Meet John Kessen: French horn player and stage manager for the NEP

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.

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