From the very first, Ken Fischer was a Michigan Man. You might not think the head of the University Musical Society would be the gung-ho, sports-fan type. But UMS is no longer just the realm of symphonies and Shakespeare. During his 30-year tenure, Fischer took UMS out of their “Ivory (Burton) Tower” and into SE Michigan’s diverse communities. He, and his staff, broadened their programming to be more youth- and cross-culturally friendly. He took performances to venues like Bill’s Beer Garden and Vets Skate Park.
Fischer is stepping down as UMS President on June 30, 2017. Current reached him for comment in his Burton Tower office.
Current: Tell us about some of your favorite UMS performances during your 30 years on the job.
Ken Fischer: Well, one of the most transformative performances that really had an impact on what UMS would become was October 29, 1988, when Leonard Bernstein came with the Vienna Philharmonic. It set the stage for corporate affairs and student engagement. Bernstein was touring for his 70th birthday. He died two years later. Another was the Royal Shakespeare Company coming for the first time in 2001, and artists like Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis.
Any bittersweetness about the programming for this season, knowing it’s the last for you?
It’s time. I’m feeling really good. You know, there’s those indicators. I’ll be 72 when I retire. You look in the mirror and what’s speaking back to you is, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to go.’
You opened the 2015 season with an event at Downtown Home & Garden and this year on 9/11 there was an experimental skateboarding/improvisational music performance at Vets Park. Are less traditional events the wave of the future for UMS?
I think, yes. We have a series called “Renegade,” which we’ve had for five years. The idea is to have events to stretch people a little bit, maybe in a new space… The notion of challenging folks, making them a little uncomfortable… We felt really good about the event. When we go to an alternate site, people show up.
Something else I’m really proud of is you and I are sitting in Burton Memorial Tower. Talk about an Ivory Tower. When I arrived here, we were kind of behaving that way. Very good presenters of classical music but it was time to get out of the tower and get into the communities of shared heritage. Build some relationships, learn from those cultures. We’re a much better informed, connected organization as a result of getting out of the tower and into these communities and it’s really enriched our programming.
How would you describe your legacy at UMS?
First of all, I’m only the sixth person at the position since 1879 so I want to honor those who preceded me (Charlie Sink, Gail Rector, Albert Stanley). These people made sure Hill Auditorium would be The Big House for the arts. Jim Harbaugh and I have chatted about how he was lucky to have a Fielding Yost. Where did Jim do ‘signing day’ on February 3? The Big House for the arts. Did I like having a photo of Hill Auditorium on the cover of the New York Times sports section the day after? I think so.
There’s a photo here in my office of me accepting the National Medal of Arts in 2014 with the President and Mrs. Obama. I’m standing in between the two of them waiting for the photographer and he whispers in my ear, “How’s Harbaugh doing? Tell him I hope he’s doing a good job…”
How do you envision these last nine months as UMS president?
Well, I’m having a ball. It’s been a great ride for thirty years. I love this town and I love this university and will continue to look for ways to be of service.