Episode 6: Kevin Burton of the Topeka Symphony Orchestra

By Clint Patty, J.D.

Clint Patty:

Well, hello there. Welcome to Investing in Good, a podcast that shines a spotlight on those making a profound impact within Northeast Kansas. This podcast is proudly presented by Clayton Wealth Partners, your partner in philanthropic financial planning for individual donors and investment management for endowments, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. In each episode, we’re going to sit down with the remarkable leaders and dedicated workers of nonprofits across the state of Kansas. We’re going to listen to their stories, learn about their causes, and talk about the challenges they have in making the lives of Kansans better each and every day. So stay tuned now as we delve into our next inspiring story on Investing in Good. Well welcome to episode six of Investing in Good. I’m Clint Patty, the managing partner with Clayton Wealth Partners here in Topeka, and I am very happy and pleased today to have with me the executive director of the Topeka Symphony, Kevin Burton. Kevin, welcome.

Kevin Burton:

Welcome. Thank you for having me Clint. I’m very excited to be here.

Clint Patty:

Glad to have you here and excited to hear more about the symphony. For our listeners, we are just a few days later. We normally like to get these out the third Friday of every month, but two things interfered with my ability to do that this time. One was spring break. We took a small extended trip at the beginning of spring break that delayed me a little bit, but really the big thing was forgetting that March 1st was actually a Friday, so I thought I had another week and I didn’t. So we put this together. We’re a few days late, but I think this is going to turn out just fine. Kevin, if you wouldn’t mind giving our listeners just your background briefly.

Kevin Burton:

Yeah, so I’m born and raised in Topeka, Kansas. Went to Shawnee Heights for high school and then Washburn University for college. I was really, really fortunate to start getting involved with community activities while at Washburn. It was never my plan to go into nonprofit world or the arts world at that point. My career idea was to get my PhD in American history and then be a college professor. But I realized while working on my master’s that I really had fallen really in love with Topeka completely and really wanted to do community work in the nonprofits and then really just focus in on the arts nonprofits because of how important the arts are for Topeka community and the growth in the community in the future.

Clint Patty:

Talk just briefly if you would about that. I think sometimes we focus a lot on economic issues here locally and how important it is that our economy continues to grow, but the importance of having an active arts community, talk about the importance from your point of view.

Kevin Burton:

Absolutely. And the arts, whether it’s performing like the symphony or visual arts, are very important to the economic vitality of the community as well. They not only bring in artists to town and into the community where people are more likely to buy food maybe before a concert or go out for drinks after that, supporting a whole variety of local businesses including hotels as well if anyone stays the night. And so it supports the economy in that way. It also really helps with businesses because businesses are always looking for new ways to attract and retain employees, and one thing that they’re looking for for employees as they figure out where to move is some people really want to make sure there’s an art scene like a symphony or some other aspect so…

Clint Patty:

I think we tend to think of that as a way to draw people to come to Topeka to work. But the fact is, and you’re a perfect example of this, we just need to keep the people we have.

Kevin Burton:

Yes, absolutely. Retaining people in Topeka is so important. We have so many kids graduating high school, they go off to college somewhere, which is great, but then they really need to come home hopefully to Topeka much more than they’re currently doing.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, we don’t want to hear anyone say, “There’s just nothing to do here”.

Kevin Burton:

And I just don’t know with the art scene in Topeka how anyone can say there’s nothing to do here.

Clint Patty:

Well, that’s a great transition. So if you would, tell us a little bit about the Topeka Symphony Orchestra, what its missions are and what its goals are.

Kevin Burton:

So the mission of Topeka Symphony is to provide premier music to Northeast Kansas and to provide educational opportunities for youth in music. So we offer seven concerts a year through Topeka Symphony, and then our youth orchestras offer two concerts, one in the fall and one in the spring every year. We have three goals provide Northeast Kansas with a professional orchestra to listen, to provide educational and performance opportunities for youth and then the third one is make Topeka a strong art community.

Clint Patty:

Let’s talk a little bit about, you said seven performances a year for the orchestra?

Kevin Burton:

Yep.

Clint Patty:

How do you go about deciding what those seven… I mean there’s surely a process in place of how those seven… what the content’s going to be, who you’re trying to reach with an audience. How does that process work?

