Conducting Business

When Maestro Nick Palmer first came to Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1998 to become the music director and conductor of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, he was immediately impressed by the community’s interest in the arts.

Before coming to Owensboro, he spent 13 years as the music director of the symphony orchestra in Dubuque, Iowa. Palmer has been writing music since he was very young, and that led him into conducting. A Hingham, Massachusetts, native, Palmer graduated from Harvard and earned his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and doctorate degree from the University of Iowa.

Palmer stays busy. On top of his duties in Owensboro, he’s also the music director and conductor for the symphony orchestra in Lafayette, Indiana. He spends one week each month in Lafayette. Palmer also conducts two music festivals: Evening Under the Stars Music Festival in Massachusetts and the Dubuque Festival Orchestra in Iowa.

Palmer has been a guest conductor all over the U.S., in Europe, and South America for both orchestras and operas. He remains a Conductor Laureate of the Altoona Symphony in Pennsylvania, where he was the music director from 1996 to 2007. He was a recipient of the Helen M. Thompson Award from the League of American Orchestras as the nation’s most outstanding young music director.

The Owensboro Symphony Orchestra began its 2014-2015 season Aug. 9 with Concert on the Lawn, which had to be relocated indoors due to bad weather. The next concert will be Sept. 20 at RiverPark Center, and will feature 20-year-old acclaimed American cellist Cicely Parnas. The orchestra sells season tickets as well as single-event tickets.

Palmer and his wife Dorothy have four adult sons and live on a horse farm in eastern Daviess County, Kentucky.What led you to Owensboro?
I had heard that there was a wonderful orchestra here, a great hall, and lots of community support. I was looking to move on from the job I had in Iowa, so when I heard about all the great things going on here, I decided to apply. It was a long process, about 18 months from beginning to end, and I was thrilled to be offered the job.

Do you share musicians with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra?
Quite a few. Something like 25 people. We’ve always had a good relationship with Evansville, and that’s been a good thing for both orchestras. We schedule our concerts and rehearsals so musicians can play in both groups.

How did you get started as a conductor?
I was given an opportunity to direct some of the pieces I had written. When I was 16, that’s when I started as a conductor. Growing up in Boston, I had a lot of opportunity to perform. I played in several orchestras in the area and I was a member of the Boston Symphony Chorus. That was a great way for me to experience classical music as a performer, which I think is important as a conductor.

Owensboro has a solid foundation in arts and music. What is the level of support like for the orchestra?
I am thrilled with the level of support from the community. The city and county donate a lot of financial and other support. The community as a whole is very interested in supporting the arts organizations here. For a city of our size, we have a tremendous and vibrant arts community. Music has always been important to people living in our area. They hear it from an early age. I think there is a real appreciation for what we do, just because people already have a background in music. Owensboro is a wonderful city for collaboration. The different arts groups work together frequently. There is a lot of communication between the arts groups, and I think that’s easier to do in a small community.

How much of an asset is the RiverPark Center?
We have a fabulous facility that is kind of the cornerstone of all the downtown development, which is great for us. We are right at the center. When people come to the community, that’s one of the first things they see. For us to have our concert hall on such a significant piece of real estate is a big thing.

Do you have a favorite style of music?
I really like a lot of different types of music. We do an opera every year here, and I really like that. I enjoy the classics, but I also enjoy conducting pops concerts. I think that is one way we build our audience here.

How do you get musicians to travel to Owensboro from as far away as Indianapolis and Cincinnati?
There is a great attitude with the orchestra. People really love coming here. They are treated well by the symphony staff and board. To attract the best quality players from the region, you have to treat them well or else they won’t drive all the way over here.

What makes the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra unique?
We’re one of the smallest communities that has not only a professional orchestra, but also a music academy that is integrated into the structure of the orchestra. We have a wonderful facility, and our offices are located within the Owensboro Symphony Academy building.

For more information about Maestro Nick Palmer, visit For information about the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, call 270-684-0661 or visit

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