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Roger Kalia: The understudy 

CSO's assistant conductor is helping young people see classical's cool factor

Roger Kalia and his magic wand

Melissa Oyler

Roger Kalia and his magic wand

As assistant conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Roger Kalia has to be ready to take over for Maestro Christopher Warren-Green at a moment's notice. He learns every score the orchestra is playing — just in case Warren-Green is unable to fill his duties. It's sort of like being the runner-up in the Miss America pageant. Or Joe Biden.

But in his second season with CSO, the second-in-command Kalia has yet to be called on to fill in for his boss.

"I'd never wish Maestro Warren-Green any harm," he confides. "But a little stomach bug — just once — wouldn't be all bad. I'd be up to the task."

As CSO strives to diversify its audience and bring in more young people, Kalia is one of its secret weapons. Not only is the second string player working to debunk the myth that classical music is only for people of a certain age, he's an up-and-comer on the national stage and a natural teacher.

To modernize the concert experience, Kalia promotes collaborations with visual and performing artists and the use of technology. For instance, he's excited about conducting an upcoming KnightSounds concert — a series for young professionals that he describes as "a party."

But he also eagerly points out to young people that classical music is the basis for a lot of other music. "It's more than just Beethoven and Bach," he says. Some gamers might be surprised to know that many video games use a classical score, he says. He even played music from a video game during a concert he conducted at CPCC.

While the Manhasset, Long Island, native now calls Charlotte home, he spends about a week every month in Los Angeles. (And a lot of time on planes. He says a conductor's life is the life of a nomad.) He's also the music director and conductor-in-residence for L.A.'s Young Musicians Foundation's Debut Orchestra, a semi-professional orchestra structured like a professional symphony that allows music students in college and grad school to get a real sense of what it's like to be a professional musician.

When Kalia has spare time, he works on his dissertation. He's finishing a Ph.D. in orchestral conducting at Indiana University. Not surprisingly, the scholar is a big proponent of music education. Teaching people about music — at pre-concert talks, for instance — is one of his favorite parts of the job at CSO.

But the multi-dimensional Kalia is interested in much more than music. He's become a hiker since moving to Charlotte (he calls First Ward home) and is partial to Crowder's Mountain. He loves jazz (he attends the Jazz Room concerts when he can), barbecue (Midwood Smokehouse) and the Charlotte Hornets (the team's power forward Cody Zeller played for Indiana's famed Hoosiers, Kalia is proud to point out).

The 30-year-old conductor is also a fan of Charlotte's craft beer scene and counts VBGB as one of his regular haunts. He and the CSO musicians also like hanging out at places — like 5Church, Malabar and the uptown Mellow Mushroom — they can walk to after a concert. ("On weekends, you can usually find me eating," he jokes.)

If you're getting the feeling Kalia isn't a classical music nerd, you're right. He also likes Radiohead, Coldplay, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Stones and electronica. He started out his musical life by playing the trumpet in fourth grade, but he took up the drums — without ever having a formal lesson — when he was in high school. And he and some friends started a hard rock band called Gear. They wrote and performed original songs and even recorded an album.

"We sounded a little like Korn," he says. "Our lead singer mostly screamed and wailed."

And he looked the part of a metal rocker. "I went through a phase where I had spiky hair," he says. "I bleached part of the front of it. It was a terrible idea. I don't know what I was thinking."

Kalia has better hair these days. One can easily imagine being transfixed by the bounce of his thick, dark, wavy locks as he waves his baton. "I've changed my look," he says. "My hair is conductor-esque now. And conductor hair is definitely a thing," he says.

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