Andrew Kipe is helping redefine the Louisville Orchestra in its 80th year
Writer / Shannon Siders
Photographer / Frankie Steele
As the Louisville Orchestra enters its 80th season, Executive Director and Jeffersontown resident Andrew Kipe is helping the organization engage with the community and redefine what it means to be an orchestra in the 21st century.
Kipe took the helm of the orchestra in November 2013, after the organization had filed chapter 7 bankruptcy with the help of a bankruptcy attorney and was in the midst of a labor dispute. He was quickly targeted as an ideal candidate for the role by the recruiting committee, who knew he had dealt with a similar situation with the Phoenix Symphony.
“At first, I didn’t know if it was the right fit for me,” Kipe says about moving to Louisville for the job. “I visited two or three times over the course of the hiring process and was really impressed with Louisville and with the resilience the community has for this orchestra.”
He was especially impressed by the Board of Director’s commitment and strong leadership, under the lead of then-President Jim Welch, and seized the opportunity to help get the orchestra back on the right track.
During the transition, widely-acclaimed conductor Teddy Abrams was brought on as music director, and Kipe and Abrams did not meet in person until the press conference introducing them to the Louisville community.
“There were some inherent risks in that relationship, but it’s been great” Kipe says. “We’re good partners. We don’t always agree on everything, and I think that’s what you want sometimes. You want the two sides — the artistic and the administrative sides — to have good dialogue about what’s realistic and what’s exciting.”
The pair work closely to provide high-quality programming that appeals to a broad audience, while managing to be profitable. According to a 2016 Courier-Journal article, they have accomplished just that, seeing significant increases in ticket income, season subscriptions, single ticket sales and individual donations since 2013.
Noting that orchestra organizations and classical musicians in general tend to be more traditional in their approach and shy away from doing things differently, Kipe recognizes the importance of thinking outside the box.
“Orchestras cannot simply sit in their concert halls, playing Beethoven, expecting people to come buy tickets and give them money,” Kipe says. “There’s a handful of people who will do that, but they’re getting older and the younger generations don’t see the value in that the same way.”
Kipe, Abrams and the rest of the orchestra staff have faced this challenge head-on, implementing innovative programmatic offerings. The orchestra’s Harry Potter concert series has been a smashing success, with sold-out shows bringing in a whole new demographic.
The strategy has also included a neighborhood series at local churches, synagogues and community centers, as well as performances at hospitals, non-profits, youth detention centers and shows for immigrant communities to bring music to people who previously may not have had access.
“It doesn’t mean that we ever need to be apologetic for playing Beethoven, Brahms, the classical works. There’s always a place for those,” Kipe says. “Whether it’s the first time you’ve heard a symphony or the 14th time you’ve heard it, you can be transformed by that.”
Kipe’s own interest in music began when he was just a toddler and was fostered by daily music classes in school. He began singing in the elementary school choir and taking piano lessons around fourth grade, and his musical talents continued to blossom through high school.
Upon graduation, Kipe attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in his home state, to study biology. After just one semester, he changed his major to music, with the intent of applying to graduate school for an opera performance program. Instead, he took a position running the college’s music program, which included coordinating the performing arts series.
“I’m a good singer, but I’m not a great singer,” Kipe says. “Even great singers sometimes have trouble paying the bills. I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be for me and started to consider other options and opportunities.”
His first stint at an orchestra came in 1997, as operations manager for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland. As one of two fulltime employees, Kipe touched every facet of the organization, including mailing donor letters, placing newspaper advertisements, coordinating 10 annual concerts and even driving the truck that held the music stands.
“It was hard work, obviously, because there were so few of us to get the job done,” Kipe says. “The benefit was I learned pretty quickly how orchestras run. You’re doing a little bit of everything and you sort of figure it all out. Around that point, I decided I was going to stick with orchestra for a while.”
From there, Kipe took on a role with the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine, before returning to his hometown of Hagerstown as executive director of The Maryland Symphony Orchestra. After five years in that position, he moved on to Phoenix to fulfill his goal of working for a major orchestra.
Since moving to Louisville in 2013, Kipe has enjoyed the strong sense of community and pride of place. He and his husband Norman, a chef for Dare to Care Food Bank, rented a house in Old Louisville for a year before they started looking for a home to buy. A snowy winter made a two-car garage one of the top amenities on their list, and the couple wound up in Plainview.
“It’s a really lovely place to live,” says Kipe, who was excited to get his two-car garage and a house that backs up to a green space.
The couple wants to incorporate more travel into their lives, with a European trip in the works for next summer. While at home, Kipe enjoys cooking and playing the piano, but also likes to kick back with some Netflix and wine when the opportunity arises.
“One of the realities of what we do is long days,” Kipe says. “We don’t have a 9 to 5 and work a lot of Saturday nights. You take your respite when you can get it.”
It seems those breaks will continue to be few and far between, as the orchestra shows no signs of slowing down. In September, the Louisville Orchestra released its first recording in 30 years, titled “All In.” The album, released by classical label Decca Gold, shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart in its first week.
Kipe is currently coordinating a residency program with an international group but won’t say who just yet. He’s also working on expanding the orchestra’s endowment, with a goal of $35-40M.
Otherwise, Kipe looks forward to continuing the work the orchestra is already doing and expanding programs to include a wider audience. While donations and ticket sales are a main driver for the organization, he also takes great joy in the orchestra’s impactful community involvement.
“We’re not making money on things like that,” Kipe says. “That’s not outreach to gain audience, that’s bringing music to people because it’s important and what we believe in.”
With Kipe under contract through November 2019 and Abrams through August 2020, the future looks bright for the Louisville Orchestra.
“It feels like we’re in a place of stability right now,” Kipe says. “Not that we can rest on those laurels. There’s still a lot of work to do.”