When John Kessen isn’t playing the French horn, performing his stage manager duties, or serving on the board of directors for the NEP, you’ll find him running two of the hottest restaurants in town. And that’s just fine with him. He’s good at juggling—so good in fact that he earned a degree in it … from Yale. John recently sat down with NEP’s publicist, Dayla Arabella, and chatted about his sixteen seasons with the NEP, a hairy moment with a couple of harps, and comparing job descriptions with James Levine.

DAS: We have so much ground to cover, but let’s start with the beginning of your musical life. Was it love at first sight with the French horn?

JK: I did love it from the start. I clearly remember my first mini-lesson at the age of 5. It was my sister Judy who chose the horn for me and took me to that lesson after she heard me play one of those long plastic blue horns at a football game.

DAS: How does one earn a degree in juggling, and from Yale, no less? And while you were at Yale, did you pick up any other degrees?

JK: When in high school, I rode a unicycle and was thinking about becoming a clown. One of my sisters was actually dating a clown (no seriously, a professional clown!) He advised against it as a life choice, given the very limited space on the bus and challenges of travel. Nonetheless, I met some undergrads at Yale who agreed to teach me how to juggle – balls, bowling pins, and flaming sticks. They then presented me with an official, well ok, officially looking, degree in Juggling from Yale. A few years later, I entered and graduated Yale with a real Bachelor in Music degree.

DAS: Not everyone knows you live a double life. In addition to your musical life, you own and manage two of the most talked-about restaurants in Greater Boston—State Park and Mamaleh’s. What skills have you developed as a musician that has aided you in your career in the restaurant business, and vice versa?

JK: I’m not sure if the skills that apply to being a musician and a restaurateur were innate or if one or the other fostered them. But the ability to be aware of various inputs while attending to a specific task is beneficial for both endeavors. When I managed Sel de la Terre restaurant, James Levine came in several times after BSO concerts. He said to me on one visit, “Your job is a lot like mine.” After the internal assessment that my job did not involve being on the Symphony Hall stage, I understood what he meant. To paraphrase, he pointed out that I had to be aware of many factors and guide many processes. In addition to the lighting, the music level, and the temperature, I must be aware of each guest’s experience at every table, as well as the state and performance of the staff. In total, to make sure everything comes together for the best possible performance, just as Levine is on stage with 70 individual musicians creating together in the moment.

I describe the restaurant business as faster than real time, different than most businesses where if there is a problem, you set a meeting in a week to discuss. Like in performing arts, things in the restaurant business must be adjusted immediately. If the conductor slows the tempo with rubato, everyone must respond with the change, not in a week, or even a split second. And if someone perceives the soup as salty, it needs to be tasted before another soup goes out to make sure it is the level we intend. Or if a server is about to be overwhelmed with multiple tasks, to get them help and shift resources before it affects guests.

DAS: Circling back to the NEP, as you reflect upon your sixteen seasons with the orchestra, what is one of your most cherished memories?

JK: Our 2012 performance of Britten’s War Requiem at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross was very special. Cardinal O’Malley was present and spoke before the performance. The orchestra, chorus, and soloists performed exceptionally well in front of a full house, there were more than 1000 people in attendance. The next day, we performed the work a second time in Providence.

DAS: Is there any performance that is particularly memorable, perhaps not for the right reason?

JK: As you mentioned, in addition to being in the horn section, I am also the stage manager. I enjoy the challenge of piecing together the puzzles of orchestra members and sometimes chorus and soloists, as well as the changes from piece to piece. There was one concert however I won’t ever forget. On the second piece, two harps needed to be moved from the back of the stage to out front. I wondered why the stage crew was not responding, when I heard Dick [the conductor] loud whisper from back stage, “John, John, the harps!”
So I got up, set my horn on my chair, and walked over to the harps.  In my tuxedo, in front of a silent fixed-gaze audience and a stage full of musicians, one at a time I picked up a harp and carried it to the front of the stage, managing to avoid several looming potential disasters.

DAS: There is another part of your life that doesn’t involve a hot kitchen or a French horn, but a bicycle. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey with the Best Buddies Challenge?

JK: I am doing the Best Buddies 100 mile bike ride for the 5th year this June. Best Buddies is an exceptional organization that provides support for people with intellectual disabilities. There are people very close to me in my life that are often treated unfairly or maliciously and don’t always get the support they deserve.

DAS: As you get ready to complete your sixteenth season with the NEP on April 29, what would you like to see the orchestra take on that it hasn’t tackled before? And what would you like people to know about the NEP that they might not know by reading concert reviews and other features?

JK: I am grateful to be able to have this playing opportunity. Just last season, I told a member of the BSO what we’d be playing in the NEP. He said, “Wow, I wish we could play that stuff.” I want to see the NEP continue its unique and important programming, grow its recognition in Boston, and excite more audiences with music they have never heard.

You can hear John perform with the New England Philharmonic on April 29 at
Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center.


Principal Clarinet, Tammy Avery–Gibson

NEP’s Principal Clarinet Tammy Avery-Gibson, a 12-year veteran of the orchestra, recently sat down with section mate Yhasmin Valenzuela to talk about music, motherhood, and how the show must go on…gall bladder surgery and all!