Kevin Burton:

So the music director and conductor is Kyle Wiley Pickett. He’s been with the symphony for just over 10 years now. He kind of decides and lines up the season in the concert and when he’s going about it, he kind of comes up with a theme and a name for the season. This season’s theme is called NOMO FOMO, that’s N-O-M-O F-O-M-O as in No More Fear of Missing Out. And so it’s designed to encourage people to get off their couch that I think we all became too accustomed to being on during the pandemic and get back out into the concert hall. And so when he was thinking about that, he was selecting concert pieces that you needed to experience there that you couldn’t get the same thing by listening in on your car or listening through headphones. So a good example of that, we had a concert coming up on March 30th called Italy Travel and where one of the pieces focuses on… is called the Pine of Rome, and it focuses on the… and it was inspired by the Alpine Way, here’s your ancient history or your ancient Rome reference for the podcast.

Clint Patty:

Perfect for a history major to be telling us about.

Kevin Burton:

So the Alpine Way was a road in southern Italy that the Roman military used heavily. And so if you think about it with thousands of troops, it would sound very loud, lots of marching back and forth. And so the piece orchestrally also has offstage brass players, and so you get a very different sound and experience in the music hall than you do if you are listening to it through the headphones. So you have to be there, and that’s kind of what this whole season’s about is providing some different pieces and different sounds that you don’t get the exact same if you’re not there in the hall itself.

Clint Patty:

And these are all at White Concert Hall, correct?

Kevin Burton:

Yes. Our regular season lineup is at White Concert Hall.

Clint Patty:

Is it normally about seven or so performances a year that you get, so roughly one every other month?

Kevin Burton:

Yep. And our season is September through the end of May, so the summer’s off but…

Clint Patty:

Talk a little bit about youth orchestra. That is something that I’ve heard from people is growing and that’s exciting to hear. I often think, well, as I turn the radio on, as I took my daughter to an Olivia Rodrigo concert this weekend if I sound excited about it and I listen to the kind of music that kids are listening to these days, I often wonder is orchestra music or classical music on any of their minds? But I hope that it is, so make me feel better about it.

Kevin Burton:

So the orchestra participation numbers are back up following a low point during COVID, and so we have three youth groups. We have the Youth Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra, and then The Symphonettes. They are mainly and only really based on ability to play music, but they are also slightly based off of age. So the Symphonette Group is kind of older elementary school kids. The Chamber is middle school intermediary players, and then the Youth Symphony is high school age kids mainly.

Clint Patty:

And so how do you go about promoting that kind of education? Do you go into the school system? Do people come to you? How does someone interested in being in an orchestra that is in school get in touch?

Kevin Burton:

Yep. So the information is on our website, topekasymphony.org or you can call the office at (785) 232-2032. But we do also have a great partnership with the local schools and private instructors, and so we always try to make sure that they know when the auditions are coming up that they can share with the students and kids in the community.

Clint Patty:

And what kind of participation do you see amongst the three youth groups in terms of numbers?

Kevin Burton:

We have about 150 spread out between all three groups. The Symphonettes, the younger ones is about 50. The Chamber, which is the middle school roughly age group is about 30, and then the Youth Symphony is around 50.

Clint Patty:

That sounds like a pretty active group.

Kevin Burton:

It is. They’re very active.

Clint Patty:

And you talked about the impact that COVID… I’ve asked a number of guests about this because COVID had such a tremendous impact on all nonprofits, but how did COVID affect the involvement of youth in symphony and then what has been the experience coming out of it?

Kevin Burton:

So Youth Symphony during the pandemic, we dropped from three youth groups down to two, and so we’ve had to rebuild the youth groups back up to three, and so we’re really glad that that participation rate has rebounded to just about where it was pre-pandemic, and so hopefully it’ll also continue to grow from here. As far as the youth orchestra or the symphony orchestra overall, the audience size is still down from where it was pre-pandemic as it is for most activity organizations as people just got accustomed to doing other things with their time and enjoying too much Netflix probably.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, and the goal I would assume then is thus the theme for this season, Time’s Up, let’s get out and enjoy some quality entertainment and it’s time to get off the couch.

Kevin Burton:

Yes, absolutely.

Clint Patty:

So tell me about some of the recent highlights or maybe some upcoming events that the symphony has that you want the community to know about.

Kevin Burton:

Yep. So upcoming on March 23rd, we have a special collaboration concert with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. This is not part of our regular season, and so it will be at TPAC and it is kicking off the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ farewell tour. They’ve been a group and performing for over 40 years now, and so we’re really, really fortunate that this is how they decided to kick off their farewell tour and the pieces that we are performing are pieces that they’ve always wanted to have an orchestra kind of back them up for us. So that will be really exciting to hear and be part of.

Clint Patty:

For folks that are interested in that, they can contact the TPAC box office?

