Starting on the right note: New Philharmonic leader brings extensive music background to post

Heidi Kelley was enjoying her first solo performance with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic late last week.

Administratively, that is.

The daughter of a professional pianist and singer found herself a few hours into her initial day without those who were training her for her new post as executive director of the city’s professional orchestra — one with a $1 million plus annual budget that lands it among the nation’s top 25 percent of such ensembles.

“It’s exciting to meet new challenges,” Kelley said.

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She clearly would know. In the past 15 years alone, from Florida to Texas to Michigan, the woman has worked with everything from mid-sized to metro-sized orchestras, opera houses, you name it, specializing in bringing their sometimes dipping bottom line into a rejuvenated range with artistic aim. And if you think she will allow the COVID-19 pandemic, serious as it is, to play a sour note in the Philharmonic’s plan to soothe and encourage audiences amid such a challenge, think again.

“I think this (health) situation is really going to allow the regional and smaller arts organizations to shine and thrive,” Kelley said. “They tend to be a little more flexible and mobile than many of the larger arts organizations.”

Kelley herself seems more than ready to shine as the orchestra prepares to do just the same with a scaled-down, chamber-oriented group for its next two dates — all while allowing its season subscribers to mask up and safely distance in an adjusted plan for about 200 attendees at backup venue First Christian Church, which normally seats about 700 people.

“So far, the part that I like the most is the intimacy that we have,” she said of the Philharmonic’s staff stretching from education to marketing. “When you’re coming from a large place such as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, you’re somewhat removed from others (on staff).”

She served for the past year as vice president of marketing and communications with that orchestra. With most other ensembles from Abilene to Lubbock, Texas, Kelley has worked as executive director. She grew up surrounded by music — and no TV at all until age 9 — listening to the Salvation Army Music Hour during a childhood in Vermont every Saturday morning and practicing piano from age 2 under the guidance of her mother and her aunt, a symphony pianist.

“It was building off of classical music,” she said.

Melissa Fairbanks, the Philharmonic’s board president, mentioned that board members were most impressed with Kelley’s wide-ranging background.

“What stood out to us the the most — and actually, there were a variety of things — is her lifelong experience of working with professional musicians and working in the orchestra and symphony world,” Fairbanks said. “She has a very, very strong resume in working in all sides of that. That’s why we are so excited.”

Fairbanks notes that Kelley boasts a strong grasp of both the artistic side of ensembles and the bottom line element of keeping them financially healthy.

“She clearly understands the business of the Philharmonic,” Fairbanks said.

David Bowden, the orchestra’s artistic director and its only conductor in its 34 seasons, acknowledged what he termed the “excitement” of having Kelley following in the footsteps of interim executive director Tracy Haddad “and her great work” since last year.

“Heidi has the skill set that we think is absolutely perfect for what we need right now to take us forward through the pandemic and through all the issues that are a part of that, and to really keep our forward momentum — and we have a lot of forward momentum with things such as our new Helen Haddad Hall,” Bowden said.

He added that he impressed with her eagerness “to help us identify places where we can change and grow — and she has the experience to really take those kinds of things and really move us forward.”

Her understanding of music stretches far beyond the administrative to the emotional and mystical. Her youngest son, Kyle, who has Asperger’s syndrome and didn’t speak until age 4½, fell in love with music in fourth grade via viola lessons — sessions that moved him deeply. He wept at his first lesson.

“Mama, that music was so wonderful,” he told her, “that I couldn’t finish the lesson.”

Kelley’s most wonderful music includes Russian composers such as Sergei Prokofiev as favorites.

“I find Russian music very visual — so much so that you can make pictures of the story in your head,” she said.

Kelley’s latest story is just beginning. But beyond Columbus, she recently was recruited to launch an arts and entertainment district in downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina. She helped build a new performing arts center in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“A lot of the things that I like to be a part of are about growth,” she said.

Which seems in perfect harmony with the Philharmonic.

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Hometown: Alpena, Michigan.

Currently living: In Indianapolis with plans to move soon to Columbus.

New position: New executive director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.

Family: Husband Sean, a supervisor in the finance department of the Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville. Two children, Ryan, 24, and Kyle, 20.

Favorite composer: Sergei Prokofiev.

Past promos: Included mixing of 5K running events with orchestral ensembles that earned runners’ applause along the route.

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