(Above: Kelly Kuo takes a bow after a performance of the Reno (Nevada) Chamber Orchestra, where he is music director.)

By Daniel Buckwalter

Change is afoot for the Oregon Mozart Players.

It had been long planned and, because of the pandemic, delayed a couple of years, but Kelly Kuo’s 12-year run as artistic director and conductor will come to a close on May 11 at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall with the Legacy concert.

And he is at peace with it.

“I have believed from the beginning that for a community the size of Eugene, it’s always good to have a change of perspective after 10 years, as it’s easy to become stagnant,” Kuo says.

Kelly Kuo; photo by Jiyang Chen

That wasn’t going to happen for OMP, Kuo notes, and the 42-year-old chamber orchestra is well underway to finding his replacement. The finalists, along with the interim artistic director, will be announced on May 11. Then, an artistic director “festival” with the finalists will be held throughout the fall, and the new artistic director will be announced on May 17, 2025, the final concert of the 2024-25 season.

In the meantime, fans of OMP can take in Kuo’s final concert which will feature Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s profound Primal Message. The program also includes perfomances by the winners of the 2024 Young Soloists Competition, Leo Trajano and Sawa Yamaguchi, and pianist Dean Kramer playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Emperor concerto.

The choice of Kramer to perform the Beethoven concerto at Kuo’s final performance with the Oregon Mozart Players is interesting because he served as mentor to Kuo when the maestro attended the University of Oregon as an undergraduate student from Hermiston. Later, Kramer was the pianist for Kuo’s audition for the artistic director’s position at OMP.

Call it a full-circle experience for Kuo, if you will, and that’s in keeping with his professional life.

In addition to his duties at OMP, Kuo recently added the music director position at the Reno Chamber Orchestra (becoming that orchestra’s third music director in its 50-plus years) and also the associate artistic director’s position at American Lyric Theater in New York City.

Yet it’s the fact that he’s one of six finalists for the position of the Walla Walla (Washington) Symphony that draws the most interest. He will find out in late May or early June if the job is his. If it is, it will be another homecoming, of sorts, because Kuo’s parents, Eugene and Judy, are retired and live in nearby Pasco.

“I don’t collect positions for the sake of positions,” Kuo explains, adding that the positions have to have “special meaning.”

That was certainly the case for OMP, Kuo says. When he first set foot on the UO campus as a student, he had some foundational work in music — he had performed as a soloist with Walla Walla Symphony at age 10 — but science was his main interest. He double majored in physics and music after getting a music scholarship.

The double major didn’t last long. Kuo decided to leave science behind and immerse himself in music. He jokes that this decision was met with chagrin by his father, Eugene Kuo, who owned Kuo Testing Labs, an agricultural consulting firm in Othello, Wash., and who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps.

“I took music seriously as an activity,” Kuo says. “But I had never prepared myself to become a musician.”

Once he began to immerse himself in music, Kuo also had to catch up to his fellow students.

“If I had known then what I know now, I would never have given myself a shot,” he says with a laugh. “I was so naive. I was just trying to play the piano better.”

That he did, later earning a master’s degree in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music. He also is an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

It was in opera that Kuo first established a name for himself as a director. OMP gave Kuo his first opportunity to take on a leadership role with a chamber orchestra, dual roles that he notes are common in Europe. “They absolutely serve each other,” he says, and he also is proud of the strides OMP has shown to spotlight women and under-represented composers.

“I’m very grateful to Eugene and the Oregon Mozart Players,” Kuo says. “It gave my dreams a chance.”

Oregon Mozart Players conclude 2023-24 season with Legacy

When: 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 11

Where: Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon, 961 E. 18th Ave., Eugene

Tickets: General admission, sliding scale $5 to $100 (average price $40), available at the door or in advance online at oregonmozartplayers.org

Information: 541-345-6648