Kevin Burton:

Yep. Tickets are available through to the Topeka Performing Arts Center, TPAC.

Clint Patty:

What else is coming up after the 23rd?

Kevin Burton:

Then on the 30th we have the Italy Travel concert, which is the concert we just talked about a few minutes ago. That will also feature a special guest artist Jon Nakamatsu. This is his fifth time in Topeka and he is a Van Cliburn gold medalist. For anyone who doesn’t know what the Van Cliburn medalist is, which was me as well before I was introduced to Jon, it is the kind of Olympics of piano playing. It happens every four years and he’s the only American to have won the competition since 1980.

Clint Patty:

That’s a pretty high company to have coming to town, isn’t it?

Kevin Burton:

It is. It is. And it will be a rare sight to behold.

Clint Patty:

That’s wonderful. So folks, make sure you get out there, get to TPAC and also visit the website at topekasymphony.org for those events, others that might be coming up here later in the year.

Kevin Burton:

We have a very busy volunteer group called the Symphony League that are organizing their gala here on April 5th, and that will be a lot of fun. And that is at Topeka Country Club. Tickets are available for that through the website again, topekasymphony.org. And then two days after that on April 7th, we have the spring youth concert at White Concert Hall.

Clint Patty:

Event at Topeka Country Club’s primarily a fundraiser, isn’t it?

Kevin Burton:

Yep. It is a fundraising event.

Clint Patty:

And the theme for that this year is Hooray for Hollywood, isn’t it?

Kevin Burton:

That is correct. It is Hooray for Hollywood. It will be a really good time, cocktail attire. The league has put together a phenomenal event for that one.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, I’m personally looking forward to that. We’ve got a table for that event and I think it’ll be exciting. Those that decide to dress in period is happens. You get about half the people that don’t and about half the people that do. But this theme of doing an old Hollywood theme is going to be… it’s going to be fun.

Kevin Burton:

Yes, it’ll be a great time.

Clint Patty:

All right, so let’s talk just a little bit now about collaboration. So are there other organizations here in Topeka that the symphony collaborates with on a regular basis?

Kevin Burton:

Yeah, most frequently it’s probably the Kansas Ballet Academy. We partner every year for several years going back now for a production of The Nutcracker, and so they’ll have a live orchestra when they perform the Nutcracker every December at Topeka Performing Arts Center. We’re also always looking for other innovative partnerships with art organizations, especially last year we did a cool collaboration with Topeka Civic Theater where we did Oklahoma and concert and that was also at Topeka Performing Arts Center and we provided the music and then they cast singers to sing the songs from the Broadway production.

Clint Patty:

That was an extremely well received event too, so I hope that collaboration with TCT continues. That would be interesting because it’s almost an endless reservoir that you can draw from there.

Kevin Burton:

Yes, there’s so much inspiration there.

Clint Patty:

And I think everybody here, almost everybody here sees the advertisements every year for The Nutcracker, but it is just an absolutely terrific performance every holiday. So people need to mark their calendars early to make that.

Kevin Burton:

Yes.

Clint Patty:

So if I’m an adult that would be interested in joining the symphony, I think I might have some musical talents. How does one even begin to get involved with this elite group?

Kevin Burton:

So we have auditions when spots become open. So there’s not always openings for the instrument that you play, so you’ll have to kind of pay attention and watch. But there is usually some auditions every late spring, usually though early fall for that upcoming season.

Clint Patty:

And you can find that information again on the website?

Kevin Burton:

Yep.

Clint Patty:

Perfect. I do want to ask about… Classical music tends to be the kind of music that we think of it, at least I think of it as something that skews a bit older demographically. Obviously you have the youth orchestra, but are there other ways that the symphony helps draw in a more diverse audience to the really raw power and beauty of classical music?

Kevin Burton:

Yeah, absolutely. So kind of a couple ways that happens. One is we bring in a variety of guest artists that you don’t normally have an opportunity to see in Topeka or even Kansas City such as Jon Nakamatsu. Another one that we just had coming a few weeks ago was Denson Paul Pollard, who’s a renowned trombonist. He’s phenomenal. Most people don’t view the trombone though as a classical instrument. They think of the piano or a string instrument or you think kind of marching band when you think trombones. But overwhelmingly the feedback we got is people just had no idea that a trombone could sound like that or it could be used in such a beautiful way.

And so that’s a way that we introduce new people and meet them where they’re at. Another way is unique partnerships like the partnership with Topeka Civic Theater where it’s meeting people through Broadway productions and using musicals as that option. And then there can also be kind of the opportunity through Hollywood and movie soundtracks. About every few years and this year, at the end of the season, end of April, on April 27th, we have a Hollywood concert that will feature music from movies that people know and are familiar with. And that’s kind of where my introduction into classical music started was with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and I would just have-

Clint Patty:

That’s a great soundtrack.

