With the wildly successful “An Occasion for the Arts” coming our way in two days and the ever popular Williamsburg Symphonia about to fill Merchants Sq. Saturday night with their annual “Music Under the Stars” program featuring famed jazz guitarist, John Pizzarelli, I caught up with Conductor and Music Director Janna Hymes to talk about the concert, news of the WS and the world of music. What Janna had to say was so exciting that I decided to turn our conversation into a two-parter. Second half next week. Enjoy!
What is the program we’ll hear on Saturday?
The John Pizzarelli Quartet will be playing with the WS a fantastic concert featuring music well known to audiences – standards such as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” music by Richard Rodgers, “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Witchcraft” and MUCH more – all great music of the past.
What a coup! You’re bringing JP to town. Tell us a little about this jazz/pop virtuoso.
John plays at the Carlyle Hotel in NY, with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, and was the most popular musical guest on the Conan Show and is a really nice guy. His guitar playing is amazing, mixed with occasional scatting accompaniment and his singing is as charming as it gets. The band is like a group from the past with a modern flair. John is a good friend and it’s all in the family…his sister is married to my brother so I’ve known him for 20 years! His bassist is his brother so he is my brother’s brother-in-law and his father is my brother’s father-in-law…there will be a test for the audience on Oct 2nd during intermission.
Have you ever worked with John P before?
We’ve performed several times before and I also love performing with his father, legendary guitartist, Bucky Pizzarelli. And of course, Martin, the bass player.
How did you manage to get him and how did you both figure out the program?
Actually, aside from the fact that he’s family (!), it’s easy to engage artists that have orchestral shows. The hard part is scheduling, but if they have orchestral charts the experience I’ve had is they always want to play – that’s why they wrote the shows! I have a lot of friends I bring to Williamsburg as guests and they always love being here. As far as program, I asked John to include a few of the tunes we’ll be performing (some of my personal favorites) and he decided the rest. I know whatever we do will be musical, fun and the audience will love it so I trust him. Most soloists suggest repertoire and unless there’s a strong reason not to do it, it’s wise to go with their choices because they’ll be playing what they want and you always want them to be happy!
With all the news of orchestras struggling, having to pare down in size and number of performances, the WS has actually managed to grow. First of all, congratulations for that remarkable feat. To what do you attribute that fortunate turn?
Thanks, Victoria. First of all I need to give credit to the Board of Trustees. Their insight and skill has allowed the orchestra to continue to have a strong presence in the community and successfully stay afloat. As Music Director, I prepare a 3-5 year artistic plan and we work towards achieving the goals on that list. In the past two years we have had to change that list a bit because of the economy but we never sacrificed artistic integrity. The Symphonia League has been remarkable in planning events, raising money and increasing awareness of the orchestra – they are a boundless group of energetic supporters!
There is a true sense of community within the organization. Decisions are made based on what is best for our audience and town. Unfortunately, some orchestras are having difficulties because they are run like big businesses and are not fully engaged with their community. Very little has changed in the orchestra world as demonstrated in the Knight Foundation report of a few years ago and unless we wake up and look at the world around us and the needs of people, the future could be dire. Our strength in Williamsburg is that we ask, we listen and we take into consideration what we hear.
What changes, if any, have you seen both in your audience and the orchestra? How many years have you been MD?
I have been MD 6 years, this season starts my 7th! The audiences are sold out which was definitely not the case when I arrived. We are seeing audiences of all ages and I am particularly happy to see students from W&M at our concerts. There is a level of trust with our audience now. By that I mean they come to concerts knowing it will be a worthwhile experience. They do not choose to attend because of the program or guest artist. They come because they know they will enjoy the concert.
How do you see the WS 5 years from now?
My goal is to increase our Classical Series and add a 3rd performance to each concert. Currently we are sold out but there is a good chance one can get into a concert if a subscriber is out of town, sick, etc. I would like to have a major pops series and a thriving educational program with a Side-by-Side Concert and series for very young children, regular master classes and new outreach concerts.
Any plans for making a recording? If so, any thoughts on material?
Yes! Funny you should ask! We are in talks right now about a recording which I am ecstatic about. This has been included in the artistic vision for a few years and hopefully will become a reality. It’s too early to say much more, but will keep you posted!
Cross-over programming seems so important today to entice, to draw audiences. What RX do you have to ensure continued participation, and audience support, first for WS and then for orchestras around the country?
People react to great music. The definition of great music is broad and covers the globe. I enjoy concerts that are unique because they combine art forms, focus on music from other countries, include guest artists that are not typically associated with symphony orchestras, play in various venues one might not associate with an orchestra, etc. But in the end there are various ways to make concerts successful and audiences happy.
First, be certain every concert is first rate. This pertains to pops, classical, educational…whatever. Second, the orchestra needs to be engaged. The way they look onstage, react to one another and to the music are all part of the live experience and can be infectious. Third, programming is always important. Well- balanced concerts with a combination of new and old is a formula which still works. Fourth, marketing and the way the message is brought to the community is vital to having a successful orchestra.
If the community feels there is an event happening – whether it be a guest artist, combination of film and music, dance and music, art and music, it’s like a party to which you hope to be invited. Fifth, be technologically current, the game we all need to play. At the Symphonia we are new to this but many orchestras have regular blogs, Facebook, interfacing websites for educational projects and much more. Special staff is hired for technological purposes and it keeps orchestras in the now and in touch with the younger population. Six, radio broadcasts are a constant reminder of your local orchestra. Seven, I am a big proponent of asking musicians to use their talents to entwine with the community. This can mean programming chamber music concerts or presenting a talent like cooking, language or a special hobby to groups. A creative outlet, other than playing in the regular ensembles to which they belong can be sensational. This is something certain orchestras are trying. Some musicians do not support this idea but for some it might be just the answer to renew. In Williamsburg, we are a per service orchestra which means we are not a contracted, union orchestra so many of the issues larger orchestras currently face are not problems for us.
Thank you, Janna. To be continued….
For concert info visit williamsburgsymphonia.org