by BY JOANELLE MULRAIN
What do Florida Blue, Fidelity National Financial, CertusBank, Mayo Clinic, Publix Super Markets Charities and other leading businesses in Jacksonville, including EverBank, VyStar and Yellow Pages, have in common? It’s the cultural thread for the love of music and the desire to gratefully give financial support to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, also iconically known as J SYM. Many corporate supporters, including WJCT, the Cultural Council and Omni-Jacksonville, are led by those who intuitively understand that having a vital orchestra is directly correlated to having a vigorous city in which to live, work and play.
Coming up this season is an unparalleled live symphonic experience featuring the music of Brahms and Handel, Beethoven and Sinatra; captivating international guests James Galway and the Indigo Girls; and musical tributes to Verdi, Streisand, Romeo and Juliet, Pink Floyd and Dr. Seuss. Indeed, J SYM presents something in its musical cornucopia for everyone.
Founded in 1949, the Jacksonville Symphony is a nonprofit, educational organization with a mission to bring great music to all walks of life by creating experiences that enrich the human spirit and inspire a lifelong love of music. It has its own dedicated, world-class, acoustically renowned concert space (Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall) at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts on the river in the heart of Downtown.
Symphony orchestras around the country are changing radically to meet the changing needs of their patrons and concert-goers, and so is J SYM. The organization is in the midst of searching for a new conductor. The first of eight guests to undergo the rigors of assessment for conductor was Teddy Abrams, who is in his mid-20s. He wowed the audience with his renditions of Gershwin, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, and the performance broke opening weekend attendance records of the Florida Blue Masterworks Series for the first time in 10 years. His performance gave an enthusiastic start to the Search Committee, charged with finding a replacement by Spring 2014, to follow Fabio Mechetti, music director and principal conductor. After Abrams was Ward Stare in October, followed by Robert Moody. Featured in the second half of the season are Andrew Grams, Perry So, Andre’ Raphel, Courtney Lewis, and Shizuo Kuwahara – all hopefuls for the Jacksonville Symphony and part of the younger talent now leading new and more vibrant orchestras around the country.
“We’re undergoing a generational shift in the organization,” says Martin Connor, board chair, who is in the second year of his two-year tenure. “Musicians, patrons and concertgoers have great days ahead. Our new vision is taking hold–-the energy has started.”
This new vision has dramatically increased involvement of all parties, and beneficial changes are happening. “The positive engagement between the board and musicians, along with our publics, especially the youth, are keys to our future success,” Connor says. “Remember, this is an orchestra!”
“Education is a high priority, especially as we engage and educate new young people, garner their support and integrate the musicians more deeply into the community. The opening Mayo Clinic Coffee Series concert was enjoyed by 1,300 people. We’re promoting more daytime concerts, too, especially on Sunday afternoons. Those will increase as time goes on,” Connor went on to say.
Peter Wright, principal clarinet, member of the orchestra since 1975, and the longest-tenured male musician in the orchestra, shared his thoughts on the impact of the new direction. “I’m very optimistic,” Wright says. “I love my job. Making music is a great thing, and I hope people will come out to hear us because we are making incredible music. [Now] there’s a renewed passion to enhance all relationships, and we’re all beginning to feel the impact of the musicians, board and patrons working enthusiastically together.”
The successful October launch of Pizza with the Players, sponsored by the DuBow Foundation, reflected well on the Jacksonville Symphony’s new direction and will be offered to select high school groups throughout the season as an educational and community engagement initiative that enhances the concert experience and makes the orchestra more accessible to students.
“We’re telling our story through these educational initiatives in order to increase and communicate awareness of the Symphony’s new direction,” says Michael Boylan, president of WJCT and chair of the Jacksonville Symphony’s education committee charged with developing new and vigorous ways to integrate J SYM education programs into the community. “We’re moving outside of traditional walls and looking for new collaborations. These initiatives will help drive our new vision.”
“We’re experimenting with making the concerts more current in social media, too,” Boylan continues, “thus, creating a balance between the old and new experiences. I can hardly wait for the Major/Minor Concert in May, and Jump Start Strings is creating tremendous new energy.”
Louis Bremer, bass trombonist, agrees. “Interacting and meeting with the Jacksonville community is an extraordinarily rewarding experience for both the musician and the potential concertgoer. Having a personal connection between musicians and audience members creates an extremely exciting performance environment that elevates the concert experience for the musicians and the audience.”
Students are special to the Jacksonville Symphony, and programming proves it with the Prelude and the Young People’s Concerts. The JYSO, one of the most comprehensive orchestral programs in the Southeast, provides a plethora of music education and offers more than 250 students the experience of participating in six ensembles from elementary school through early college. More than 84,000 young people are touched by J SYM education in the form of concerts, in-school educational ensemble performances, and Jump Start Strings after-school enrichment, in partnership with Communities in Schools Team-Up programs at Woodland Acres, Pickett, S.A. Hull, and Reynolds Lane elementary schools, where close to 100 elementary students learn to play the violin, cello and bass. Also, the Jacksonville Symphony Guild provides Harmony Grants to enhance musical education.
Special offerings include the Master Classes with world-renowned guest soloists; Musical Storybooks (Pre-K and K), a new early childhood literacy/music program designed to increase arts access for nearly 1,000 underserved preschoolers and foster a love of reading through music; and the Instrument Zoo demonstrates how musical sounds are created by Symphony Guild volunteers who give a hands-on experience using strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. The annual First Coast Nutcracker, a Jacksonville tradition presented by VyStar (December 6-8), continues to be a multi-generational highlight for North Florida families.
The Jacksonville Symphony is calling this a season of change. Leadership is turning the sound upside down to create and develop a symphony for the people.
“There is great public value in having a symphony orchestra in a community, and we’re telling that compelling story everywhere we go,” says Mary Patton, chair of the Music Director Search Committee to find a new conductor. She firmly believes they are in a “good place” with the search process. “The very name of our City is in the name of our Symphony; we’re inextricably interwoven together as ‘Jacksonville,’” she says.
Always looking for sustainable support, the Jacksonville Symphony is now led by president David Pierson, a community-minded and well-known executive. “Our newly revised plan sets the bar high. We’re looking at new shooting stars and will find a rising star to lead our Jacksonville Symphony!” he says.
“We’re excited to have Travis Tritt and his acoustic show to Jacoby Hall this month, Michael W. Smith in December, and back by popular demand is the Starry Nights series,” he says, evidence that J SYM leadership is listening to its constituencies.
“Thanks to David Stein for his David Stein Scholars at UNF, who provides a role model for new patrons with a passion for music to become involved,” Pierson says. “We’re on the cusp of a great movement forward. We are re-energized and well-focused.”
The new Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is a mirror of the evolving and growing health of expanding cultural initiatives in Jacksonville. Community support allows fulfillment of its mission. Check out www.JaxSymphony.org for details.
by BY JOANELLE MULRAIN