Kevin Burton:

It is. It is. And so I would set that up on Spotify or Pandora and you let it play. And then 15 songs later, I was listening to Bach and that was kind of just my introduction into classical music.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, I think a lot of people get their start with movie soundtracks. It’s such a nice bridge. I am skew a demographic just slightly older than you, but for me it was the music of John Williams and James Horner in the movies. That was a nice introduction for me. And then when you listen to the classics immediately begin to see, “Well, clearly they’re stealing a little here from Bach or Beethoven or Strauss or…” it’s interesting once you kind of go down that rabbit hole a little bit.

Kevin Burton:

It really is, and there’s so much inspiration of movie composers are taking from classical composers from previous hundreds of years really.

Clint Patty:

If you ever want to do this experiment and you want to know about the power of music in the movies, there are ways apparently you can pull the music out of a movie and just listen to the dialogue. It’s pretty drab. There are… Most movies, especially big spectacle movies, boy, they rely on that music a lot. Imagine watching Jaws without that classic theme. It just isn’t that scary. So if you’re an emerging musician here in Topeka, are there other programs or initiatives that the Topeka Symphony Orchestra supports to help folks that are on the way up other than what we’ve talked about already, particularly with the youth orchestra?

Kevin Burton:

So we have a great partnership with Washburn. We use their facility at White Concert Hall for all of our concerts in the season. We also do a huge amount of scholarship support for music students at Washburn to help continue that opportunities. And then we also provide performance scholarships for any of our youth orchestra groups because we do have a tuition fee with participating in those. So we have scholarships that students can apply for. The last probably option or opportunity to support emerging artists is the young artist competition that happens every single year. It’s for high school students in Northeast Kansas and there’s four different competitions. There’s a vocal competition, a piano competition, a wind and percussion competition, and a string competition. And then the winner of that gets to perform at a Topeka Symphony Orchestra concert.

Clint Patty:

Wow. That would be a lot of fun for a young person.

Kevin Burton:

Yes.

Clint Patty:

Well those are great and folks want to learn more about these ways support emerging artists. Again, is this all on the website as well?

Kevin Burton:

Yep, it is.

Clint Patty:

Perfect. So remember folks, it is topekasymphony.org. Let’s talk a little bit and shift to fundraising. So like all nonprofits, I would assume that Topeka Symphony Orchestra relies on the generosity of the community that supports it. Talk about particularly coming out of the pandemic, some of the challenges that you might have with fundraising, sustainability, keeping this thing active going forward.

Kevin Burton:

Yeah, I mean just like all the groups, the pandemic really did cause a challenge. As you mentioned, we’re very fortunate, I think in Topeka that the business community is so supportive of nonprofits and individuals are so supportive of nonprofits and so that generosity has meant a lot. Those two revenue streams of individual donations and corporate support are significant to keep operations going. And so we’re really, really thankful for everyone that does support Topeka Symphony and keeping that moving forward. We also do get a decent amount of grant support and so that kind of helps provide the income necessary that we don’t get with ticket sales. Ticket sales have kind of been the biggest decrease since the pandemic where the audience just has not returned as I mentioned since before the pandemic.

Clint Patty:

And I think if I remember right, there were some virtual concerts offered during or right in the midst of the pandemic. Is that right?

Kevin Burton:

That is correct, because the concerts kept going during the pandemic. We did them at TPAC so that the orchestra could be spread out and kind of limited the size, but they did record and offer those all streaming. And we do still record all of the concerts for anyone that can’t come, they can watch them later on.

Clint Patty:

It’s different live though.

Kevin Burton:

It really is different.

Clint Patty:

And those who haven’t experienced that, you need to get out to White Concert Hall because there’s a feeling you get from the music that doesn’t quite translate through the speaker. Right? I don’t know how to describe it other than that.

Kevin Burton:

It really is.

Clint Patty:

So if someone in Topeka or Northeast Kansas wants to become more involved or contribute to the Topeka Symphony, how would they do that?

Kevin Burton:

There’s a variety of ways. The first and probably best thing that you can do is introduce a kid to music and encourage them to pick up an instrument. I don’t think we can ever have too much music in the world. So anytime there’s an opportunity to introduce a kid to music and an instrument that is phenomenal. Next, come out to a show. We have quite a few shows left this season as we’ve talked about. We’ll be announcing the next season here within the next few months and we’ll even put a little spoil out there and you’ll hear it here first. Next season’s called Putting on the Ritz, so come out to that next season.

