By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Symphony welcomed new president and CEO, Krishna Thiagarajan, previously of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, in September. Thiagarajan arrived just as Seattle Symphony made the news for winning “Orchestra of the Year,” a significant achievement which Thiagarajan attributes to Seattle Symphony’s innovative approach.
“I give my predecessor, Simon Woods, a lot of kudos for that,” Thiagarajan said.
He also credited the symphony’s recording label, started in 2014, as being one of the moves that put Seattle on the map internationally.
“The combination of a very dynamic organization…with a very dynamic city and region” were two reasons Thiagarajan accepted the posting. He added that the third reason was the people.
Thiagarajan comes to Seattle after an illustrious career in the United States and Europe. He began as a pianist, and has a doctorate in piano performance from the University of Maryland.
“I was very involved in playing chamber music with a bunch of good friends,” he explained. “I naturally started developing concert opportunities…This came out of the very mundane necessity to eat! And pay rent! Then at some point, somebody basically said to me, ‘It would be nice if managers were as conscientious about getting their artists paid like you are.’” Thiagarajan joked, “I took that to mean stop playing the piano and start doing this.”
Thiagarajan may have transitioned from on-stage to off-stage, yet he remains a creative, and intends to promote creativity at the Seattle Symphony. To that end, he realizes that it is important for aspiring musicians and other artists to have role models, and for those role models to represent more of the population. Coming from a multicultural background himself — Thiagarajan is half Indian and half German — he got interested in classical music by listening to Claudio Arrau, a Chilean pianist, and playing Beethoven.
“What was important for me was to know that there is this Indian conductor, Zubin Mehta, who provides a pathway for somebody like me…in planning our season, we invite artists that can fulfill that function to showcase a diverse group of artists coming to our stage.”
Thiagarajan mentioned the Celebrate Asia festival, which this season will showcase South Korean stars Unsuk Chin, a classical music composer, and Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 17th International Chopin Piano Contest.
“We want to be able to showcase these extraordinary musicians, and to hopefully spark some inspiration with the younger generation to know that they can replicate that path,” he said. Thiagarajan also discussed other programming with which Seattle Symphony strives to broaden its audience base, such as the “Untuxed” series, for people who want to “experience classical music in a more relaxed environment,” or the “[untitled]” series — “a very experimental, late-night concert which is actually in the lobby.” Thiagarajan also invited everyone to the opening of a new space in March 2019, called Octave 9, which will have the latest in immersive technology and be conducive to experimentation in electronic music.
“My main job is to be a good steward of Seattle Symphony for the foreseeable, sustainable future, to make sure that the people of Seattle have their orchestra,” said Thiagarajan. “The other side of my job is also to engage with as many people as I can in the community, build strong, durable collaborations throughout the community, and create as many access points as we can manage for people to come and experience what we have.”
Thiagarajan described his upbringing as multicultural and open. His father was a chemical engineer from Chennai, and his mother was a piano teacher from Munich.
“My parents never shoehorned us into one category,” he said. Growing up, Thiagarajan was exposed to South Indian Carnatic music and the Western classical repertoire. He played Police and Queen covers in a band in high school, and dabbled in acting. He keeps current with music coming out of Seoul and Tokyo, and now that Seattle is his home base, he is getting to know John Luther Adams, with whom Seattle Symphony won its first Grammy for Luther’s composition, Become Ocean.
Thiagarajan credits his father’s career success for providing him with a “stable platform” to explore the arts, and while he would be supportive if his own daughters, aged 11 and 13, chose similarly to himself or his wife — who is a violinist — he doesn’t think they will.
“They both lean towards creativity in what they want to do for a profession someday,” he said. “But I don’t believe that we have somebody clearly trying to follow the path of Mom or Dad. And actually, I think that’s a good thing. I really think that everybody needs to find their own way.”
For those that want to pursue the arts as a career, Thiagarajan offers this advice.
“If there’s nothing that you’d rather do in life — if there’s honestly nothing else you can think of that you really want to do, then do this. You have to be committed. You have to be passionate. You cannot waiver.”
No matter what level of accomplishment you achieve, Thiagarajan said, “If you have improved one person’s day by playing a concert that they could hear, then you’ve actually made a greater difference than you could imagine. At the same time, pay attention to your cash flow because you’re going to have to pay some bills.”
To Thiagarajan, the role of the Seattle Symphony as a vessel of the arts and humanities, is particularly crucial now, as we move out of a period since the 1980s and 1990s when the importance of the arts has been challenged.
“It’s not a binary conversation,” he insisted. “It’s not STEM versus the arts and humanities. It’s always got to be all of the above.…art is essential to life…it’s not just that little ingredient that makes life better…it is quintessentially why we are here.” Thiagarajan expressed a love for Seattle because there are so many sources of inspiration that can be turned into art.
“If it’s the blue sky, the shape of a cloud, the water…to come back to Benaroya Hall [and] hear how a composer may have been inspired by these same things and translated that into music…These are the things that make life worth living and make it exciting.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at email@example.com.