West Virginia Native works with legends at the Kennedy Center | West Virginia News

By BILL LYNCH, Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (AP) — On a busy vacation afternoon at Capitol Market, Kanawha County native Kevin Struthers was trying not to sound too excited about his job, but sometimes it’s nearly impossible for him not to spring.

“I’m the director of jazz, chamber music and new classical music programming at the Kennedy Center,” he said with a laugh and adding, “It’s a bit of an unwieldy title. .”

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the National Cultural Center of the United States. Located in the nation’s capital, it is a sprawling building that houses theaters and concert halls that have hosted some of the world’s most respected and revered artists.

The 55-year-old oversees some of what is seen and heard on these stages and is responsible for artistic programming and the day-to-day direction of jazz, chamber music and classical music programming at the Kennedy Center.

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Struthers has rubbed shoulders with the famous and notable for decades. He’s gone backstage but also listened to superstars in their respective musical fields rehearse from his desk and was at his desk when some of those same artists poked their heads in the door to say hello, but he can still be impressed. .

The director sighed and marveled at his own career, which seemed, if not impossible, at least unlikely for a saxophonist at South Charleston High School.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I have been so lucky, so privileged.”

Struthers was born in Charleston and went to school in South Charleston. Her late father, George, was a dentist for 37 years in Kanawha City.

“My mother, Nancy, still lives in Charleston,” he said. “Just like my mother-in-law, Susan Harpold.”

Struthers said he was one of the local music and theater kids. He was in the band, sang in a show choir, and performed roles with the Charleston Light Opera Guild.

“I did all the artistic stuff,” he said.

One of his strengths, however, was leadership. He was organized, focused and responsible – which often led him to be asked for these kinds of roles behind the scenes of performances.

In 1986, after going to Washington and Lee University in Virginia to study musicology, he fell into a similar pattern.

Management and administration suited him.

“A lot of people in administration are frustrated artists,” Struthers said. “To be an artist, you really have to have that drive.”

He had a lot of drive, but he wasn’t sure he had enough talent as a singer or saxophonist to really succeed.

“But the arts were such an important part of my life,” he said. “I always wanted to be part of it.”

Friends told him he might be able to find a career in arts management – ​​either overseeing a theater or maybe a few artists. He started looking for a program.

While studying at Washington and Lee, he met his future wife, Courtney Harpold, a pre-med student, also from Charleston.

They met while singing in a school choir.

“We had never met,” Struthers said. “I went to South Charleston, and she went to ‘The Hill,’ George Washington.”

Harpold lived two doors down from his grandparents. Struthers said they knew a lot of the same people, even had some of the same friends. There was a crossover between the schools and the church.

“We were at the same events at the same time,” he said. “We just didn’t know each other.”

In 1989 Struthers graduated in music, with an emphasis on musicology, while Harpold went to WVU Medical School.

They continued to this day, while Harpold worked towards his medical degree. During this time, Struthers took a job with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, then with Tourism.

“It was really fun,” he said. “I was one of the public relations people. I was able to travel statewide and host travel writers from all over the country.

The job allowed him to mountain bike, ski and raft.

“It was a great job for a 24-year-old,” he said, adding, “But not a lot of money.”

In Charleston, he remained active in the arts, singing and participating in the guild’s production of light operas “Oklahoma!” which starred a teenage Jennifer Garner.

“She was something then and look at her now,” Struthers said.

In 1993, he decided to pursue a Masters in Arts Management at American University in Washington, DC, just as Harpold was finishing his studies at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

She graduated with honors and then was placed at Georgetown University Hospital for her medical residency.

“She’s just awesome,” Struthers said. “We got married and moved to Washington.”

While in college, he interned at National Public Radio, where he worked in development.

“It’s what they call fundraising,” he said.

One of his professors at the American university was also vice president of development at NPR. After Struthers graduated in 1995, he said the professor helped him get a job as assistant to the vice president of development at the Kennedy Center.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I learned everything as I went along.”

