Kuwahara, who wraps his first season with a free outdoor pops concert on Saturday, admits that his first year with the organization was about finding his feet at programming a season and conducting the orchestra.
"There have been a lot of surprises," he said. "I discovered, very quickly, that I had to get a feel for the audience and community. I mean, before coming here, everything I knew about Augusta came from the Internet."
What Kuwahara found was an organization with an established and vested audience that needed to be expanded and a community in the process of transforming itself. The orchestra, he felt, could play an active role in both.
"But one year is not enough," he said. "I see Augusta as a city that I want to help develop and grow. But I am still an outsider, an observer. I feel like it will be at least three to five years before I can feel like I'm really ready to be a part of this city."
His role, he said, will certainly be musical. He said he's beginning to understand how the orchestra can operate as a conduit for civic pride and growth.
He said finding a way to attract and engage previously untapped audiences will be essential. He's already developing plans for staging orchestral and chamber music in nontraditional settings, and is encouraged by the level of interest and engagement of the symphony's current patrons.
"I found that when I was criticized this year, it was for very specific reasons," he said.
"I find that very encouraging. It means people are listening and that people who come to these concerts really appreciate music."
He said he was pleased to see the way the audience responded to pieces that have not traditionally been part of the symphony repertoire.
"I was surprised and pleased to discover that both very new music and very old music was taken to very well."
He said the response encouraged him to program a few interesting, and perhaps challenging, pieces next season.
Moving forward, Kuwahara said he hopes people learn to pay less attention to the orchestra. The group, the musicians, he explained, should just be the conduit. The important parts of performance are the music and audience and that's what he wants to concentrate on.
"That has already started," he said. "We no longer even mention the orchestra in our mission statement. I mean, really, there's no doubt that this is an orchestra. I am up there conducting after all. But we don't want to put walls around what we do."