Meet Kalena Bovell: New Assistant Conductor for MSO 

Bovell takes the baton for Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

It's a wonder anyone makes a career conducting an orchestra. It's competitive, requires musical skills and education beyond most mortals' abilities, and doesn't pay all that much until maybe you make the major leagues.

Tell none of this to Kalena Bovell. Recently named assistant conductor at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO), she knows the deal. But she's bringing focus, confidence, musicianship, leadership, and her particular experience to the job. When she walks in a room (or an auditorium), she owns it. She's doing that in MSO Salutes the Greatest Hits of Rock & Soul! on Friday night at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. The guest vocalist is Gavin Hope, and Bovell will be on the podium presenting Isaac Hayes, The Commodores, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, and more.

click to enlarge Kalena Bovell - JON W. SPARKS
  • Jon W. Sparks
  • Kalena Bovell

Her symphony story is hardly that of the prodigy clearly destined for greatness. "Classical music was actually not supposed to be a part of my life," Bovell says. Her parents moved to Los Angeles from Panama intent on realizing the American Dream: work hard, get a good education, provide for family. "Everything else was kind of extraneous," she says, until age 9 when she discovered she could carry a tune.

"The choir teacher went to every classroom, pulled us out, and said, 'Sing this note.'" Bovell did, and she did it really well. "Music was never a part of my childhood, and I was never curious about it," she says, "but this was a cool thing."

By middle school, she was ready to join the school choir, but it was full and, under protest, she went into beginning strings class. "I was like, I don't want this. 'You'll get over it,' they said. And the first time I held a violin it was, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.'"

At 11, she glommed onto classical music. She considers herself a "non-classical classical musician. I expose myself to as much classical music as possible, but I also find inspiration from different genres. Growing up, it was R&B, it was rap."

She ticks off favorites: Anita Baker, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Pat Benatar. "As an adult, I love death metal, which is so random, I know, but I love alternative, industrial, screamo, and so many different genres. I think they inspire my love for classical. In the end, it's telling a story, and it's up to you to come up with that story."

Bovell grew up in L.A. and went to Chapman University's College of the Performing Arts, where she found that conducting had truly taken her heart. Then it was to graduate school at The Hartt School in Connecticut ("I always knew that if I was going to be successful as a musician, I had to go to school on the East coast.")

Now, leading the itinerant life of an aspiring conductor, she has conducted several youth orchestras in California and Connecticut, championed contemporary composers, and had fellowships with the Allentown Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta. The latter has been led since 2011 by music director Mei-Ann Chen, who also helmed MSO from 2010 to 2016 and retains the title here of Conductor Laureate.

The aspiring conductor's work with Chen at the Sinfonietta became an opportunity to assist the former MSO maestro in her final Masterworks concert in Memphis. And then Bovell became the Sinfonietta's assistant conductor for the 2016-2017 season when she made her professional debut.

In Memphis now for just a few weeks, she's already adding to the full plate. "I want to be able to experience it all," she says, "which has been the greatest thing about this job. It's so much music I never was able to be exposed to as a kid."

Bovell will lead the orchestra in the upcoming Ballet Memphis performance of Nutcracker. She and maestro Robert Moody will share the baton during the Christmas pops concert. The January pops will have her in front of the band with Amy Grant as guest performer. And she conducts the Memphis Youth Symphony.

"I don't just want to study every day for four years. I'd rather be living as opposed to existing. I'm looking forward to really getting to know this organization, really getting to know the city."

And the feeling is mutual.

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