Clint Patty:

We love a spoiler here. So Putting on the Ritz, it sounds like maybe it would have a 20s and 30s feel to it.

Kevin Burton:

Yep, you’re right on the moon.

Clint Patty:

By the way, 20s and 30s for the Gen Z’ers in the audience, that’s 1920s, 1930s, not 2020s. So you have to go ways back. But boy, what an amazing generation of music. I’m excited. Putting on the Ritz will be a lot of fun. So for folks that want to get involved, the website the best way?

Kevin Burton:

It is. The website, again, topekasymphony.org or call (785) 232-2032, come out to show. Also have opportunities to volunteer either… we have a very active board of directors comprised of volunteers and then we also have the Symphony League that does a lot of volunteer activities like the fundraising gala coming up here in a few weeks. But they also do greeters at the concerts and do a variety of reception activities both at our regular concerts and with the youth concerts as well.

Clint Patty:

So there’s plenty of volunteer opportunities for folks even in addition to contributing financially or just attending shows.

Kevin Burton:

Yep. And then we always are appreciative of additional donations and you can donate online as well.

Clint Patty:

The thing you mentioned, the number one thing, and I’m so glad you did, introducing a child to music and to great music and encouraging them to play an instrument. It may have been different when you were in school. When I was in school, that was a requirement. You played at least two or three years in the band, then you got to junior high and you could choose maybe whether you wanted to or not. Most went ahead and continued it. I don’t see that today. So speak to that just a little bit.

Kevin Burton:

Yeah. And I know that the school participation isn’t quite what it used to be and has changed over the years. They don’t introduce the instruments as quite as young in elementary school as they now do. Most of the time it’s now upper elementary school before you have an opportunity to start playing. And I don’t know this for a fact, but I don’t think any of the schools in Northeast Kansas require students to play an instrument through their times. So it’s really about igniting a kid’s interest when that opportunity comes up in elementary school.

Clint Patty:

It strikes me it’s a little bit harder now. Who knows how many great musicians we’ve missed out on just from folks not doing it?

Kevin Burton:

Right. Absolutely. Because I mean, once that opportunity is gone, very rarely does someone later in life go back and pick up an instrument. It happens, but-

Clint Patty:

Not very often.

Kevin Burton:

Not very often.

Clint Patty:

My old music teacher used to say that two things, one, that the science supports that folks that play an instrument generally do better in school, their aptitude tests are higher, they end up with better jobs. So there’s the selfish reason to get it. So that’s a great stat. And then the negative stat he would tell me is that music teachers in general live two years less than the population because of the stress we kids put on him. I think he may have been lying, Mr. Tompkins, if you were lying about that last part, I guess all is forgiven. But yeah, those were the two stats. I’m making you smarter and you’re making my life shorter. Band kids can be a little tough sometimes, but it is important for kids to get involved. Kevin, anything else upcoming or anything you want to plug other than we’ve talked about the Ozark Mountain Daredevils on the 23rd, which is going to be great. We’ve got youth concerts coming up. Anything else?

Kevin Burton:

No, we’ve talked about everything that’s left this season and next season is announced in a few weeks. So really appreciate you having me and please come check out a concert.

Clint Patty:

We’ll do so. And Kevin, appreciate the fact that you left history and chose to help out the arts and culture in Topeka. It’s greatly appreciated in this community.

Kevin Burton:

I appreciate it as well.

Clint Patty:

Thanks much.

Kevin Burton:

Thank you.

Clint Patty:

Talk soon.

You’ve been listening to another episode of Investing in Good. Today’s episode was brought to you by Clayton Wealth Partners. If you’re an individual seeking to increase your impact through thoughtful charitable giving, or if you represent an endowment, a foundation, or a nonprofit that’s looking to safeguard and grow your financial assets, please consider partnering with Clayton Wealth Partners. You can visit us at claytonwealthpartners.com and discover how we can help guide and empower you in your mission to make a difference. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this year, 2024, marks 40 years that Clayton Wealth Partners has been in business we would love to extend a very special thank you to our clients nationwide, in particular, a thank you to all of Northeast Kansas. We often say that we are here for you for the last 40 years. We are very thankful that you all have been here for us. On behalf of Clayton Wealth Partners, I’m Clint Patty. I thank you for listening. We will see you soon.

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Clint Patty, J.D.

As Managing Partner, Clint serves on the management team providing leadership, supporting business development efforts and providing client consultation.