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W.Va. Native Works With Legends At Kennedy Center

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
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John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

On a busy holiday afternoon at the Capitol Market, Kanawha County native Kevin Struthers was trying not to sound too excited about his job, but sometimes it’s near impossible for him not to gush.

“I’m the Kennedy Center’s Director of Programming Jazz, Chamber and Classical New Music,” he said, laughed and added, “It’s kind of an unwieldy title.”

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the United States National Cultural Center. Located in the nation’s capital, it’s a sprawling building that houses theaters and concert halls that have hosted some of the most respected and revered artists in the world.

The 55-year-old oversees a chunk of what is seen and heard on those stages and is responsible for the artistic programming and day-to-day direction of jazz, chamber, and classical music programming at the Kennedy Center.

Struthers has been around the famous and notable for decades. He’s been there backstage, but also listened to superstars in their respective musical fields rehearsing from his office and been at his desk when some of these same performers have ducked their heads in through the door to say hello, but he can still get impressed.

The director sighed and marveled at his own career, which seemed, if not impossible, at least unlikely for a saxophone player from South Charleston High School.

“It has been amazing,” he said. “I have been so lucky, so privileged.”

Struthers was born in Charleston and went to school in South Charleston. His father, George, now deceased, was a dentist for 37 years in Kanawha City.

“My mom, Nancy, still lives in Charleston,” he said. “So, does my mother-in-law, Susan Harpold.”

Struthers said he was one of the local music and theater kids. He was in the band, sang in show choir and took roles with the Charleston Light Opera Guild.

“I did all the artsy stuff,” he said.

One of his strengths, though, was leadership. He was organized, focused and responsible — which often led to him being tapped for those kinds of roles behind the scenes of performances.

In 1986, after he went to Washington and Lee University in Virginia to study musicology, he fell into the same kind of pattern.

Management and administration suited him.

“A lot of people in administration are frustrated artists,” Struthers said. “To be an artist, you really have to have that drive.”

He had a lot of drive, but he wasn’t so sure he had enough talent as either a singer or a saxophone player to be really successful.

“But the arts were such an important part of my life,” he said. “I always wanted to be part of that.”

Friends told him he could maybe find a career in arts management — either overseeing a theater or maybe a few performers. He started looking for a program.

While studying at Washington and Lee, he met his future wife, Courtney Harpold, a pre-med student, who also happened to be from Charleston.

They got to know each other while singing in a school choir.

“We’d never met,” Struthers said. “I went to South Charleston, and she went to ‘The Hill,’ George Washington.”

Harpold lived two doors down from his grandparents. Struthers said they knew many of the same people, even had some of the same friends. There was some crossover between schools and church.

“We were at the same events at the same time,” he said. “We just didn’t know each other.”

A romance blossomed.

In 1989, Struthers earned his music degree, with an emphasis on musicology, while Harpold went on to WVU Medical School.

They continued to date, while Harpold worked toward her medical degree. Meanwhile, Struthers took a job with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and then Tourism.

“That was really fun,” he said. “I was one of the public relations officials. I got to travel all over the state and host travel writers from across the country.”

The job allowed him to mountain bike, ski and go rafting.

“It was a great job for a 24-year-old,” he said, adding, “But not a lot of money.”

In Charleston, he stayed active in the arts, sang and was in the light opera guild’s production of “Oklahoma!” which starred a teenage Jennifer Garner.

“She was something then and look at her now,” Struthers said.

In 1993, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in arts management at American University in Washington, D.C., just as Harpold was finishing her studies at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

She graduated with honors and then was placed at Georgetown University Hospital for her medical residency.

“She’s just brilliant,” Struthers said. “We got married and moved to Washington.”

While studying, he interned at National Public Radio, where he worked in development.

“Which is what they call fundraising,” he said.

One of his American University professors was also the vice president of development at NPR. After Struthers completed his degree in 1995, he said the professor helped him get a job as the assistant to the vice president of development at the Kennedy Center.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I learned everything as I went.”

After a year and a half of working in the back office, Struthers said he became aware that he hadn’t stepped foot inside a theater in years.