YV: To start with, tell me about moving to Boston from Washington D.C. to accompany your fiancé, now husband, back to his hometown. Did you know then how Boston would become such a big part of your musical life?

TAG: Musically it was a big risk. It’s always hard to establish yourself in a new town, and in this town, with the confluence of so many incredible players and a knowledgeable audience base, it makes it all the more challenging. I feel like I’ve learned more by playing in Boston than I did in graduate school!

YV: Can you talk a little bit about what you do when you are not performing?

TAG: When I’m not performing with NEP or the chamber players, or with my kids (who actually love hanging out while I practice!) I am an extremity representative for Depuy Synthes. It’s a new sales force focused on foot/ankle and hand/wrist surgeries with orthopedists and podiatrists—my job is to help integrate new products. I’m in a different hospital every day, sometimes I’m training representatives on new products or meeting with an interested surgeon that has invited me to come to his department to talk about a product.

YV: Can you tell us how your family influenced your decision to take up an instrument? How did you choose the clarinet?

TAG: I had quite a musical family. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters played instruments, mostly piano, though one was lucky enough to obtain a violin during the depression.  They would take turns playing piano and singing at their church.

When I was 8 years old, my band teacher demonstrated the wind instruments. I was leaning toward the flute, but my father loved Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, so he said it would have to be the clarinet, and voilà!

YV: You studied under renowned clarinet teacher Sidney Forrest at Catholic University of America. How does that experience continue to influence you?

TAG: I have kept every bit of music and paper Sidney ever gave me— I still use those lesson books. Much of what he taught me, including tips on how to learn difficult passages, I still use, especially with the NEP. When I look through the music we covered, much of it was 20th century composers, which is where the NEP spends a great deal of time. I still go back to my etude books when I find my fingers getting lazy and re-read the exact same practice notes, and the advice holds up! Another lesson from those days —I never skip long tones, I practice them every time!

YV: As a mother of two children now, has studying and performing music helped you to be a better parent? Or has motherhood informed your study and performance of music?

TAG: Absolutely. On stage and in life you have to learn to deal with the fact that you’re not perfect, and if you make a mistake, you have to let that second pass by, learn from it and move forward or it will affect everything you do.

YV: You’re a full-time mom, career woman and musician, so I imagine running around is part of your everyday routine, but I hear you’re actually a serious runner. Could you tell me more?

TAG: I was a much better runner before having children, now I just try to keep up! Running keeps my lungs warmed up. My high school clarinet teacher was a former director of the Naval Academy Band so fitness was part of his daily life. He encouraged every student no matter their age to run, which I ignored until after college.  Once I got past being able to run a couple of miles in a row, I was off and running, pardon the pun!

YV: What are the five things you can’t live without?

TAG: My kids/family
My clarinets (I would grab them from the house if it were on fire)
My hairdresser—she knows way too much
My phone—my tuner, metronome, GPS, Apple Pay, and email are there
My running shoes—a major stress reliever!

YV: Let’s talk about your time as NEP’s principal clarinet. What has been your favorite piece or concert with the NEP?

TAG: My favorite was playing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra this past fall. Our clarinet section played really well together, along with all the winds. That’s a tough piece, and we prepared well and performed with confidence.

YV: I recently heard a rumor that you put off gall bladder surgery for two days so you could perform Wozzeck. How did you survive?

TAG: When the NEP performed Wozzeck nearly 10 years ago, I was assigned the first E flat part. I was also scheduled for gall bladder surgery two days after the performance. It was very painful, and really affected my breath and support.  I spoke with a surgeon friend of mine who recommended that I go immediately to the emergency room to get admitted, so I asked the gentleman playing second E flat part if he could cover my part. That gentleman flat out said no. I explained the situation to my surgeon and wound up on antibiotics to keep my gall bladder from “going porcelain.” I played Wozzeck with a fever and had surgery the following Monday without telling anyone in the orchestra, including [NEP Music Director] Dick [Pittman] because I didn’t want them to worry. That was certainly challenging, but I was ready for those solos!

You can hear Tammy perform with the New England Philharmonic on April 29th at BU’s Tsai Performance Center.


Meet Tim Alexander: 20-Year Veteran Violinist

November 14, 2016

Born in Oakland, just east of San Francisco, NEP violinist Tim Alexander moved to Boston a few months after the legendary storm of 1978. Our principal contrabassist Emily Koh sat down with him this week to chat about his life-changing experience at a David Oistrakh concert in Cleveland, what’s left on his bucket list, and […]

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Meet George Muller: Principal Bassoonist

November 3, 2016

For over three decades, bassoonist George Muller has performed with orchestras all over the globe—and he’s got the tales to prove it. George sat down with NEP’s board president Ann Teixeira to talk about his musical journey from Germany to his new life as a down easter, scary sight-readings, and the art of beekeeping. AT: […]

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Meet Sam Schmetterer: Principal Percussionist

October 5, 2016

Born in Chicago and current resident of Quincy, Sam Schmetterer is the NEP’s principal percussionist, and has played with the orchestra since 2010. Our violinist and board member Charles Lin sat down with him this week to chat about Radiohead, Iceland, and his fondness for his didgeridoo. CL: How did your musical journey begin, let […]

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