has made Kalia a minor star in L.A.

His first season there brought a staged production of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” with actor Jack Black (“He came to the first rehearsal entirely in camouflage”) and the orchestra’s debut at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels’ “Virgin of Guadalupe” Celebration, which was televised and streamed worldwide.

He and Executive Director Alexander Lombard, a friend since college, launched the Lake George Music Festival in 2011; now it does a week of concerts, workshops and events each August in upstate New York. Music director Kalia pulls together an orchestra of veteran pros and rising students.

The two men and Barbora Kolárová, director of artistic administration, want to erase stereotypes of formal dress, expensive tickets and museum-artifact programming.

“Roger is incredibly valuable, because he is the exact opposite of what people expect to see on the podium,” Lombard said. “People today think they can’t relate to this music; it’s boring or reserved for a select segment of the population. Roger has the ability to connect with the nonfamiliar audience and reverse its attitude.

“ ‘Conductor’ is usually not synonymous with ‘techno DJ,’ but I discover the newest trance or techno hit through Roger. Classical music isn’t elitist or ancient; it’s here and now. To that end, Roger could be our poster child: He articulates (that) just by doing what he does best, conducting.”