“This was not why I got into the business,” he said.

So, when a line producer job opened up at the Kennedy Center, he applied for it and was made line producer for “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center.”

“A line producer job is a lot of rigmarole,” he said. “It’s contracts and travel arrangements and housing and hospitality — a lot of details.”

But it was still very cool.

The job opened up new worlds of music to Struthers, who didn’t know an awful lot about jazz.

“I’d had some exposure to jazz at Washington and Lee,” he said. “I’d played some.”

But spending time around Dr. Billy Taylor, an acclaimed jazz composer and pianist, who was considered a living legend, was entirely different.

“So, here I am in this job, meeting all these amazing artists and I don’t know who any of these people are,” he said. “I didn’t really understand what I was being exposed to, but I was learning.”

From a line producer, Struthers eventually became the director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center, working with Taylor until his death in 2010 at the age of 89. He continued as the director of jazz programming with the center’s current artistic director for jazz, Jason Moran, who succeeded Taylor in 2011.

“The artistic director has the vision and the ideas,” Struthers said. “My role is to take these thoughts and view them through the lens of our institutional mission and then look at hall availability, the budget, what’s playing in the market and create a season.”

It’s a weighty responsibility for all of them, he said.

“The Kennedy Center’s mission is to present the best in performing arts in the world,” Struthers said. “We are the national performing arts center.”

While on staff, Struthers has met or been in the room with some of the most prominent artists in the world as well as a few of the most powerful people in the country. Washington’s elite comes to the Kennedy Center.

“You really know who you’re going to see there,” he said.

The pandemic changed things at the Kennedy Center. Struthers was asked to take on the role of director of programming for classical new music and chamber music, as well as jazz.

“It began a whole new chapter for me,” he said.

Like many other organizations, Kennedy Center employees shifted to remote work during the pandemic. This changed everything for Struthers and not necessarily for the worse.

Struthers and his family have lived in Shepherdstown since the late 1990s.

He said, “For the first six or seven years, I took the train into Washington, but as Courtney and I had kids and they got older and my job evolved, making the train became impossible.”

For over 15 years, he drove 75 miles each way to work, but remaining in West Virginia was important to Struthers and his wife.

“I was what the government calls ‘an extreme commuter,’ but the pandemic changed all of that,” he said. “I could work from home. That much has been such a gift.”

It turned out that he could do a lot of his work from home and because everyone was meeting more online, he was able to make contact with some people more easily than before.

These days, Struthers splits his time between his office in Washington and his office at home.

“We’re working on trying to find the right balance,” he said. “But I clearly don’t need to be there all the time, still.”

The pandemic brought something else to the Kennedy Center: “Mountain Stage.”

Struthers’ bosses said that while the Kennedy Center was doing a lot of programming, they weren’t focusing that much on folk, country, or world music.

“Mountain Stage was the perfect vehicle to elevate that kind of work,” he said. “Mountain Stage has an eclectic mix of music — and it’s in West Virginia.”

Struthers said his superiors were aware that he was from West Virginia.

“They were like, ‘Oh really, Kevin,’” he laughed.

Stuthers said he told them, “I know, I know, but they’re the best.”

“Mountain Stage” made its debut at the Kennedy Center Oct. 24. Hosted by Kathy Mattea, the show included performances by Asleep at the Wheel and West Virginia’s own Tim O’Brien.

Behind the scenes, before the show, Struthers said he ran into “Mountain Stage” piano player Bob Thompson.

Struthers remembered the first time he watched him play, over 40 years ago. Thompson had been hired to play music at area schools.

He saw him perform at South Charleston Junior High.

“What a great piano player,” Struthers said. “Never would I have imagined our lives would intersect like that.”

The director had no idea what was ahead for him. The pandemic makes looking too far into the future difficult, but he knows he has an amazing life and an incredible job for someone who loves the arts.

“There’s nothing like being in a room with live music,” he said. “You can’t quite replicate the sound of a live orchestra. There’s just something incomparable to listening to a record and being 30 feet away when Aretha Franklin is singing.”

Inside Appalachia Producer, blynch@wvpublic.org, @LostHwys
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