When Kayoko Dan steps down as music director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera at the end of the 2023-24 season, she will have been in the position for 14 years. It's a tough position in the best of times, if such a thing can exist for an arts organization with 65 full- and part-time members. The job requires a vast skill set that melds management and artistic abilities that keep musicians, donors and fans happy.
Throw in a pandemic and a theater renovation that requires moving shows to an entirely different venue for a couple of years, and it gets even more challenging. Dan, however, said in a telephone interview last week that she loves a challenge and believes the CSO has been up to the task.
"We saw a lot of growth," she said, "but at the same time a lot of resilience. We had to endure a lot of stuff."
"The CSO has come through a challenging period largely due to COVID," said CSO Executive Director John Kilkenny via text. "Thanks to dedicated community members, a smart board and talented musicians, we are in a good position for the future -- we are planning an expansion of our community and family concerts, new concert series in difference venues across the region and a full investment in our educational programming."
Board Chair Don McDowell added in a news release, "Kayoko is an accomplished musician and educator, with a unique combination of kindness, humility and generosity of spirit. This, coupled with her commitment to excellence, has shaped the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera into an organization committed to passionate, sincere music that audiences appreciate and celebrate."
Dan is the first female music director in the history of the Chattanooga Symphony, which was established in 1896 and merged with the Chattanooga Opera Company in 1985. She announced earlier this month that she will step down at the end of next season. She told the Times Free Press by telephone that she had originally intended to pass on her CSO baton in 2021, but didn't feel it was fair to leave the organization during a pandemic with the renovation of the Tivoli Center on the horizon.
She added that she believes a music director can overstay a welcome to the point that the musicians become comfortable, which she said is not good for an artist.
"When they know what I'm thinking, that is not good," she said. "Artists need to be challenged, and when they get comfortable, they are not challenged."
She should know about challenges and comfort levels. In addition to dealing with the "normal" stuff related to the job, there was the pandemic. And work has begun on the renovation of the Tivoli Center, which includes the CSO's home, the Tivoli Theatre.
As part of that work, the CSO has taken up temporary residence in Memorial Auditorium. Seating there is about 3,700 seats, more than double that of the Tivoli. The auditorium doesn't have an orchestra pit or an acoustic shell like the Tivoli does, so it comes with some challenges.
But having it as an option is a plus that not every orchestra has, Dan said, and dealing with some of those challenges has only made the orchestra stronger. When the work at the Tivoli is done, she said, it will make for a tremendous experience for fans who'll enjoy better acoustics and easier access to bathrooms and concessions.
"For an orchestra, the hall is our instrument, and the better the hall and the better it is acoustically, the better for everyone," Dan said.
"If we know that our audience is having an overall pleasant experience with access to bathrooms easier and everything is pleasant and fun, it reflects on the overall quality of the service. I'm really excited about that."
Dan gives former Executive Director Samantha Teter much credit for keeping the symphony active during the worst of the pandemic by finding creative ways to perform, such as presenting shows with fewer musicians and limited audiences.
"She was determined that we were going to provide a live performance and that they would be presented in a safe way," Dan said of Teter.
She also credits Operations Manager Kathy Allison with aggressively finding venues that would host a show.
These smaller shows have been a sharp contrast to Dan's first outing, which just so happened to be Pops on the River in July of 2011. While a sold-out symphony show at the Tivoli seats about 1,600, the Fourth of July-themed Pops on the River shows can draw closer to 20,000, with fans showing up early to get a good spot on the expansive lawn of Coolidge Park. Dan said the symphony rehearsed at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and worked with the Chattanooga Theatre Centre as well for some preshow events.
Dan said it was a great way to be introduced to the CSO and the city.
"I got a real sense of Chattanooga and the CSO right away, and it is a very nice event," she said.
Dan said that among the achievements she is most proud of during her tenure has been the breadth and variety of the work the CSO has presented.
"We've done a lot of new works, hosted several composers and experimented with different formats," she said. "But I think the thing I'm most proud of is maybe reaching different demographics while maintaining our base audience."
She said there is a fine line between presenting some of the traditional works that longtime ticket buyers expect and new, more progressive or experimental works.
"It was a progression that involved earning the trust that I will present something exciting," she said.
"It's hard sometimes because some are resistant to change. I grew up loving Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, but you have to remember, at some time, they were new.
"We can't be left behind and stuck in a 200-years-ago mindset. The world is changing really fast, and if we are stuck in the past, we are going to be left behind."
As for her own future, she said she doesn't know what that will entail. She was appointed director of orchestral activities and assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas in 2021. She said she loves teaching and plans to dedicate more time and effort to that, but added she would love to conduct somewhere.
The CSO board and orchestra have formed a search committee to find Dan's replacement for the 2024-25 season.
The Chattanooga Symphony & Opera will present a chamber performance, “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 & Ancient Airs and Dances,” at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Humanities Building at Chattanooga State Community College, 4501 Amnicola Highway. Admission is $10-$35. For more information, visit chattanoogasymphony.org