After a year and a half of working in the back office, Struthers said he realized he hadn’t set foot in a theater in years.

“That’s not why I got into the business,” he said.

So when an executive producer position opened up at the Kennedy Center, he applied and was named executive producer for “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center.”

“An executive producer job is a lot of gibberish,” he said. “These are travel and accommodation and hospitality contracts and arrangements – lots of detail.”

But it was still very cool.

The job opened up new musical worlds for Struthers, who knew little about jazz.

“I had been exposed to jazz at Washington and Lee,” he said. “I had played it.”

But spending time with Dr. Billy Taylor, acclaimed jazz composer and pianist, considered a living legend, was quite different.

“So here I am in this job, meeting all these amazing artists and I don’t know who these people are,” he said. “I didn’t really understand what I was exposed to, but I was learning.”

From an executive producer, Struthers eventually became the director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center, working with Taylor until his death in 2010 at the age of 89. He continued as director of jazz programming with the center’s current artistic director for jazz, Jason. Moran, who succeeded Taylor in 2011.

“The art director has the vision and the ideas,” Struthers said. “My role is to take those thoughts and see them through the lens of our institutional mission, and then look at venue availability, budget, what’s playing out in the market and create a season.”

It is a heavy responsibility for each of them, he said.

“The Kennedy Center’s mission is to present the best in performing arts to the world,” Struthers said. “We are the national center for the performing arts.”

While on staff, Struthers met or was in the room with some of the most prominent artists in the world as well as some of the most powerful people in the country. Washington’s elite come to the Kennedy Center.

“You really know who you’re going to see there,” he said.

The pandemic has changed things at the Kennedy Center. Struthers was asked to take on the role of programming director for new classical and chamber music, as well as jazz.

“It started a whole new chapter for me,” he said.

Like many other organizations, Kennedy Center employees transitioned to working remotely during the pandemic. It changed everything for Struthers and not necessarily for the worse.

Struthers and her family have lived in Shepherdstown since the late 1990s.

He said: “For the first six or seven years I took the train to Washington, but as Courtney and I had kids and they grew and my job evolved, taking the train became impossible. .”

For more than 15 years, he traveled 75 miles each way to get to work, but staying in West Virginia was important to Struthers and his wife.

“I was what the government calls ‘an extreme commuter,’ but the pandemic changed all that,” he said. “I could work from home. It has been such a gift.

It turned out that he could do a lot of his work from home, and because everyone was meeting more online, he was able to connect with some people more easily than before.

These days, Struthers divides his time between his office in Washington and his office at home.

“We are working on trying to find the right balance,” he said. “But I clearly don’t need to be there all the time, anyway.”

The pandemic has brought something else to the Kennedy Center: “Mountain Stage.”

Struthers bosses said that while the Kennedy Center does a lot of programming, it doesn’t focus that much on folk, country, or world music.

“Mountain Stage was the perfect vehicle to elevate this kind of work,” he said. “Mountain Stage offers an eclectic mix of music – and it’s in West Virginia.”

Struthers said his superiors knew he was from West Virginia.

“They were like, ‘Oh really, Kevin,'” he laughed.

Stuthers said he told them, “I know, I know, but they’re the best.”

“Mountain Stage” debuted at the Kennedy Center on October 24. Hosted by Kathy Mattea, the show included performances from Asleep at the Wheel and West Virginia’s Tim O’Brien.

Backstage before the show, Struthers said he met “Mountain Stage” pianist Bob Thompson.

Struthers remembers the first time he saw him play more than 40 years ago. Thompson had been hired to play music at area schools.

He saw him perform at South Charleston Junior High.

“What a great pianist,” Struthers said. “I never imagined that our lives would cross like this.”

The director had no idea what awaited him. The pandemic makes it hard to look too far into the future, but he knows he has an amazing life and an amazing job for someone who loves the arts.

“There’s nothing quite like being in a room with live music,” he said. “You can’t quite replicate the sound of a live orchestra. There’s just something incomparable about listening to a record and being 30 feet away when Aretha Franklin sings.

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